What kind of future do the arts have in Australia? For a long time the focus has been on survival, and still is, but a new spirit is emerging which not only asks what kind of future but posits possible models, let alone new ways of looking at the arts. Important speeches in recent months from John Doyle (Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture), David Marr (Philip Parsons Lecture) and Lyndon Terracini (Rex Cramphorn Lecture) along with the Currency House Platform Papers and David Williamson’s published concern for the dumbing down of Australians’ cultural aspirations, have coincided with the Leading Voices program. That series of talks, presented by the Australian Council’s Community Partnerships and Market Development division includes speakers from the USA, UK and the Netherlands who ask us to look at audience engagement afresh and to reconsider funding models that inhibit arts participation.

John Doyle

Drama, whether on TV or in the theatre, is addressed by Doyle, Marr and Terracini. Doyle offers a grim account of the fate of television drama as part of a greater cultural degradation: “the ABC has been cut to the marrow and can no longer afford to do much drama, and commercial networks have decided drama is too flakey and expensive. Meanwhile our very fine drama schools are pumping out scores of new young actors each year and there is nothing for them to do…So our local content is reduced to game shows, dancing shows, lifestyle shows and talent quests all creaking under the weight of diminishing returns. Think of something mindless, rope in a couple of celebrities and there’s your show.”

In an inspired Roy Slaven moment, Doyle offered a brilliant alternative: “Big Brother is such a waste of an opportunity. The housemates live in a state of perpetual boredom, unless they’re pissed. Why not engage a house of really smart, gifted young people from various fields: scientists, engineers, mathematicians, builders, a Latin scholar, a poet etc and they have a problem to solve. With a shared incentive of a few million dollars they have to find a solution to Australia’s water problems in 10 weeks—there’s a show!”

More comprehensively, like some of us who look to Canada for models for sustainable and marketable innovation in the media, Doyle suggests a way forward: “Because historically the ABC has been the powerhouse for new ideas that are often taken up by the commercial networks, perhaps the time has come for those networks to subsidize the ABC. After all, the ABC has been the training and testing ground for the commercial networks for 50 years—it’s about time the situation was redressed. What I would propose is a tax deductible levy on pre-tax network profit of around 25% to 30% that is pooled exclusively for ABC Drama. In return, the networks get second viewing rights and the right to franchise any series, on a rotating basis that is deemed commercially viable. The fact is, it is only the ABC, by virtue of being unencumbered by what is popular, that is capable of taking risks. Why is there such a paucity of great locally made drama? Because the ABC isn’t doing it. The Americans would hate such a plan and see it as not being in the spirit of the Free Trade Agreement, but so what? This isn’t cheese or rice we’re talking about. It actually is Culture. A fully funded ABC Drama unit would be to the advantage of the commercial networks. The ABC could become Australia’s HBO.”

David Marr

David Marr focuses on the plight of theatre in Australia outside the mainstream, reinforcing the sad picture delivered by the Theatre Board commissioned Roberts’ report on triennially funded theatre companies who comprise, arguably, the engine room of Australian theatre. The speech is a must-read. Marr’s portrayal, like Doyle’s, is set in an oppressive political regime that impinges on our cultural life, guaranteeing money for the major arts institutions while neglecting the rest. As Marr sees it, “In John Howard’s Australia, libraries, museums, theatres and orchestras are on the same list as ports and roads and hospitals—traditional institutions, and necessary parts of the civic fabric. To understand what’s happened under Howard to the arts in general and theatre in particular—the odd mix of generosity and meanness, celebration and indifference, abuse and support—it’s best to keep in mind the lessons learnt in the kerfuffle over the [James Strong report on the symphony] orchestras: that the bedrock arts policy of the Howard Government is not support for the arts—it’s support for arts institutions. Big, traditional institutions.”

The result is that “Canberra has left the fate of the little theatre companies to the states. And those Labor governments are not responding. In John Howard’s Australia, the little companies have no political friends. The fate of these companies presents intractable difficulties for the theatre industry and for the Australia Council. The Roberts report predicting catastrophe is already 2 years old. Later this year when all the cultural ministers of the States, territories and Commonwealth meet again, it will be discussed again. No one is holding out much hope.”

Nor is everything well with the major companies—more and more plays are programmed with small casts and conservative choices are aimed to guarantee audiences, risk is occasional, and most actors survive on little. Marr also reports that the major companies also suffer the impact of “an ideological obsession [which] has seen the Howard government claw back millions from its arts grants. Again, the rot began with Keating. He introduced the idea that to make the bureaucracy leaner and meaner, its funding should be shaved by a percent or so every year. This strategy comes with the Orwellian name of the ‘efficiency dividend’. Howard made the situation much worse about the time the Nugent money started pouring through, by applying the ‘efficiency dividend’ not just to the administrative budget of the Australia Council but to all its grants—including grants to theatre companies, big and little. Over 4 years it clawed back $10 million from the major arts companies.” Marr reports that the Australia Council and the performing arts industry have consistently argued against the efficiency dividend and its mockery of CPI adjusted grants with the result that “in the May budget Canberra effectively exempted the major companies from the ‘efficiency dividend’—though only the major companies and only for the next 3 years.”

As in health, education and research in all sectors, the failure to develop policy and long-term strategies for development means, says Marr, that “Successful as Nugent has been politically, there’s now a danger of the arts drifting back into the old cycle that was supposed to be broken forever: crisis, report, rescue, flat lining, then back to crisis again.”

Equally problematic is Labor’s failure to develop a coherent long-term arts policy. MP Peter Garrett has requested submissions so that Labor will have some 8 months to formulate policy instead of in the rush up to an election. Unfortunately we had to rush in our submissions by November 30 this year. Much will depend on Garrett’s capacity to consult and whether or not he’ll have any clout: as Marr reminds us, “he’s not even part of the Shadow Cabinet.” We live in hope, although it’s no secret Garrett is in search of “budget neutral” recommendations!

David Marr believes, that those in power “want the arts to reflect well on the government. The ground rules are that they don’t want the arts getting up their noses; they don’t want to be embarrassed; and they want the arts minister to look good.” That means looking after the highly visible mainstream companies, and it also means censorship, direct or oblique, with Marr citing the cases of the Playing Australia rejection of funding applications for the tours of Ros Horin’s much sought-after Through the Wire about incarcerated refugees (22 regional centres wanted it), and Version 1.0’s Wages of Spin, a damning account of the political and media management of the war in Iraq. The Australia Council funded the Escape from Woomera computer game and Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers really did get up those political noses, a condition doubtless exacerbated by predictable right wing media outrage. The political response, as Marr reports, was alarming in its extremity. So much for the “trust us” promise concerning the sedition laws of the Anti-Terrorism Bill with politicians so easily offended by art.

Marr concludes with a simple request for more money: “Expensive as they are, the arts need more money—not for the sake of the companies, certainly not for the bureaucrats, and not only for the sake of the artists. For our sake. To release this country’s imagination by mining the creativity that’s there, waiting to be discovered. In its private soul searching late last year, the Australia Council gave a figure that would transform the arts in this country: another $40 million a year. It’s peanuts. It’s a few miles of freeway. But there’s no limit to where it could take us all.”

But Marr’s speech deals with much more than money: it’s about who gets the money, how it is delivered and with what constraints. Each of these issues needs to be addressed otherwise new money, if ever gained, will go the way it usually does.

Lyndon Terracini

Lyndon Terracini’s Rex Cramphorn lecture concurs with growing sentiment in the western world concerning the way that art is thought about and acted on in bureaucracies as not only inappropriate but effectively keeping art at a distance from the lives of most people. Terracini doesn’t have the space to detail how this might be reversed, but John Holden does in Capturing Cultural Capital: How culture has become a tool of government policy, an essay published by Demos, an independent UK thinktank (“a greenhouse for new ideas which can improve the quality of our lives) and which can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk. Holden is speaking in Australia as part of the Leading Voices program and we will be looking at how his proposals relate to the arts in Australia in a forthcoming edition of RealTime. Jerry Yoshitomi, another speaker in the program, recently addressed the ways in which people engage with and actually experience the arts, but in a much more mainstream context (see p40). John Holden wants us to move beyond the restrictive business models that limit government evaluation of the arts to audience numbers and other statistics. He thinks we must focus on “the affective element of the cultural experience” and issues of public value, including addressing the arts in terms of support in the long-term. Holden argues for inclusiveness: “rather than being an add-on, existing in its own space, culture is seen as an integral and essential part of civil society.”

Given his experience of developing art in regional communities through engaging town councils culturally and financially in his Queensland Music Festival, Terracini turns away from what he calls the “fashionable” attack on the Australia Council to pursue inclusiveness with a passion, demanding state and local government support for the bottom-up emergence of grassroots work, amateur or professional, art rooted in a sense of place and community and telling Australia stories. He argues that “we have a top down bureaucratic system of arts and cultural methodology and unless that is reversed we will continue to agonise about the state of the profession to which many of us have given the best years of our lives.” He sees the state government art bureaucracies (the recently purged Arts Queensland aside) as out of touch with grassroots arts and innovation both in terms of limited awareness and dated application and assessment procedures.

Terracini can only outline what he has in mind, and it’s a problematic sketch involving a disagreeable metaphor: “a new structure of cultural creativity, a cultural pyramid which would have a major impact on the way we work within our cultural and artistic communities.” Without the details, the structure reads like the cultural pyramid we know only too well. Our cultural ecology only looks like a pyramid because it is a reflection of the top-down distribution and exercising of power. Our arts ecology is a more complex system of co-existence and mutualism that doesn’t have to be imagined as hierarchical.

One of the arguments that the Roberts’ report didn’t overplay was that the triennially funded theatre companies are a significant breeding ground for the talent that fuels the major companies. Many small companies in and of themselves are unique cultural phenomena who do not aspire to be big but are not short on impact. A pyramid model ratifies old values: excellence at the top and a trickle up effect with talent emerging from the many below. We know that the best work that travels overseas, representing our culture and portraying its idiosyncrasies, rarely comes from the top of the pyramid. Robyn Archer has put to rest the mythic status of the mainstream (Platform Papers, No 5, The Myth of the Mainstream, Currency House, Sydney, 2004).

My quarrel with Terracini’s imagery aside (and the weariness of having to deal yet again with “Australian stories”, what about the heaps of art that doesn’t ‘tell’?), his lecture is another valuable addition, along with those of Marr and Doyle, to a re-estimation of Australian culture. David Throsby’s forthcoming call for an Australian cultural policy in the Platform Papers series should take the debate to another level. For the first time in many years, the number of voices calling for serious acknowledgment of art’s importance (including John Carey’s questioning of it in What Good Are The Arts?) is multiplying. Their quest is not just about funding, but about access, participation, innovation, the nature of the art experience, how we talk about it, and defeating inhibitive government agendas.

John Doyle, The Andrew Olle Media Lecture 2005, Oct 7; David Marr, “Theatre Under Howard”, The 9th Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture on the Performing Arts, Seymour Centre, Oct 9 (PDF available from www.currencyhouse.org.au); Lyndon Terracini, The Culture of Place: Making Australian Theatre, Rex Cramphorn Lecture, NIDA Theatre, Nov 7

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 2

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

Jim Russell, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

Jim Russell, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

Jim Russell, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects

Although the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival lacked an overarching theme, any number of threads and correspondences connected individual events. Shows set in hotel rooms; performances for one; improvised street scenes; epic takes on classic texts: festival goers were challenged to compare the interlaced commonality of works while appraising their contrasts. A mosaic of Wittgensteinian family resemblance more than anything else, it was almost as if the various programmed events spoke to one another through the medium of the audience. It became something of an organic tissue of moments: any experience of a particular event couldn’t help but be inflected by the other performances, exhibitions and happenings to which one had borne witness. Is that what a festival allows its audience to become? A medium?

In this, incoming Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds has proven her mettle in going beyond the stated aim of opening up the festival to new audiences (something of a cliché in festival mission statements). Edmunds has demonstrated a keen eye for both the appetites of Melbourne audiences and the ways in which a festival can allow its patrons to enjoy works in juxtaposition and imbue the experience with a richness beyond individual moments.

Private Eye

IRAA Theatre’s Private Eye puts a flaming torch to the social contract between performer and audience. The solitary ticketholder is directed, alone, to a hotel room in one of the upper floors of the sumptuous Grand Hyatt, where he/she is greeted by director Renato Cuocolo. The furnishings are sparse, personal belongings of a coldly functional nature (a notepad, a suitcase, a diary) discretely placed amongst the cool environment of temporary lodgings. Cuocolo converses casually, mentioning the strangeness of living in hotels, of dwelling in unfamiliar cities, before explaining the odd situation which led to his hiring a private detective to observe and record the daily movements of his wife. Before long he directs his interlocuter to another suite higher in the building where his wife greets her guest in a far more intimate setting. Personal effects are scattered about, from a toy accordion to items of clothing. In the participant’s interaction with performer Roberta Bosetti, Private Eye’s exploration of voyeurism, game-playing and the power of the look are suddenly given new angles, the seductive closeness and privacy teasing out one’s presumptions of the audience/actor relationship and forcing the viewer to confront the deeper significances of watching another human perform. I noted that the name of the private eye in question was given as Hemmings, perhaps not so coincidentally the surname of the lead actor in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and it seemed a perfectly fitting offhand reference to the themes of ambiguous investigation, the exploration of identity and the changes wrought by close observation of an unknowable other. It would be irresponsible to reveal the twist which concludes the evening, but it is certainly one which gave me the most unsettling, almost cruelly humbling experience of the festival, if only because upon returning to street level I was unable to discuss the experience with other audience members. There were none.

Theatre for One

The title of Justin Harris’ Theatre for One: The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera is something of a misnomer, the work being rather a curious hybrid of multimedia, rock, micro-cinema and installation. The (once again) lone audience member is ushered into a curtain-lined booth at one end of which is a television-sized screen divided triptych-like. When the music begins, the 2 outside panels display a tiny landscape of silhouetted CGI performers (on one side a group of musicians, on the other a group of dancers) while the centre pane, sectioned by circular apertures, displays the disembodied head of Harris himself as vocalist. Harris and his minute accompanying band perform 4 big-beat numbers of the infectiously catchy variety, the animated characters articulating every bass slap and wailing sax solo with joyous precision. It’s tasty confectionary which offers little beyond its own purely transient pleasure; like IRAA’s work, there is no one with whom to immediately share the experience, but unlike Private Eye there is no sense of dialogue between audience and actor.


The pop flavour of Harris’ music and imagery eschews contemplation in favour of a distracted mode of viewing. By contrast, Bruce Mowson’s InfraCinema seeks to avoid such distraction by increasingly minimising any sense of a recognisable referent for its projected video images. Mowson has used infra-red technologies to reduce human figures and cityscapes to a level of abstraction often painterly in style but also profoundly (and deliberately) tedious. Gesturing towards the materialist cinema of the last century, the extended sequences of monotonous, only vaguely pulsating colour invoke similar visual works by Anish Kapoor and require their audience to reflect upon the ways in which they may engage with the artwork. There is no easy way into this presentation, and it is interesting to consider how similar pieces, such as Anthony McCall’s recently toured A Line Describing a Cone (RT66, p26), offer their viewer an “easy way out” via their historical and geographical distance, as well as their positioning as notable works through the mechanisms of art history and canonisation.


The audience for Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players’ Showcase is guided into (another) darkened hotel room, and soon enough confronted by a naked man (James Fletcher) lying abed alongside his shadow, an unnamed performer clad in head-to-toe black. The nude businessman begins to explain his situation, announcing the process which has led him to be here, alone in this room with only his shadow for company. There are intimations of sexual tragedy, direct addresses to the small audience, and an eventual dressing in which the bare vulnerability of the earlier oration is slowly covered by a neatly pressed suit. The text is delivered with minimal emotion, a blankness typical of the company’s style. But it is also confoundingly obtuse, circling its subject and forever disallowing deeper understanding of this man’s narrative.

Le Dernier Caravansérail

The displaced modern man of Showcase is put into sharp relief by other, more urgent figures of alienation appearing in the festival. The trope of the exile or displaced individual was iconic for much of the modernist art of the twentieth century, but in the process there often occurred a romanticisation of such figures at odds with the actual experiences under consideration. This is the danger facing any artistic work which seeks to address the diasporic experience: a poetics of exile is not sufficient to map out the political terrain in which exile occurs. To do this, we must first, in the words of Edward Saïd, “set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created…the refugee-peasants with no prospect of returning home.” Ironically, Saïd himself was sometimes accused of the same romanticising of the refugee, but the point remains: to conflate the experiences of exiles, emigres, migrants, refugees, homeless or dispossessed persons into a single figure is a further form of oppression against those in question.

There is no central figure in Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail. Instead, we are presented with an almost staggering number of tales, only sometimes overlapping. Authorial identity is dispersed to produce an almost ecstatic polyphony of narrative voices. The stories from which the piece arises are those of real people encountered by director Ariane Mnouchkine and her cast, and several of the performers themselves contributed personal histories as part of the piece. But more importantly, there is a sense of openness in this vast work entirely fitting with the frequent imagery of turbulent seas and rivers, constant motion and a lack of rootedness (most obviously symbolised in the way characters are never allowed to touch the ground, instead transported by wheeled platforms). If Caravansérail had at its core the figure of an orchestrating director or dramaturg, its meaning would be inextricable from this cult of personality, and as a result could be reduced to a work of personal expression. As it turns out, however, the piece seems to do its best to render its cast and crew transparent vehicles of meaning, dwarfed as they are by the massive space in which they perform.

Small Metal Objects

The spectators attending Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects were as much performers as mute witnesses, situated on a raked bank of seats at one end of the busy Flinders Street Station concourse. Equipped with individual headsets piping an evocative, plaintive score, the opening minutes of the performance saw the passing traffic take on a new significance as we were forced to simply watch the parade of life. When a leisurely paced dialogue between 2 friends joined the soundtrack, the speakers were invisible, somewhere out there amongst the crowd. Slowly they emerge from the other end of the station, companions indistinguishable from those around if it were not for the access we have been given to their private dialogue. Gary (Allan V Watt) is deep in conversation with Steve (Simon Laherty) when he is interrupted by a phone call from a high-powered businessman looking to organise a drug deal; though they are reluctant to disrupt their time together, Alan (Jim Russell) soon turns up to close the deal, enlisting the help of another powerbroker, the psychologist Carolyn (Genevieve Picot) to convince the duo to follow through with the negotiation.

Ordinary commuters were often startled at the sight of a mass of headphoned spectators observing their motions, and several approached the audience to ask questions, offer their thoughts or request spare change. While Gary and Steve were offered as individuals rendered invisible by the strictures of consumer society, we were made all too visible in our act of appropriation. Conversely, the drama played out before us bore testament to the way marginalised peoples are nevertheless inveigled into economic systems which see them only as resources—in this case, drug distribution acting as the dark flipside of economic rationalism.

Bloody Mess

It’s perplexing that so many reviewers appeared to take Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess at face value. Certainly, the performance lived up to its name by creating an apparently chaotic staged mayhem in which each performer’s ego prevents an actual ‘performance’ from taking place. Clowns, roadies, narcissistic thespians and a woman in a gorilla suit cavorted across the massive space enacting impromptu dance routines, launching into unfinished lectures or flinging popcorn, streamers and candy in all directions. To a certain point, there is an obvious ‘kitchen sink’ approach: anything and everything goes, as long as it doesn’t appear to add up to anything resembling a definite meaning or message.

But this simplistic reading seems to commit an injustice, ignoring the craft which has gone into producing a semblance of disorder. A great deal of care is required to create convincing chaos, and Bloody Mess in fact features very little that isn’t tightly planned and rehearsed. More importantly, this is a show about the twin poles of chaos and order, and even a cursory survey of the various recurring themes and motifs of the work reveals this to be the case. We repeatedly return to concepts of creation and destruction, whether it be the universe itself, human life, or the creation of a moment of art from the primordial soup of experience. Bloody Mess’s form is fully integrated with its content, offering as much of an experience of becoming as its various lectures and dance numbers.

The Odyssey

Malthouse Theatre’s The Odyssey was a mixed success, stumbling for some of the reasons Bloody Mess succeeded. This version of the classic tale also takes the road of excess, carnivalising Homer’s epic tale through daring aesthetic choices which too often come across as unmotivated, at times even indulgent. It is a lavish and visually arresting production: a rusted metal set evocative of a missile silo’s interior or a grinding turbine; costuming which bridges various periods of warfare from an American Civil War-styled Odysseus to a monstrous and seductive Circe in Nazi drag; a massive and bone-rattling score and sound design; and a complex lighting routine which keeps the space vital for its long running time. This version of The Odyssey makes its set and visual design a kind of character as much as the actors on stage. But its final form does not offer much of a challenge to its audience, essentially following a safe traditional structure somehow at odds with the exciting possibilities offered by the striking set and strong performances (Stephen Phillips impressive in the lead role).

* * *

Amongst the 2005 Festival’s diverse program, in which the audience’s role and self-awareness frequently became central, perhaps the most representative work turned out to be Guy Dartnell and Tom Morris’ Oogly Boogly, tucked away in that often overlooked festival corner: the family-friendly events. The audience for this improvised piece was limited to pre-lingual toddlers and their carers, and saw the performers imitating the actions of the children who quickly came to recognise the unexpected power afforded by this opportunity. Being as yet offspring-challenged, I wasn’t able to witness firsthand this experience, but all accounts suggest that the young participants were quick to immerse themselves in the proceedings. Perhaps it helped kickstart their introduction into that Lacanian mirror stage by which their misrecognition of the boundaries between self and world introduced their budding egos to social being. Perhaps the unusual pleasure of pulling an adult’s strings provided them a rare sense of respect from adults. And perhaps they weren’t so different from any other audience, at once witness, judge and performer—and medium.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: IRAA Theatre, Private Eye, Renato Cuocolo, Roberta Bosetti, Grand Hyatt, Oct 7-22; Justin Harris, Theatre for One: The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera, Federation Square, Oct 7-22; Bruce Mowson, InfraCinema, North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 13-22; Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players, Showcase, Langham Hotel, Southbank, Oct 12-16; Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail, director Ariane Mnouchkine, Royal Exchange Building, Carlton, Oct 11-16; Back to Back Theatre Company, Small Metal Objects, concourse, Flinders Street Station, Oct 7-22; Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess, The CUB Malthouse, Oct 6-10; Malthouse Theatre, The Odyssey, writer Tom Wright; director Michael Kantor, The Malthouse Workshop, Oct 6-23; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 6-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 4,

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

Lone Twin, Ghost Dance

Lone Twin, Ghost Dance

Lone Twin, Ghost Dance

Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters are Lone Twin, UK performance makers with an extensive body of internationally acclaimed work since 1997. Indefatigable travellers, sojourners and conjurers of clouds, Lone Twin alighted on Melbourne for a 4-week residency, wryly referred to as a “Mid-career Survey”, as part of the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Walk With Me Walk With Me Will Somebody Please Walk With Me is a ‘performance as lecture’ introducing Lone Twin’s work to date and their preoccupation with walking as their principal means of performance making. Lone Twin walk towards horizons, into literal landscapes and whimsical, obdurately optimistic imaginal terrains.

Unabashed and droll, Gregg and Gary (as we come to know them) engage in a kind of storytelling ping-pong elaborated as a progressive list of numbered ‘points’ read from notes on clipboards. Each point begins “(And) This is …”, followed by phrases and stories which ‘name’ things, locating them briefly in ‘images-as-words.’ We are invited to ‘see’ and imagine for ourselves what is named: “17. And this is waiting for the water to recede”, “26. This is what we do just for the fun of it”, “125. And this is what we do to imagine the future.” The list acquires a logic of its own, a ritual entwined in the event that brings into peculiar relationship new phenomena profoundly connected to the old, the mundane, the forgotten and the as-yet-unperceived. The performance is an act of remembering.

Video plays while stories are told of, for example, walking for 18 arduous hours back and forth across bridges spanning the Glømmer river in Norway: “We walked…and some of the people of the town came and walked with us.” They befriended them, exchanged observations, jokes and songs. A gentle humanity, vitality and absurdity floods into the vacuum left in the absence of a punch line. Details become meaningful and resonant, connections between things becoming things themselves.

The performers gesture, dance, and sing with the aid of an MP3 player, megaphone and laptop, all in a kind of a strange, cumulative loop that both refers to previous works and becomes a performance in itself. The house lights remain on. There is nowhere else but here and yet ‘here’ becomes peopled with others, full of elsewheres, and the experience is slowly bathed in Whelan’s and Winter’s liquid imagination.

Lone Twin are ‘ecologists’. In The Days of the Sledgehammer Have Gone, enthusiastically engaged in “becoming the weather”, they ponder the “sinister and ludicrous past” of water as it circulates in the perpetual hydrological cycle including rivers, clouds, rain—and us. The human body is 75% water and therefore inextricably implicated in this cycle. Gary wonders if these ‘waters’, passed as sweat, may have been encountered before: “my sweat, your sweat, Jimmy Connors’ sweat, Bruce Springsteen’s sweat—which happens to be Gregg’s favourite sweat at the moment.” Sweat figures crucially as the by-product of labour, endurance and a commitment to the completion of extreme physical tasks.

Clad inappropriately in Army surplus ponchos and hiking shoes, various paraphernalia including Norwegian hunting horns and with the ubiquitous clipboards slung around their necks, Lone Twin attempt to make a cloud! Concealed beneath the ponchos, each performer labours buried in multiple layers of clothing, accumulating body heat: Gregg for 6 hours collecting water from the Yarra river that day, Gary for much of the performance with vertical rows of theatre lights one foot away, performing a rain dance that looks like dog-paddle standing up. “This is what I do to feel a part of things; this is what I do to blur my edges.” Either side of more stories and ‘points’, increasingly funny, entangled, gentle, yearning and touching on acts of kindness, the audience is invited to throw cups of Yarra water over Gary and Gregg’s bare torsos—the burden of clothing now removed, rapid evaporation, a cloud. The clouds failed to appear, or we failed to see them. Trying to be helpful, 2 women bending over perilously close to Gary exclaimed: “But there’s steam coming from his pants!” Everyone laughing, talking, grinning. Becoming a part of something, regardless.

Lone Twin understand that it can rain in the mind, and imagination in this work is miraculously transformed into, and imbibed by, sweat; the body, finding fatigue and water, forced to find another place, time and form to flow in. The imaginal is made ‘material’ or realised in the cycle entered into, the economy, the ecology of a vast set of possible inter-connections and relationships.

In To the Dogs, Lone Twin rode fold-up bikes in all directions for 7 days across Melbourne, following lines drawn in the street directory to the fringes of the city. They returned each evening to offer a series of hilarious cumulative performances, missives from each day’s encounters, trials, objects found; stories and images of a Melbourne that was sometimes familiar, and as often not. A Melbourne of dead ends and Michael Bolton songs blaring from cars at intersections. A Melbourne peopled with work—troubles and homesickness, Peter “not suited” to Melbourne, Melbourne not suited to him. Nina, disgruntled with her job, later meeting Peter (Gregg having given her his phone number!). Each performance was a generous series of ‘Toasts’ and ‘Ciaos’, odes and elegies, and wishes of good luck: “To frappacinos/ To Aussie Rules/ To Steve Bracks—nice legs!/ To Gary’s arm/ To a kiss for the winner/ To as far as you can go/ To the edge of the city/ To what’s going on/ To the dogs!!!”

To close their residency, Lone Twin dressed as cowboys in Ghost Dance and shuffled a slow line dance, trance-like, in silence and blindfolded, for 12 hours! Members of the audience joined them, keeping them company, dancing late into the night.

Lone Twin’s performances entertain walking as knowledge. The ecology of water connects people with place, possible pasts and yet to be imagined futures. Dancing together teaches something of becoming an-other, becoming each other. The conviction applied to carrying things out translates into labours of love. Performance: “to carry through to completion, to complete by adding what is wanting” (OED). ‘What is wanting’ is met in Lone Twin’s work with humour, gentleness, optimism, hope, friendship, community and soul. They engage us in the here and now through the eyes of travellers, that we might see ourselves as and become a part of things: that we might enter into the world with grace.

Lone Twin, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 7-8

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 5

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

Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)

Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)

Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)

It’s always exciting to experience a festival curated by a new artistic director. The hope is that the works will speak to each other, like a group art show. But time attenuates, and each work is redolent with its own mix of references, sources, and aesthetics. So, what’s the common thread? Well, each show began with an announcement regarding the emergency exits. Terrorism anticipated—we can hardly wait.


Le Dernier Caravansérail

While John Howard was scribbling new ‘anti-terror’ laws on the back of a search warrant, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil presented Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), stories from the Other side. Here we all are, perched in the Royal Exhibition Building—a 19th century colonial avatar—watching a French theatre company portray 20th century outrage. The show, in 2 parts, was constructed by Mnouchkine and her company from life stories gathered in Europe, Indonesia, New Zealand and our own Villawood Detention Centre. Text in the production appears as calligraphy on a screen, ghost writing at the back of a cavernous, grey space. A letter from Mnouchkine to one of her informants, familiar and chatty, begins the show, marking a year since their meeting in which tales were told. Moving from micro- to macrocosm, the entire stage is consumed by a storm: grey silk waves threatened to engulf impossibly small vessels purporting to carry human cargo, whether across a swollen river or in waters deemed Australian. Life is reduced to chance.

Finally the waters clear and we watch these lives hung out to dry in a series of vignettes located across Europe, in Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Australia. The stage is bare. Props and people are rolled in on wheels by other cast members. This device portrays the limited agency experienced by these figures. The contrast between the huge stage and its human sized tableaux only emphasises the claustrophobia of each situation. What to do in the shadow of the Taliban where every pleasure is under threat? A ‘love story’ is portrayed, ending with a beautiful woman being hung. A man showing a film is shot; a woman is flogged for demonstrating in Iran; young women are kidnapped into sexual slavery in Serbia. Not nice. Nor is their reception in humanitarian way stations such as the French Red Cross camp in Sangatte, now dismantled. Repeated scenes next to train tracks in the Eurotunnel display the bribing of Mafia criminals for a chance to catch a hurtling train. Repeated scenes at the port of Calais. A call to home pretending things are okay. Well they’re not. Whilst this was not Peter Brook, there was something epic that reminded me of his work. I think Le Dernier Caravansérail grew in importance by our knowing that its references were real. Other works might quickly fade, whereas this was and still is particularly vivid. So it’s somewhere between—between artifice and the world, stage and life—that this work achieves genuine import.



Meanwhile, everyone knew about the goat. It was plastered on billboards all round Melbourne. Saburo Teshigawara’s Green offered a refreshing difference in terms of aesthetic choices, not just through his inclusion of farmyard animals. His lighting was interesting—a square was marked out on the stage but not occupied as such. There were moments when lights went on and off. Heterogeneous elements refused to cohere. Although the actual dancing was clearly derived from the one body, Green comprised a range of performers and tempos. One scene looked like it was lifted from a comic strip—a motley row of performers involved in some kind of repeated altercation. A man dressed in Sumo pants sang Mozart. All of this contrasted with the in-itself, the pure opacity of bunnies, goats and cows tethered or roaming. The bunnies begin the piece, wandering along the front of the stage, slowly overwhelmed by the heavy metal music of UK band, SAND. A small woman swoops and picks up the bunnies. She in turn is swooped off her feet. There are several differentials of size, large men dancing, small men, smaller women. It felt like the big men were giants from Greek mythology. Perhaps this fantasy was provoked by the use of humans and animals, a difference between types. Whatever the meaning of the animals, and one could speculate indefinitely, Green allowed the viewer to enter an alternative aesthetic of space and time that was pleasurable in its unfamiliarity.



Red is emblematic of so many things depending on context and culture but, in Fagaala, it means death. In addressing through dance the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny and Japanese collaborator, Kota Yamazaki, drew upon a mixture of affect, emotion and energy. Acogny did not re-present what happened but tackled her subject from a variety of directions, shifting from one mode to another. The piece represented not a narrative whole but a multiplicity of approaches. Dancers were not given parts, rather a rolling series of dances, spatial arrangements, rhythms and progressions. Body parts were covered or immobilised, people were lifted and rolled, bodies confronted and menaced each other. At times, the 7 dancers formed a kind of Greek chorus, witnesses to atrocity, but they were also always bearers of their own sexual and rhythmic energies. Sometimes ghosts of the dead but also living dancers with particularities of style and execution. A man covers his head whilst repeatedly thrusting his pelvis in a suggested rape. Another enters covered in a cloud of white chalk that slowly permeates the space. Red string bleeds from another man’s mouth.

In the middle of Fagaala, the lights came up, the music stopped and concrete walls were exposed in a moment utterly without artifice. Although Adorno wrote that, after Auschwitz, poetry is a form of barbarism, there is nothing about Fagaala that belittles its topic. The radical silence generated in this rupture was a response to Adorno’s quandary: that whilst the attempt to astheticise genocide is obscene, suffering has every right to expression. Germaine Acogny managed to evoke the genocide in Rwanda without reducing it to the abject.


Shen Wei

In an altogether different citation of red, Chinese born Shen Wei created a painterly space within which abstracted bodies swirled along pathways suggestive of brushstrokes on canvas. The back wall of the theatre looked like a Chinese watercolour with a large backdrop suggesting handmade paper with small figures of inky paint, moments of black and red which were repeated in the dancers’ long skirts. Accompanied by Tibetan chanting, Folding encouraged contemplative enjoyment, a relief after Shen Wei’s frenetic but underwhelming interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The thunderous applause which greeted the latter was an interesting contrast to my boredom. For my part, Shen Wei’s close reading of Stravinsky was illustrative and kinaesthetically banal. Perhaps a greater understanding of the music would have transported me to the other planet that everyone else was on. One of the nice side effects of artistic conflagration is the clash of critical opinion. Sometimes you are led to reevaluate the person standing before you in light of their ridiculous opinions but, occasionally, you have to reassess your own experience.


The Gotham Suite

Expectation has a lot to do with it, for example Stephen Petronio’s The Gotham Suite. Billed as the “essence” of New York City, it was bound to both titillate and disappoint. The fashionable excitement in the audience was palpably libidinous. Personally, once I got over the fact that the choreography was not a lot more than classical ballet, I actually enjoyed its unashamed adherence to the lexicon. It’s not just the speed, it’s the assertion in Petronio’s choreography. The dancers ate space at full tilt, throwing limbs and undulating spines in a thoroughly contemporary cultural mise en scene: girls in cutesy outfits, boys in their PJs, backdrops silhouetting New York’s iconic fire escapes. I particularly liked Willem Defoe’s rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in The Island of Misfit Toys. Petronio also has a company of incredible dancers.


I Want to Dance Better at Parties

Kristy Edmunds chose two local dance works, Chunky Move’s I Want to Dance Better at Parties and Shelley Lasica’s Play in a Room, to feature as part of the festival’s program. I Want to Dance… opens up a space for the everyman. Interview material, reproduced through the spoken word and images, lends a documentary flavour to the depiction of ordinary men on the social dance floor. This contrasts with the trained bodies which form a third term to the sounds and images. Obarzanek makes no attempt to reproduce the ordinary lived bodies intimated through visual and aural means, though there are some cameos which appear to illustrate their subject matter. The work is a weaving of threads, incorporating video projection, photography, sound and movement. Personal narratives are introduced in relation to single performers who mediate our visualisations but group interactions are also used to create atmospheres or contexts for the spoken word. There is a whimsical, poetic feeling to I Want to Dance…, which makes it appealing in its depiction of, and connection with ordinary people.


Play in a Room

Play in a Room is an example of Shelley Lasica’s recent focus on reworking and restaging movement material. This is a work of counterpoint, asymmetry, attenuated connection, and drama. It is dialogical or, rather, polyvalent. Dancers observe, respond, and interact. Viewers also construct scenarios in response to a complex of activities. There are repetitions, familiarities, recent and long-term, but their context keeps changing. Even though several of the dancers are veterans of this work, the dancing enables each to maintain their own manner of movement. The sheer number of performers, along with its sustained elaboration, made way for a societal, rather than, say, molecular, sense of interaction. Not the society of the corps de ballet but one of steadfast singularities. François Tétaz’s remix of an earlier composition was a fantastic addition to the tantalising drama of the work. A string of 5 dancers form and deform into couplets, triplets. They provide a degree of gravitas not simply because, like Proust’s ‘little phrase’, they reappear, remembered and familiar, but because Lasica’s work resides in their bodies and has done so for some time. Play in a Room was successful, satisfying and strangely moving.


Bergasse 19

Finally, Bergasse 19, The Apartments of Sigmund Freud. Having recently travelled to these apartments, now serving as Vienna’s Freud Museum, I was eager to see Brian Lipson portray the legendary meister of the unconscious. I ought to have known better though. But we don’t know, do we? That’s the point. If there is one. Although there are allusions to Freud throughout Bergasse 19, Lipson and Pamela Rabe play a series of cross-dressed characters, identities, family, servants and animals associated with Freud and his zeitgeist. Lipson evokes Freud through a domestic staging of his psychoanalytic ideas, replete with condensation, displacement, oral, anal and genital forms of gratification. He chooses surreal clutter as his preferred topography, along with a tight rollcall of Feydeau style entrances and exits. Double entendres litter the script, enhanced by some interesting exhibitions of toilet humour. I particularly admired the construction of a subterranean underworld in order to show the fate of Freud’s long awaited crap, making its way across stage into the collective unconscious of Vienna’s sewage system. Haunted by the Holocaust, the performance also plays with temporality. Whilst the clock ostentatiously progresses through the famed 50 minute session, we are taken backwards and forwards in time, through several of Freud’s publications, with only a shrinking and growing plant to mark time. I found Bergasse 19 thoroughly entertaining, unruly, seething with contradiction, a worthy enactment of the unconscious as conceived by Sigmund Freud.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), director Ariane Mnouchkine, Royal Exhibition Building, Oct 11-16; Saburo Teshigawara/Karas, Green, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Oct 6-8; Jant-Bi,Fagaala, choreographers Germaine Acogny, Kota Yamazaki , Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 13-15; Shen Wei Dance Arts, Rite of Spring/Folding, choreographer Shen Wei, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Oct 13-14; Stephen Petronio Company, The Gotham Suite, choreographer Stephen Petronio, Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct, 19-22; Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties, choreograper, director, Gideon Obarzanek, video projection, Michaela French, Chunky Move Studio 1, Oct 9-15; Shelley Lasica, Play in a Room, choreographer, director, Shelley Lasica, Rehearsal Room, Arts Centre, Oct 16; Bergasse 19, The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, writer, designer Brian Lipson, director, Susie Dee, Grant St Theatre, Oct 14-23; MIAF Oct 6-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 6

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

Ngapartji Ngapartji

Ngapartji Ngapartji

Ngapartji Ngapartji

Attempting to describe Ngapartji Ngapartji, I feel a tangible sense of the effort it takes to ‘get it.’ And indeed it takes some commitment to understand what is essentially a unique, complex and unprecedented project, and that commitment is one of its integral elements.

Ngapartji Ngapartji is an ongoing, arts-based community development project facilitated through the national arts company Big hART. It engages young people with their language, culture and elders, and reveals itself in a Pitjantjatjara language lesson and stage performance. Its processes are hybrid—neither straight arts, welfare, academia nor linguistics—and seek to meaningfully engage the public with an Indigenous language, culture and story. According to its creative producer, Alex Kelly, Ngapartji Ngapartji explores the notion that “if time is taken to learn elements of a language, and a performance incorporates those elements, then the experience of the show will be much richer.”

The concept at the heart of the work is embodied in its name, which means ‘I give you something. You give me something.’ It’s a core principle of Pitjantjatjara society; a comprehensive idea and practice that, according to the project’s language advisor and teacher Lorna Wilson, makes English words like ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ unnecessary.

Despite the difficulty in wrapping the public’s head around the scope of the project, Ngapartji Ngapartji, as a work-in-progress, found success at the Melbourne International Arts Festival with sold-out performances on each of its 5 nights. Many of the seats were occupied by people returning night after night to gain the full experience. Lorna Wilson, though not trained as a performer, presented a series of increasingly dynamic language lessons around 4 elements of Pitjantjatjara society: Anangu (person or body), Ngura (country or home), Waltja (family) and Tjukurpa (dreaming and stories). Incorporated in each lesson were short videos—the results of workshops with young Pitjantjatjara speakers in Alice Springs. These digital pieces (which can be viewed online) are compelling, entertaining and very informative about contemporary Pitjantjatjara culture.

The show itself is a series of short chapters in the family story of principal performer Trevor Jamieson, whose father’s country in Western Australia was part of the site of the notorious Maralinga nuclear tests. Trevor incorporated Pitjantjatjara words (“my waltja… my ngura”) in his telling of the tragic events around the tests—and how the international political climate of the early 20th century has left a distastrous legacy for his people and country. Young people and elders joined him on stage in a performance that was collaborative and at times highly emotional. From these short stories, says Alex, “the show is being developed into a more elaborate performance that fleshes out the themes related to this episode in Australia’s colonial history. The full-scale version of the show will be performed almost entirely in Pitjantjatjara language with the inclusion of English words that have no translation, such as Cold War.”

The festival showing was just the beginning for Ngapartji Ngapartji—the future is looking very busy. Building on the favourable responses of Melbourne audiences, Alex Kelly and writer (and Big hART co-founder) Scott Rankin are developing a comprehensive online language course and 75-minute touring performance which will debut in Alice Springs in June next year. “After June, we are hoping for Ngapartji Ngapartji’s return to the Melbourne Festival, possibly a show at the Sydney Opera House and one in Perth, with the potential to travel to the United States in 2007. We are also discussing a weekly language program on Indigenous Community TV, satellite broadcast from Alice Springs,” says Alex.

Undertaking the online course is not compulsory for attendance, but will certainly deepen an appreciation of the performance. Alex, in consultation with Lorna has been developing the language instruction. “The course will feature 24 lessons, taught by young people and elders and run for 6 months leading up to the show. It will require a commitment of around one hour per week, and there will also be forums and means of communicating with tutors.” Enrolments will commence in March in 2006 via the website.

Ngapartji Ngapartji experiments with ideas of exchange between audience and cast, and the nexus between education and entertainment, community development and performance. The risks involved in developing and presenting such a multi-faceted project were evident during the Melbourne season in some spontaneous on-stage moments, and will undoubtedly continue to shape the project. For example, the 6 young Aboriginal people who had participated in the workshops travelled from central Australia to the city for a live performance in a completely unfamiliar environment. While these young people are all multilingual, they are inexperienced teachers and stage performers, and they occupy spaces on society’s fringe as a result of poverty and systemic cultural marginalisation.

In Ngapartji Ngapartji these young people give students and audiences rare insight into their identities. Alex, and Suzy Bates, the arts mentor who worked with the young people in Alice Springs, notice how the experiences affected the performers: “At first they were overwhelmed, but the positive response of the Melbourne public had such an obvious impact on their self-esteem, confidence and cultural pride. The vision is that they will keep working with us over the next 2 years and they will continue to get a greater belief in themselves.”

The community development aspect of the project is central to Big hART’s purpose. The company uses an arts platform to “develop sustainable possibilities for those socially marginalised or at risk, especially young people, and creates opportunities for them to re-engage with broader society and increase skills in the areas of literacy and communication”, says Alex. Ngapartji Ngapartji involves the participation of senior Pitjantjatjara women and young people along with digital media producers, musicians, local artists and social services workers in a dynamic long-term collaboration. “We foresee the outcomes of the project lasting much longer than the duration of the touring show. Ngapartji Ngapartji hopes to preserve and share the Pitjantjatjara language and culture, and be a meaningful exchange between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians.”

Big hART, Ngapartji Ngapartji, Screen Pit, ACMI, Federation Square, Oct 11-15 www.ngapartji.org. Parts of this article appeared in the Melbourne Festival ArtsZine. Rachel Maher assisted with documenting the Melbourne performance of Ngapartji Ngapartji.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 8

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

David Young’s wonderful 7-movement composition Thousands of Bundled Straw (RT 69, p41) has been years in the making, an epic work scored for soprano and combinations of instruments that reveals Young’s compositional life over that period. The final movement was premiered at this concert and the excellent performance was also the first featuring the whole cycle.

The title Thousands of Bundled Straw is an example of the confused English often found in tourist brochures and other printed material mistranslated for English-speaking visitors. In this case, the term is drawn from publicity about Ichibata Yakushi, the Temple of the Healing Eyes, in Japan. According to legend, the temple was founded about 1100 years ago by a fisherman who discovered a statue of the Buddha floating in the sea and subsequently had a dream in which he was instructed to throw himself from a cliff to cure his mother’s blindness. Wrapping himself in protective straw, he jumped, and his mother, rushing to his aid, wondrously regained her sight. Young’s music bears strong influences of Japanese music, theatre and mysticism, as well as ‘Japlish’, the hybrid English that emerges through translation.

Thousands of Bundled Straw is complex, subtly nuanced and infinitesimally crafted. Every sound and gesture seems precisely calculated, yet the music retains freshness and immediacy. Except in the fifth movement, which is for soprano and a guitar tuned to quarter-tones, a clarinet or oboe predominantly carries the principal line, melding variously with violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet and bass recorder to create unique textures. There are percussive sounds made by clicking the tongue, snapping the fingers, tapping the body of an instrument or using woodblocks and drums. These percussive sounds break up passages of music, add emphasis, and sometimes sound like footsteps or heartbeats. In the fifth movement, soprano Deborah Kayser tosses eggs on the floor, making an evocative plopping sound. The overall effect of the music is of a minutely staged drama. One listens intently, as you might for the sounds of frogs, crickets, strange characters and even spirits in an unfamiliar mountain village at night, while overhearing murmured conversation from another room. The work is dreamlike, floating just outside consciousness. Each motif seems to grow out of the previous one, like a perpetual unfolding. There can be sudden shifts in texture and meter and between instruments or blends of instruments, and abrupt pauses. A demanding work for performers, it is quiet, unintrusive and perhaps best staged in an intimate auditorium with low lighting.

Kayser’s dextrous voice does not dominate the music, and is not even present in all movements. Whereas song typically emphasises the vocal line over supporting instruments, here the voice is muted, weaving around other instruments and sometimes barely audible, as if merely a thought. The voice is not the sole bearer of the song. Young’s ‘songs’ are composites of sounds, though the ‘voice’ is the sense in which the song is carried, and other instruments variously form part of that voice. A slurred oboe line might segue into Kayser’s voice or the voice into a clarinet line, producing groans, cries and whispers. Sometimes the voice appears to be speaking, though the ‘words’ are nonsensical. At other times the voice makes singing sounds or emulates the call of a crane or some other sound, going beyond Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist twittering and Cathy Berberian’s performances of Luciano Berio.

In his program note, David Young reveals that he draws on other forms, such as the literature of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Perec developed quirky formal innovations such as writing an entire novel without using the letter E, and a palindrome 5000 words long. Calvino’s fables satirically and surreally postulate strange lands with strange inhabitants. The writers belonged to the 1960s literary group OuLiPo-Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. Thousands of Bundled Straw is perhaps a potential literature—through its unique sprechgesang based on the sounds and confused meanings of Japlish and through the instrumental writing—languages within languages. These are not conventional songs, neither communicating a narrative nor enunciating ideas in understandable language. But there is beauty in the extraordinary sculpting of each sound, and the sung-spoken content makes us re-listen to normal speech and hear it as abstract form, in the way calligraphy works visually. Above all, there is an intense and clear musicality in Young’s writing—as with Perec and Calvino, the content exceeds the form.

Thousands of Bundled Straw evokes characters in a play who, like those in Calvino’s cities, are invisible and driven by strange apprehensions. It would be interesting to see such music adapted for dance.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Libra Ensemble, Thousands of Bundled Straw, composer David Young, soprano Deborah Kayser, conductor Mark Knoop, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank, Centre, Oct 18

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 10

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

When standing alone in a vast expanse and staring at the horizon, what exactly is it that we see? In the world of Ryoji Ikeda we see nothing more than data. C4I opens with a swirling mass of data; permutations cascading across a screen accompanied by a sonic thunder that rattles the diaphragm. A data dance between human beings that strives for infinity. Ikeda might be a new media artist traversing a digital horizon but his work harks back to an old aesthetic debate. Is C4I just a set of systems comprising nothing more than data, or is it a window into another world?

This is the question posed by C4I as a computer generated night time map appears on the screen. The major cities of each country are indicated by light emitting diodes. Connecting each city across the world is a faint trace of telescoped white light—the world wide web in action as if viewed on a war room screen. White lines of data crisscross the night sky until the outline of each country’s land mass collapses into the universal simulacrum. The audience ponders an image of Earth digitally abstracted, one resembling a spider’s web. Silk strands are normally created by natural forces, but in Ikeda’s work, a natural form is always represented by data.

We see pages of a hard cover book, its words—detailing scientific speculation—digitally enhanced, and its pages turning hands-free. The book drops down a shaft, its landing accentuated by an electronic thud that hammers at the foundations of the representation/non-representation debate in an art film that has absorbed the Imax experience. What would the first ‘true’ abstract filmmaker, Viking Eggeling (Symphonie Diagonale, 1921-4), have made of Ikeda’s digital hurricane? Perhaps he’d have viewed the film’s division of one screen into 12 smaller ones, some containing landscapes, others containing an image from the mass media, as miraculous data vibrating into life. A techno-howl threatens to crack the ceiling of Melbourne’s Playhouse. And it was always on the cards that a technological advancement would resolve the representation/non-representation debate; digital technology would propel the debate onto a new horizon, where metaphor and abstraction coalesce in a digital dream, or nightmare, that is nothing more than data.

In C4I the natural world is portrayed as just another creature to be digitally enhanced. A camera cruises through undergrowth; tree branches poised in the night air, straight out of a scene from a slasher flick. The boughs tremble and quake, tangle and integrate, transmute and transmogrify. Infused with colour, movement and light, there materialises from within this natural world an Action Painting. Pollock’s ‘Nature’ is fully realised as the tenets of Abstract Expressionism are blown into another dimension. One that maniacally dismantles its own contention by then displaying to its audience the cool portent of a desert horizon at sunset. Two tiny figures, engulfed by nature’s symphony, scramble along a sand ridge, while a third figure appears from one side of the screen trying to catch the others. Human beings on a technological treadmill, forever lagging behind. Then, to compound this view of the human dilemma in the digital age, Ikeda uses the technology to dismantle the desert metaphor—filling the screen with a set of white lines, a design graph, revealing that natural landscapes—forests, mountains, valleys and streams—are perceptions as much as physical realities, consisting of nothing more than data.

And here lies the immense power of C4I. It is less a work of art and more a natural phenomenon. Impossible it may be, but at times C4I aspires not towards a representation of nature, but to be nature. Something alive; an audio visual organism comprising living data. And whether object on a screen, noise from a sound system, or a window into another world, whether figuration, configuration or something else again, some new horizon, please remember: when confronted by a sign on a gateway indicating the presence of a wild beast, you enter at your own risk.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: C4I, director, video, music Ryoji Ikeda, computer graphics and video editing Shohei Matsukawa, Daisuke Tsunoda, technical director Kamal Ackarie, Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 10-11

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 10

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

Craigie Boys

Craigie Boys

Craigie Boys

The sight of giant bugs crawling down the side of the Telstra Exchange building in Perth stopped just short of sparking widespread panic; in the current climate of paranoia, a red target centred on the building triggered at least one irate response from an alarmed citizen.

Ian Corcoran’s digital projections tend to have impact—artworks magnified to the size of an entire building facade can make statements in ways that few artistic endeavours can. Illuminosity, the fourth such project the digital media artist and Australia Council Emerging Producers in Community (EPIC) recipient has attempted in recent years, was no exception.

Three prominent Perth buildings provided the canvasses for Illuminosity: the Telstra Exchange, Western Power on Wellington Street and Central TAFE in Northbridge; while the Midland Town Hall, 30kms from Perth was the site of the Midland Projections Program, an Illuminosity side project undertaken by local artists Poppy Van Oorde Grainger and Marye Wade under Corcoran’s direction.

Corcoran worked with 5 distinct groups over 5 weeks to create 110 unique slides of graphics, photographs and images ranging from quirky to downright odd which were in turn beamed onto building facades with the aid of projectors powerful enough to project over distances of 1km or more. Amongst an assortment of poignant letters by immigrant teens, childlike paintings, graphic prints and comic figures were some clear standouts. A giant image of street artist Trevor Bly from the Craigie Boys graffiti art group, with the number 6025 emblazoned across his forehead, found its way onto the website of the Wooster Collective, the world’s biggest street art website (6025 is the postcode of the northern suburb of Craigie, a prominent breeding ground for Perth street artists). A drawing by Michael Lightfoot, a prominent Perth-based watercolourist with a self-confessed discomfort with new media and digital art was another—an obese suited banker sitting amidst a pile of money embedded with corpses and captioned “and still it’s not enough.”

Illuminosity also marks the first time Ian Corcoran has worked with a corporate body, a radical departure from his usual formula of working with underprivileged or at-risk kids, fringe artists and small community groups. The resulting body of work reflects this difference, a structured underlying narrative vastly dissimilar from the arbitrary nature of the other works. Slides produced by Corcoran with 5 senior staff members of Western Australia’s electricity authority, Western Power, were shown over a single dedicated night of the festival. They included a photograph taken in a substation tunnel powering most of the city, superimposed against a silhouette of the city skyline, and a grid of light, an electronic representation of Perth’s suburban power grid. The Western Power workshops also produced arguably one of the most stunning Illuminosity artworks—the hand of God from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam fresco, reaching out to flick on a light switch.

Aside from thrilling thousands of Perth residents and countless snap-happy Japanese tourists, Ian Corcoran adds another notch to his belt; the sheer scale of the body of work must make Illuminosity one of the biggest events of its kind ever to have occurred in Australia.

Artrage Festival 05: Illuminosity, Ian Corcoran, Nov 1-28

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 12

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

Mimi Kelly, Seven Stars

Mimi Kelly, Seven Stars

Mimi Kelly, Seven Stars

Underneath the comforting intimacy of Michael Lightfoot’s delicate watercolours, Memories of India, stands a finely crafted peep show box. Look inside and turn the lever to see 2 skeletons indulging in some mischievous love-making. Drawing on the traditions of 19th century carnival entertainment and the craftsmanship of the automata, the absurd mechanical jerks of the figures combined with the voyeurism I enact as I peek and turn creates an unexpected juxtaposition of fantasy and banality. Caught between the spirituality of the North Indian-like miniatures above it and the risqué kitsch of David Archer’s Triple X-Ray Vision, I find myself in a slippery viewing position, one that the 2005 SEX, The Adultshop.com Erotic Art Award Exhibition suggests might characterise our experience of sexuality itself.

Admiring a flowering Vagina Dentata by Christopher Trotter, enjoying the languid beauty of Jacob Ogden Smith’s Modern Man Reclining flaccidly upon a chaise longue, and fronting the bristling eroticism of Pia de Bruyn’s intense drawings of Beth and Freddie#1, I feel compelled to question exactly what I am as a viewer, and what I may become. These subtleties are negotiated in Jason Sweeney’s Imaginary Animals website, where viewers listen to the true life confessions of male homosexual fantasy and watch homo-erotic encounters between the artist and his interviewees. In this web mock-doco, Sweeney explores the interactions between masculinities, erotic aesthetics and fantasy, and although given free access to the site, I am placed, both as a heterosexual woman and as a computer user, outside the interactions taking place. In Sweeney’s virtual world of masked men, I am precluded from participating. However in this space I become conscious of my position as an observer, outside the circuit of desire, while also being sensitised to the erotically charged moments between the artist and his friends. Watching and sometimes straining to hear, it begins to seem inconsequential whether I am viewer or voyeur. Instead Sweeney asks us to consider how, by merging fantasy and the everyday, moments of erotic intimacy may blur and question the lines between fiction and supposed reality and so create other experiences of desire.

The corporeality of desire is explored further in Craig Boreham’s Booth, a sensual video of a male peep show. Inverting the idea of a Mulvey-esque male gaze, Kane (the dancer) becomes an extremely sexual and finally orgasmic object for the men in the booth and the viewers in the gallery. I am implicitly caught up in the voyeurism and erotics at work onscreen, a fantasy of sexualised masculinity that gyrates, pulses and finally climaxes. As the men ejaculate, and the camera zooms in, I am reminded of the viscerality of sex, which is something that Kate Gormon’s video Thumb also delicately demonstrates in the sounds and visuals of an “intense internal suck” (artist’s statement, catalogue). Fleshy, wet lips ambiguously encircle a thumb creating a simultaneously pacifying, sensual and fetishised image that reflects on the sexualised mouth and the sensuality of the corporeal, with all its discharges and noises.

I arrive at Linda Erceg’s DVD animation Punchline which acknowledges “the paradoxical impulse towards intimacy and voyeurism that computer gaming shares with pornography” (artist’s statement). Erceg’s high quality animation design and exploration of the links between virtual cultures and sexualised representations of the body won her first prize in this year’s exhibition. Using computer generated animations of 4 endlessly masturbating nude characters, whose porn star bodies are lit up with strobe lights and zoomed in on by a circling voyeuristic camera, Punchline exaggerates the divide between desiring viewer and the idealised image on screen. The soundtrack, a series of voices telling dirty jokes emphasises this split as each joke overlays the next, re-synching and diverging and thus heightening its impact and the tension that always goes with joke telling—will the audience think it’s funny? (artist’s statement). The disjunctions between soundtrack and visuals further underlines the gap between us, the ‘real’ viewer and the artificial object, asking us to consider how this divide reflects the discrepancies between sexual fantasy and reality.

Constantly repositioning us before its diverse mediums and themes, SEX explores the ambiguous intimacies of sexuality and the erotic. The exhibition goes beyond simply delineating the fluidity of these interactions, excavating the exchanges, fantasies and even ordinariness of what constitutes our experiences of sexuality.

Artrage, SEX, The Adultshop.com Erotic Art Award Exhibition, Bakery, Artrage Complex, Perth, Oct 1-Nov 13

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 12

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




Artrage is onto a winner with Crossfire, although next year the organisers might want to consider a bigger venue, graduated stages and stadium seating. The multi-stage centrepiece event of the Northbridge Festival was an unprecedented crowd puller, packing 8,000 people like sardines into a space less than a square kilometre in size.

Crossfire, a dance-off pitting opposing dance styles against each other on multiple stages decked out like boxing rings, was staged for the first time last year as part of an Artrage fringe event in the outer Perth suburb of Midland. The success of the event saw it moved this year to the crossroads of James and Lake Streets, 2 of the busiest streets in Perth’s entertainment district.

Over 20 different dance groups and exponents of as many dance styles battled it out on 5 stages—one main stage flanked by 4 smaller ones on each side, aided by little more than a soundtrack cue.

While ballet dancers pirouetted on the main stage, a Ukrainian Cossack troupe picked up the pace on stage 2; tappers took on belly dancers, bootscooters faced off Spanish dancers; Perth Wildcats cheerleaders came up against hip hoppers; and African dancers challenged swing dancers in a triumph of split-second timing and choreography. Perhaps understandably, the overwhelming crowd favourite was the final risque round, which saw fitness school pole-dancers pitting sheer athleticism against the raw sexuality of adult industry professionals while between them, calisthenics exponents split, twisted and somersaulted centrestage.

Individually choreographed performances prior to and between dance-offs borrowed from boxing and sporting traditions, with performances preceded by rousing fanfare, hype and hoopla courtesy of raucous hosts, placard-waving girls, EPW wrestlers and sword fighters.

Punters pushed and jostled for space on the streets and in surrounding restaurants, in some cases creating health hazards by jumping onto flimsy barriers designed only to cordon off alfresco dining areas. Meals lay forgotten on tables as restaurant patrons lucky enough to have booked tables in advance of the event stood on their chairs to get a better view.

The successful execution of Crossfire is particularly remarkable considering the conditions under which it was produced. Logistical requirements meant everyone had to get it right the first time, without the benefit of rehearsals, preliminary checks or tests for lighting or sound. As stages could only be erected on the day, lighting was programmed in a virtual computer environment, and a soundtrack pieced together with a lot of foresight and even more guesswork, while dancers were armed with only a schedule and a stage manager to guide them.

The set-up may have been the only thing to miss the mark—stages were spaced 10 or so metres apart to allow audiences to move freely between them, but the capacity crowd meant the only really satisfying view for most of us would have been an aerial one.

Crossfire, choreographers Claudia Alessi, Sam Fox, Artrage Festival 05, Nov 20

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 14

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

It’s the Festival d’Avignon 2003, and 2 choreographers, Australia’s Chrissie Parrott and Grenoble’s Annabelle Bonnéry, hatch a plan. They envisage an exchange that would bring Bonnéry to Perth to work with emerging dancers. This year as part of Artrage the idea came to fruition, with the resulting work, ToMeetYou, the product of a 2-week workshop with 12 local dancers.

Teamed with the Bonnéry solo, 9mn, the works offer a visceral journeying into the shadowy, gritty arena of desire and its intricate relationship with self-identification. In ToMeetYou, the rituals of desire within the terrain of the discothèque are evoked, opening with a solo by Larena Charlesworth spot-lit in a corner of the room, engaged in a series of fluid rhythmic ‘clubbing’ movements. Immersed in an inner world—simultaneously alienated and self-actualised—she continues dancing while others look on. The exploration of movements as relating to the cultural practice of a particular setting is evocative and familiar—it could be the pulsing lights and sticky floor of a nightclub in downtown Grenoble, Berlin or Perth. And it’s not all happy on this dance floor. As soft strains of elektronica thump, bodies engage in tumultuous gendered narratives of abandon, scorn and rapture (of particular joy was the highly charged ‘muscling in’ by Joel Bray.)

Bodies are alternatively buoyed with intoxicated fervour then sullied, flopping to the floor with loud slaps. As the work moves through various phrases—dancers coalescing in duets and groups—a symbol of frenetic emotion is repeatedly indicated by a trope of frantic hand-washing. It’s all a bit desperate, with an underlying sense of the grubby beauty of the moment, at 4am, when everything looks worn.

While Bonnéry’s dancing bodies might indulge in the gritty real, the video by Francois Deneulin screened throughout the piece jostles intriguingly with its fleshy counterparts. Slow hand-held close-ups of the dancers’ bodies—floating belly-buttons and thighs—provide a dreamy ethereality, reminding me of photographer Bill Brandt’s abstracted limbs, where bodies billow in and out of form. Romance here seems juttingly turned on its head—all the more poignant and constructed for the combination.

Bonnéry’s solo piece, 9mn, offered a more intense ‘close-up’—an intimate interrogation of the desire for articulation, and again the jostling contradiction between peace and désespéré. Opening with her back to us—providing a glimpse of her naked torso—eloquent movements run from the very still to sudden bolts of action. It feels like eavesdropping on an inner-dialogue as her body trembles: you can almost hear her breath. An unravelling, a glimpse at frailty, tension, then peace: at one point she gazes at her own body with new-baby wonder.

As an international collaboration positioned by Bonnéry with an emphasis on workshopping—a ‘reconstituting’ of her work with the local—the fusion appeared seamlessly ready-made, her visions blossoming in a southern city. ToMeetYou was re-staged as part of WAAPA’s graduating students’ show, and the word out is that some of the dancers now wish to head to Grenoble.

Artrage Festival 2005, Annabelle Bonnery, ToMeetYou and 9mn, PICA, Perth, Oct 10-11

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 14

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

Nigel Helyer, Quint de Loupe

Nigel Helyer, Quint de Loupe

Nigel Helyer, Quint de Loupe

Twist the sinews…

The 7th Totally Huge New Music Festival insinuated itself into Perth’s cultural life over 17 days with numerous concerts, a late night club (unfortunately in competition with the Artrage club), the inaugural Totally Huge Conference, a Ruined Piano Convergence and a major sound art exhibition, You are here…entangle. The exhibition coordinated by Kylie Ligertwood set out to explore how “sound entangles identity, locale, biology and memory” and featured work by both established and emerging West Australian artists Cat Hope, Rob Muir, Alan Lamb, Hannah Clemen, Kieran Stewart and frequent Perth visitor Nigel Helyer.

The highlight was Helyer’s Quint de Loupe—perspex squid like creatures that harbour theremin interfaces, squealing and whining in response to motion stimulus. Combining 2 versions of this work, the Ariel and Caliban’s Children series, the room is swarming so that on the crowded opening night the overstimulated delinquent biomorphs caterwaul hysterically. Returning for a second look on a quiet Saturday afternoon, this sensation of sentience is intensified as the sculptures hang, literally keening for attention like abandoned children. Like many of Helyer’s works Quint de Loupe satisfies in its integration of elements—the objects themselves are unique and slickly designed, their placement in the space considered, the cause and effect an easily negotiable and stimulating relationship.

Also visually arresting is Cat Hope’s Plug. A wig head block is mounted on a plinth, with tresses spilling down, some tortured into hair curlers; however these ebony locks are not made of hair but of everyday ear bud headphones and wires. Emanating from these tiny speakers is a 16 channel soundscape drawn from samples of haircutting—snipping and shearing. It is subtle—people assume they must listen to individual headphones, however the effect is made from the overall trebly soundscape emanating from the mass of tiny speakers, shifting across the web of tangles.

Taking a more lotech approach is Alan Lamb’s Four Bells—4 tractor wheel rims weighing 35 kilos suspended from the beams of the main room in a square formation. Visitors are invited to hit the objects with the rubber mallets supplied producing pure deep notes. Acting as an analogue surround system, the joy is to be found in hitting the “bells” (all roughly the same pitch) and moving around the inner circle to experience the airshifting beats of the clarion tones. Around the walls are unobtrusive poems evoking parallels between the joint entanglement of love and particle physics. The relationship between the poems and the bells is oblique but fleetingly sublime.

Kieran Stewart’s Lucid Harmony occupies its own room out the back of the Moores Building. Rafts of fishing net are strewn across the floor, swathes of red fabric draped from the rafters and old planks of wood define a path to the centre of the installation where you peer over a wooden box to glimpse a circular pan of salt. The drone scape not only fills the room but subtly sculpts the grains of salt into a circular pattern. The elements are all potentially interesting, however there’s a lack of cohesion, an awkwardness and self-consiousness in the spatial placement that fails to transport me.

Hannah Clemen is exploring interactivity through breath. Beneath, Becoming involves an empty chair with a seatbelt like apparatus and headphones. There are detailed instructions, taped down to a table on how to strap yourself into the artwork with breathing notes. While appreciating the concept of the feedback loop—the sound of calm breaths will make my breathing calm, which will in turn calm the machine breaths—I found the work problematic. The actual device has no aesthetic qualities; the spotlight on the chair in an empty room hardly conducive to the contemplative state required, the instructions too pernickety and hard to read if sitting in the chair, and the resultant experience too subtle to be rewarding. While the piece seems technically sound, more development of the total sensory experience would greatly benefit it.

Rob Muir’s Conning the Text is also interactive consisting of 4 mobile phones, housed in clear plastic megaphones. When the numbers are rung (provided on take-home business cards) the relevant phone responds—the ring tone consisting of a spoken wordscape recreating fragments of Edith Sitwell’s poem for the seminal performance Façade. A simple interface, used cleverly, particularly if you understand the relevance of the text, this work went some way towards allaying my scepticism about the faddishness of mobile phone art.

What the hand dare seize the fire…

The Ruined Piano Convergence also featured an exhibition component, the Ruined Piano Labyrinth in the PICA Gallery. Ross Bolleter, a long-time fetishist of the forgotten broken instrument, sent out a call for people to donate their old uprights which were distributed through the gallery with the accompanying stories of their demise. Most are still playable and visitors encouraged to tickle the chipped and cracked ivories. During the course of the festival there were also performances by Bolleter, Domenico de Clario and visiting Slovakian Michal Murin celebrating the considerable compositional potential of these nature-prepared instruments.

Annea Lockwood (NZ/UK), renowned for her “piano transplants,” was also a special guest of the Convergence providing a very public face for the festival by installing a baby grand on Bathers Beach in Fremantle. The piano in fact went missing, only to be found a few days later at a local backpackers where they we were trying to repair it! Lockwood also provided the highlight of the festival, recreating her Burning Piano performance. Despite the chattering crowd gathered in a paddock ready for a bonfire it was a beautiful meditative event, as the tongues of flame burning rainbow colours penetrated the instrument, skittering across the keys faster than fingers have ever managed, eating away at the backboard so that we could see through the body, until the unavoidable total collapse. A worthwhile sacrifice for art.

Totally Huge did indeed earn its moniker. The fragments I was able to experience suggested a mature and expansive new music festival with a distinct West Australian flavour… dust, salt, ash…and all manner of exciting sounds.

Totally Huge New Music Festival, Perth, Sept 30-Oct 16

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 15

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

Igor Sas, Eamon Flack, Renee MacIntosh & Adrianne Daff

Igor Sas, Eamon Flack, Renee MacIntosh & Adrianne Daff

Igor Sas, Eamon Flack, Renee MacIntosh & Adrianne Daff

In The Gathering, a play about those invisible forces in relationships that draw us together and drive us apart, the action is fast-paced and disjunctive, with multiple projection screens adding elements of the fantastic to an otherwise minimal set. Pantomime-style silhouettes, animated shadow puppets, closed circuit camera, medical imagery and an underwater-netherworld environment contribute to the sense of estrangement in the characters.

Initially all we see is a sparse interior—a laundry sink, grimy wallpaper, a door. This impression of grey domesticity is shattered by the sudden appearance of a shirtless glam rocker who belts out a few verses before disappearing through the door through which he entered. A domestic drama ensues. Mora has murdered her husband. She flees to a coastal town in rural Australia with her young daughter Anna. They find an amiable butcher, Frank, who offers them refuge for a few days, and they end up staying for good. Years later, Anna is in Europe in search of clues to the identity of her dead father. It is here that she meets the artist Emil.

The narrative flickers back and forth between Anna and the family she’s left behind, held together by the intrusion of details from each others’ lives—fragments of a broken cup, a painting, a muffled telephone line, a vague memory of the murdered man. Anna finds that she is unwittingly re-enacting her mother’s youth. Themes of migration, exile and being orphaned are explored through occasionally intertextual and often moving dialogue, set against a cinematic musical score by Ash Gibson Greig.

The cast works well together, with some standout performances. Igor Sas is excellent in a number of roles—as Frank, he is the lonely attendant of Mora’s conjugal coolness, but in Eastern Germany he is a drunken Slavic railway worker who moonlights as a nude model, with obvious concern for how Emil represents his smaller appendage. He also plays a mad old painter who has abandoned art in favour of film, which he calls “the new canvas”—what was the moon landing if not artifice, he asks. Co-writer Eamon Flack plays Emil, a fastidious fish out of water, with a similar combination of satire and sensitivity.

Director/co-writer Matthew Lutton is a formidable young talent at 22—before graduating from WAAPA he had already created his own theatre company, ThinIce Productions, and The Gathering is set to tour. Developed in collaboration with the company, this is an ambitious play with real potential and some excellent moments, but which perhaps tries to do a bit too much, at the cost of cohesiveness. The second half risks being a different play altogether, with some of the important narrative trajectories of the first half (Mora’s murder of Anna’s father and her subsequent obsession with the demise of historical murderers) apparently abandoned. However, for an original play by such a young director, this outing indicates a significant talent that will be refined in later years.

Artrage Festival 2005 & PICA, The Gathering, ThinIce Productions, writers Eamon Flack, Matthew Lutton in collaboration with the company; director Matthew Lutton, performers Adrianne Daff, Eamon Flack, Renee MacIntosh, Igor Sas, designer Bryan Woltjen, projections Sohan Ariel Hayes, sound Kingsely Reeve, composition Ash Gibson Greig, production manager and lighting Nick Higgins; PICA, Oct 22-Nov 12

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 15

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

Jenny Tyack, Karen Gibb

Jenny Tyack, Karen Gibb

Jenny Tyack, Karen Gibb

Justine Wilkinson introduces her own and Stephen Naylor’s joint response to the See Hear Now festival of multidisciplinary art practices recently held in Northern Queensland:

“See here now!” was my indignant cry as an ardent tertiary music student when I failed to understand how my colleagues could be so blithely ignorant of the exciting things happening in contemporary art music on their very doorstep. Back then it felt like a cry in the wilderness. I just wanted to immerse myself in the riches offered by living Australian artists—composers, musicians, dancers. To become part of the vanguard of new thought, new aesthetics, was a thrilling thing for an ignorant country girl new to the city’s bright lights.”

So it was with a sense of irony that I viewed the title of this festival being held at the other end of the country and over 20 years later. See Hear Now, held over a weekend recently in Townsville-Thuringowa, North Queensland was not exactly ‘a cry in the wilderness’, but it was avant-garde enough to attract an interesting mix of original thinkers and presented a somewhat different approach to art from that normally offered in the provinces.

The festival was set in a converted Pinnacles Gallery, blacked out temporarily with black polythene sheets, filled with acrid aromas of scorched lighting gels and the wash of reverb and hum from the stacks of speakers. The room was strewn with cables, gaffer tape and desks of technology, and one wall was transformed by projected images. Innovation was in the air. The See Hear Now festival invited an informal and sometimes tentative viewing of collaborative improvisations across various art forms. The audience wandered the room, viewing the action from different vantage points, tailing a photographer or filmmaker’s vision or concentrating on the technology in an effort to work out how certain things were achieved.

The first session opened with the Townsville Guitar Orchestra, an ensemble of around 20 younger people performing Australian compositions. This was comfort music—a Latin-sounding piece, a short piece influenced by rock music, nice ensemble sound and some very competent solos; safe ground for those new to contemporary art music in the audience. A number of the performers stayed on for the next item—a seamless progression from solo harp and guzheng (a long zither) played by Clare Cooper to duo improvisation for guzheng and percussion (Ian Brunskill), to solo percussion, before being re-joined by guzheng, keyboard and live electronics (Matt Hill). Here was a shift from the known and/or expected repertoire to the unpredictability of new music improvisation. Wire brush on strings, fingernail patter like rain, battuto bowing, chopsticks vacillating on strings, sliding frets, harmonics, combined with a gamut of bells, chimes, gongs, brake discs, circular saw blades, pipes, metal bars, shakers and woodblocks. The keyboard controlled the electronics, beginning with nature sounds (bush walking and distant frogs) and ending with a rather predictable backbeat under minimalist riffs.

The late work on the Friday evening set the small audience on edge. After percussion, guzheng and electroacoustic soundscapes, the physical animation of two spectral figures (Rebecca Youdell and Jess Jones), walking or sliding amongst the audience wearing flowing dresses enmeshed with dozens of small glowing lights built into the fabric, altered the tone dramatically. The data projectors leap into action streaming images of the pair, diverting the audience’s attention from the real to the reproduced. The figures continue to move through the unsuspecting audience, data streaming interrogating the experience as the images are modulated, split, pixilated and refashioned. The audience is drawn towards the screen as the performers disappear.

Returning in scant petticoat garb, adorned with bundles of sticks and violin bows tied to their backs like quivers of arrows, the women natter and giggle amidst audience. The screen erupts with excerpts from Russell Milledge’s 2004 work Rupture in which a figure falls, thrashing about on the sand of an expansive beach. In the room, the performers tentatively clamber over 3 curved ladders shaped like an igloo. Now blindfolded, scantily clad and wearing high heels, they exude vulnerability as they writhe, twist and squirm over the frame. Bodies and bone maps, indices and intersections; the ungainliness becomes ordinary but never comfortable for the audience. The work is primal. One figure dismounts the frame and gathers the sticks and bows. Constantly, the streaming of digital images compete for our attention. The picking up and dropping of sticks becomes frenzied as the other figure slides through the frame and is reacquainted with terra firma. We are drawn back to the screen with its obscure montage of images. Silence. The audience erupts into spontaneous applause.

The second day saw a range of performances linking Dance North under the directorship of Gavin Webber, the musicians including pianist Robert Nixon, and a group of James Cook University students performing some set works and attempting an audience interactive improvisation. These pieces were interspersed with the extraordinary lighting set and live processed video of Mark Bancroft and Stephen Armstrong and the live photography of Glen O’Malley. During many of the performances visual artists, including Michele Deveze, Gerald Soworka, Bradley Craperi and Jenny Tyack, worked on collaborative paintings and drawings. Challenges abounded as musicians, dancers, and artists attempted spontaneous collaborations. As is to be expected in true experimentation, many of the pieces worked if only in part.

Saturday evening saw 2 remarkable works that demonstrated the solid groundwork necessary for collaboration to flourish. David Salisbury (flute) and Steven Campbell presented Gabrielle Takes a Bath in collaboration with Michael Whiticker and Matt Hill modulating the live performance though sampling and mixing suites. The highlight was Campbell’s extraordinary array of electronic sensors played by raising and lowering his flattened hands. The sight of him playing an almost virtual instrument revealed a truly improvisatory performance, anticipating aquatic gurgles, splashes and ‘ohhh’ murmurs of pleasure as baby Gabrielle cavorted in an invisible tub.

Later in the evening, after Dance North had performed on refectory tables accompanied by JCU music students, a quirky piece entitled Threads saw Karen Gibb enter the performance space soaked to the skin with water. She proceeded to wring out her wet clothes and hair and then enter into a psycho-spatial dialogue with performers Thalia Klonis and Ron Pullman. The trio, augmented by improvising musicians Brunskill (percussion) and Whiticker (voice), masterfully erected a web of unspoken dialogue and supposition as they developed the interplay between 3 insubstantial yet convincing personae.

On day 3 of the festival, what appeared to be a life drawing workshop seemed like a huge leap of faith as visual artists, musicians and life models with theatre backgrounds took to the floor. The model, Karen Gibb assumed a pose and then began to move. Steven Campbell’s double bass pattered as David Salisbury’s sax oozed its way around the space. The feel was jazz and very low key. At first the model and sound seemed to take precedence. Gibb appeared to take cues from the sounds while the visual artists struggled to anticipate the next pose or even its duration. The piece took a turn at the 15 minute mark when, behind the model and musicians, a screen revealed fragmented vignettes of the performance, images reminiscent of Andre Kertesz’s surreal photographic morphs of distorted and fragmented bodies. Soon after this point another model, Thalia Klonis, joined the performance, clothed and animated, challenging and interacting with the nude. The music became enormously rich as the sampling sound artist (Matt Hill using the Max program) and musicians interacted, elevating the performance in conjunction with the stream of images gathered from the entire event. The visual artists kept true to the task, realising strong gestural works.

This festival was, by its very nature, experimental. It tapped into the grand traditions of Dada, Fluxus, performance, sound sculpture and new media art. Special mention must be made of the small group of dedicated, innovative organisers and the massive amount of support the Music Centre of North Queensland invested in the project. For a weekend event, much was achieved, documented and experienced, and some of the art reached fruition. The word ‘cross-arts’ emerged in one of the forums—an uncomfortable term, yet reasonably apt for such an event. It is hoped that See Hear Now has opened up possibilities for future work or similar events to build on the challenge of cross disciplinary collaboration in the distant, but dynamic region of North Queensland.

Justine Wilkinson is Cultural Development Officer for Townsville City Council. Trained as a music teacher, pianist and singer, she has been a music journalist and copyist of new music. Stephen Naylor is a Lecturer in Art Theory and Visual Arts at James Cook University, Townsville. He has worked as a practicing artist for more than 20 years, concentrating more recently on contemporary art theory and writing for art journals.

See Hear Now Festival, director Michael Whiticker; Music Centre North Queensland, Thuringowa City Council, Regional Arts Development Fund and Arts Queensland; Pinnacles Gallery, Thuringowa, Oct 14-16

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 16

© Justine and Stephen Wilkinson and Naylor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

After the nadir of the past 3 or so years, even the mainstream press has noted the improving Australian feature film landscape: increased box-office figures; warmer critical response; and notable, if not prolific, representation at festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto. The 2005 Australian Film Institute Awards reflect these more encouraging trends, with the most pertinent fact being that there is genuine competition for the main categories to the point where it is difficult to pick a winner with certainty, and there are films conspicuous in their absence of nominations. It is refreshing to have genuine discussion, let alone something approaching controversy at the AFI Awards, where the usual easy task is to predict which underwhelming piece will receive multiple gongs. Admittedly, this is far from a renaissance, but more of a time of continued rebuilding. While we do not have the provocateurs of global cinema or any unified stylistic movements, we do have some assured directorial debuts and some welcome returns to form.

Look Both Ways

It’s perhaps most logical to start by focussing on the pool of nominees who appear in several categories. For Best Film, the Institute’s general membership unsurprisingly offered the 4 top grossing films, at least at the time of writing. Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways plays the well-worn emotional 3 card trick of challenging the viewers’ perceptions of their own ephemeral mortality, yet does it extremely well. This involves more than simply depicting tragic events, though the narrative is very much a sequence of fatal circumstances surrounding its unheralded ensemble cast. There is an integrity to the scenarios, authenticity of characters and intelligence of observation that staves off any swerves towards melodrama. Stylistically, the successful use of rich watercolour animations and rapid photo-montages to provide insight into the mindsets of the central couple provides welcome visual departures in a film where the cinematography and production design are fairly pedestrian, more reminiscent of low-rent television drama. Nevertheless, Look Both Ways is a thought-provoking film that at least deserves the Best Screenplay award; though admittedly this is the only nominated script I managed to get my hands on.

The Proposition

The Proposition (director John Hillcoat) is an intriguing beast; ambitious and exciting in concept but distancing in practice, the genius in making an intermittently violent, discursive Western is slightly let down by the simplicity of its titled premise. Once a brooding Guy Pearce is charged with a task of sibling assassination in the second scene, the film wanders towards inevitability against a backdrop of sunsets, biblical allusions and the star screenwriter/composer whispering over the soundtrack. It’s difficult to get too involved; what Hillcoat calls Pearce’s “quiet iconicism” may just be a case of a passive protagonist. Still, one can hope it opens up possibilities for the genre, as this country’s recent history is an obvious canvas for broad strokes and blood. But considering The Proposition was a large international co-production with high profile names that took several years to finance, it appears unlikely to pave the way for further weighty historical dramas or Australian Westerns. In any event, the film can expect to walk away with a decent share of the craft awards considering its production designers constructed a semi-mythical 19th century township.

Little Fish

With its triumvirate of global household names and long-awaited second coming of its director Rowan Woods, Little Fish looms as a difficult contender to beat in terms of profile, and in the populist democracy of the awards this may count towards the end result. The film itself is a very watchable, if restrained in terms of incident, drama of the seedier underbelly with visual affectations echoing recent Asian art cinema; languid camera movement and rack focuses punctuate throughout. Everything fits in the right place, but there is something amiss in that the material doesn’t resonate as well as Woods’ The Boys. An unfair comparison perhaps, but while Little Fish shares a similar milieu its familiar commentary on personal histories and material aspiration is not as powerful as a debut that still lives in the memory. Perhaps it is Little Fish’s overproduced score that betrays an erstwhile grittiness.

The Oyster Farmer

The Oyster Farmer (Anna Reeves) is the most unlikely inclusion in the mix for the highest award. It is the prime example of the worst kind of middle-of-the-road local cinema, the type of film where a middle-aged, middle-class audience confuses idyllic setting for good cinematography. Neither dramatic nor comedic, it relies on tanned bodies and frayed denim mini-skirts for its chief appeal. Although to attack such deliberately benign fare seems truculent, it is equally distressing that this film ranks highly in the minds of domestic audiences when other more enterprising and less bloated filmmaking goes unrewarded.

Wolf Creek

In terms of craftsmanship and economy, Greg McLean’s feature debut Wolf Creek takes some beating, and is nominated for Best Direction, Screenplay, Sound, Editing as well as Best Actress and Supporting Actress. The case of Wolf Creek and its digital production methodology, festival circuit tour, rapid and expensive international sale and subsequent perceived snub for Best Film in the AFI Awards has been documented elsewhere, but it is worth investigating further for its revelations about both Australian product and its consumption. It is a well executed horror/thriller with a tight 2-act structure, and like its psycho-ocker protagonist, goes about hitting its targets with disturbing efficiency. An interpretation of the AFI Awards response could be that its filmmaking skill is acknowledged, but it’s merely a genre or commercial piece whose worthiness lies outside ceremonial recognition. An anti-genre conspiracy could be dispelled by the Best Film nomination of The Proposition, albeit its more meditative themes and languorous tone instil it with a greater sense of nobility than the explicit nihilism of Wolf Creek. However, the simplest reason for the fact that it is missing from the top category is that its November release has limited the general groundswell of support: despite the overseas interest, many AFI members hadn’t seen it at ballot time. In any case, it is doubtful this ‘controversy’ has distracted McLean from production on his next horror piece, this time with US studio money.

The Magician

Scott Ryan’s The Magician has not been recognised in the award categories, but is this year’s highest profile film born outside the financing models involving government funding agencies, at least during the actual production phase. As a premise The Magician has much work to do to make it stand out: the ‘mockumentary’ is starting to feel like a tired gag and the hitman is one of the most over-used character profiles in all of cinema. However, The Magician proves to be more than a facsimile of Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992) or You Shoot, I Shoot (Ho Cheung Ping, 2001) and with its loose, relaxed structure has a roguish, jokey charm mirroring Ryan’s central performance. Much of the fun comes from satirising Australian notions of machismo and masculinity, whether it is the sophomoric, homoerotic humour, deadpan observations about paternal responsibility, or arguments about footballers’ ethics.

Life after the awards

Beyond the nominated films there are signs of a shift in the types of domestic projects that can gain distribution. 2005 witnessed the end of the infamous slate of the Macquarie Film and Television Investment Fund, an investor closely linked to a collection of unsuccessful comedies in recent years. As You and Your Stupid Mate (Marc Gracie) and The Extra (Kevin Carlin) vanished over the horizon only to ever be seen again on Channel Nine’s graveyard timeslot, it is hoped the current call for licensing considerations is enacted with regard to these lessons.

Things had to get better, and they have. Whilst the cyclical nature of the industry means that some years will produce a greater vintage than others, there is more to the recent improvement in quality than natural ebb and flow. The Film Finance Corporation, the principal investor in the vast majority of theatrical release features, has had a high profile evaluation process implemented where projects are judged on creative merit rather than initial marketplace attachments. While some cynics have dubbed the organisation “Studio Rosen” after its Chief Executive, initial signs are encouraging. An extensive slate of projects approved through the evaluation door is yet to be released, but upcoming titles include Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne and Ana Kokkinos’ Book of Revelation. A focus on mid-range budget art cinema with recognisable casts and highly competent directors is no bad thing; hopefully it ensures the healthier competition at the 47th AFI awards is sustained and increased in the coming years.


This article was written before the winners of the AFI and IF Awards were announced.

Look Both Ways took out the AFI Awards for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor; Little Fish won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress; The Proposition won Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and Best Musical Score; and Janet Merewether won Best Documentary for Jabe Babe. Look Both Ways and Little Fish likewise dominated the Inside Film Awards, whose winners also included Janet Merewether and a special award to Wayne Coles-Janess for his documentary, In the Shadow of the Palms. Anthony Lucas won Best Animation in both the AFI and IF Awards for The Mysterious Goegraphic Explorations of Jasper Morello.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 17

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

David Gulpilil, Ray Winstone, The Proposition

David Gulpilil, Ray Winstone, The Proposition

The child’s song over the opening credits is cut off by the sharp ‘thwack’ of a bullet piercing a metal wall. Immediately we feel the sweat-laden fear of those in a shed being riddled by gunfire. Women wail and men scream as patches of flesh explode in red. Tiny circles of white appear in the walls as bullets penetrate and admit the outside glare. The soundtrack is a terrifying percussive montage of ricochets and bullets striking like raindrops on tin. Welcome to The Proposition.

Occasionally, Australia produces a genre work that manages to perfectly crystallise the messy crosscurrents of thoughts, feelings and fears circulating at the time of the film’s production. It’s as if genre templates sometimes free our writers and directors from the weight of issues bound up with questions of ‘Australian identity’ and a national cinema, allowing these films to unselfconsciously express aspects of our national psyche in a way that so much of our cinema strives for but rarely manages to achieve. To cite 2 in a long list of examples: the Rebel Without a Cause-style Head On (1998) encapsulated the frustrations and pressures felt by a generation of urban Australians growing up in a country of increasing social freedoms but ever-diminishing opportunities in the early to mid-90s, while the courtroom drama Breaker Morant (1979) was a powerful expression of 1970s Australian nationalism and anti-British sentiment. Surprisingly, we’ve had difficulty with the Western, a genre seemingly ready-made for Australia. Perhaps its obvious historical relevance has provoked the old crippling self-consciousness about Australian identity. With The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and scriptwriter Nick Cave have created not only a great Western but pulled off the difficult feat of constructing a genre tale that explores what we were and what we are without ever feeling forced or clichéd.

The Proposition owes a clear debt to both Sergio Leone and the revisionist American Westerns of the late 1960s and early 70s. From Leone comes a fascination with close-ups of battered, lined faces, and an intense focus on a landscape so barren and inhospitable it takes on a kind of alien, hallucinogenic beauty. In its occasionally mournful air and sympathy for brutalised people in a bleak environment, it also resembles Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). From US director Sam Peckinpah comes the sudden, visceral violence, while the common moral code and outsider status of The Proposition’s hunter and hunted echoes the fractured brotherly bond at the centre of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Hillcoat is no postmodern collector of empty visual and thematic tropes however. The Proposition doesn’t just pay homage to its genre precursors; it absorbs them, along with well-worn Australian myths and legends, into a wholly contemporary fable.

The opening credits sketch the film’s approach. We see a series of what appear to be 19th century photographs depicting the harsh life of the Australian frontier: white men with creased, filthy faces, and Aboriginal men either strung together with chains or posing uncomfortably in Western dress alongside their colonial masters. After a time it becomes apparent that the film’s actors are in some of these, making it impossible to tell which, if any, of the images are ‘genuine’, and which are re-creations drawing on the visual vernacular of historical photographs. The Proposition doesn’t purport to be a re-telling of history, but rather a film with one foot in a hazy historical past and another in the signifiers we have used to understand and relate that past to ourselves and to others. It is in the interrogation of these signifiers that the work comes closest to the strategies of the revisionist American Westerns.

Following the opening shoot out, the film’s premise is quickly established. Policeman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers captured Irish bushranger Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) a proposition; the Captain will free Charlie and his simpleton brother if Charlie hunts down and kills their psychopathic older sibling, Arthur. The scene establishes what initially appears to be a well-made but conventional ‘honest outlaw faces off against corrupt policeman’ story, but The Proposition rapidly develops into something much more interesting.

In the opening sequence, Captain Stanley speaks of civilising a town so remote it seems hermetically sealed from the rest of the planet. That this ‘civilising’ process will involve a violent rule of law is evident from the opening, but Stanley is no vigilante tyrant in police clothing. As the film progresses, it becomes clear he lives by a certain ethical code that informs his actions and represents a sharp contrast to the Machiavellian real politic approach to power exhibited by the town’s civil ruler, played with skin-crawling charm by David Wenham. Equally, it becomes apparent that Charlie provides the ballast that helps steer the unstable Burns ‘family’, a gang that includes not only Charlie, Arthur and their brother Mikey, but an Irish teenager and an Aboriginal man and woman. It is around the axis of Charlie and the Captain that the film’s action plays out, as each man’s dreams and emotional investments are battered and bent by an unforgiving country, a hostile Indigenous population and an environment in which power is measured in terms of naked domination.

Hillcoat’s images convey the utter foreignness of this country to Anglo-Irish colonialists born on the other side of the world, through wide-screen vistas of a land baked by relentless heat, dotted with pathetic touches of English life such as the lonely rose bushes tended by Captain Stanley’s wife (Emily Watson). We are made to feel not only the pitiless conditions, but also the fear and desperate desire to dominate anything—everything—that these vast spaces must have inspired. The English abuse the Irish and everyone abuses the Aborigines, as the whites sweat with the knowledge that they are strangers in a land of which they understand almost nothing.

Fear permeates everything in The Proposition: fear of the environment, of the Indigenous population, of violent Irish ‘others’, of European philosophical ideals that to the townsfolk sound like irresolute weakness. Fear and a desire for domination that cuts across racial and class boundaries. The Irish poet outlaw of Australian legend is a murderous psychotic, the colonial boys in blue are dim-witted sadists, the well-spoken upper class mayor an exponent of repressive brute force, and the town’s working population a sullen, easily led mob whose lust for blood is matched only by their squeamishness when presented with the real thing. Hillcoat deploys and inverts the types of our frontier mythology to confront us with a new myth of Australia’s foundation: that of a will to power fed by fear. In the guise of a Western, The Proposition is an exploration of ourselves.

The Proposition; director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave, director of photography Benoit Delhomme, production designer Chris Kennedy, producers Chris Brown, Jackie O’Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers; performers Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham; distributors SONY Pictures.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 18

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

David Perry, Interior with views

David Perry, Interior with views

David Perry is one of Australia’s most significant moving image artists. In a career spanning over 40 years, innovation figures emphatically: in his role in the pioneering avant-garde film group Ubu; teaching video and television techniques and making important video art in the formative days of the medium; and in his continued creation of complex experimental film works.

Perry’s work across various formats illustrates the fluidity and pleasure with which many artists move between media in order to invent new aesthetic expression. Like many moving image artists, he trained in other artforms, exploring painting and developing a technical understanding of photography as a printer.

He honed those skills and experimented with early electronic imaging at the ABC. He describes himself “nevertheless [as] an odd person out in that I was most interested in art—painting, drawing, printmaking—and soon enough, of course, in a kind of filmmaking that left the ABC totally uninterested.”

With other experimental ‘filmers’ [a self-description used by Perry to align filmmakers with painters and writers], Perry faced a prevailing anti-art discourse and obsession with the national narrative cinema. His very early film experiments on Standard 8 in the early 1950s stand out as among the first self-consciously ‘artistic’ films in the nation. However, “that was seen to be just a waste of time…the only thing to do as a filmmaker [was] to make entertainment feature films which told stories in a most conventional way”. Perry’s innovative work is overdue for reconsideration and recognition. He spoke to me on the eve of the release of his DVD entitled Old Films and Videotapes.

What’s on the DVD is all the “experimental” work done between 1953 and 2002 that I could get my hands on. It’s actually a double DVD package with a ‘bonus’ disc containing a few health education productions from the 80s which I included as examples of what an idealistic, “arty” film maker might have to do to support him/herself.

Most of the productions included are just as they were when I finished them (apart from the ravages of time and careless projectionists). I did try to do a little bit of grading on many shots and/or sequences to make contrast, brightness and colour as good as possible for the video screen. In one case only have I done a complete re-cut [of A TV Show, 1975].

Mad Mesh (1968) is one of the first ‘video-graphic’ works in Australian art and significant when compared to similar experiments, such as those of Nam June Paik.

Mad Mesh came about when I was working at the ABC’s Federal Engineering Lab. One day I was shown a faulty Image Orthicon tube—a large and expensive device inside TV cameras of the time which converted optical images into electronic signals. One part consisted of a very fine mesh which played a crucial part in the conversion from optical to electronic images. Normally the mesh was totally invisible, although it was possible, by adjusting the internal focus of the Image Orthicon—not the optical focus of the camera lens—to make the mesh visible on a black-and-white video monitor. With magnetic interference, it was possible to deform the mesh.

I had the idea of recording the monitor image on colour film while we deformed the mesh. The effect of the combinations of red, green and blue images in this case was to create complex and restlessly mobile patterns on the film in varying colours.

How did your filmmaking skills translate into your video work in the UK?

I think my work with the ABC’s Federal Engineering Lab carried some weight in getting me the job because the college [Hornsey College of Art] also had what it called a “television studio.” [It] was in fact a basic video studio, with a control room, lighting grid etc. In those days there was no distinction made between television and video. Of course, we now know that one is a system of distribution, the other a technology of many and varied uses. How these, the system and the technology, have developed and mutated and blended with the older system and technology, both called “film”, is a fascinating story. I was fortunate to have been there, not right at the start, but nevertheless when the story was just beginning to take shape.

When you came to Queensland for your year-long residency at Griffith University [1975-76], your work there in video seemed to fuse painterly concerns with landscape—both grass-tree scrub and domestic views—with experimentation with the high-tech new medium of video.

The title Interior With Views was chosen quite deliberately to make a connection with painting and art history. There was something highly appealing to me about the way that those really very low-tech black-and-white video cameras rendered the landscape I saw through the windows every time I sat down to work. It was something like the effect of soft charcoal on white paper. But the “painterly concerns” are not just to do with the way the images look, they are also about content, which is a way of touching obliquely on politics. I have always been drawn to French painting because of the way it honours the everyday, the egalitarian without polemics, if you like.

What are your feelings about the way in which funding bodies have gone about funding experimental film?

For many kinds of unconventional films the use of the word ‘script’ is entirely inappropriate. I don’t want to suggest that planning or preparation for an unconventional film is unnecessary, and I certainly don’t think all the production processes can or should be improvised. But there are many kinds of film where planning for what characters will do and say is entirely irrelevant.

What always amused or amazed me was the requirement for a script as part of the assessment process for so-called experimental films. I seem to remember that after I made Album (1970) the Experimental Film Fund called for applications for grants. When I got the application forms I was flabbergasted to see that the central part of any application was expected to be a script. This told me that the people establishing the funding bureaucracy were not visual artists at all. They were, in fact, all wordsmiths—Philip Adams, Barry Jones and Peter Coleman (Peter Costello’s father-in-law—say no more!).” That committee’s ideas flew in the face of all that I’d learned, which was that the first stage of production—for me—was that I started gathering images. They might be shots on film, stills, or even drawings….after a certain amount of time a structure or pattern would start to appear, to suggest itself to me…The whole process is obviously subjective and fraught with danger for bureaucrats, bankers and so on.

Now, of course, talent is something that can only reveal itself in work already done, which creates a Catch 22 for any young person just starting out—how do you prove your talent if you can’t make a work? Films, even the most basic sort, require a modicum of money and practical skills to become realities. The way I did it was to have a job which gave me a very small amount of money to spend. And to have a job where the means of production were available for use after hours—although I was already in my 30s and had 3 children, so you can imagine there was some juggling to be done. But to get back to the subject of talent, and how one proves to others that one has it (how else will funding flow?), if a person is a visual artist rather than a script-writer, it will take a lot of self-confidence, assertiveness, perhaps even naked aggression, to get that talent recognised.

* * *


Along with critical exposure to American avant-gardist Bruce Conner’s work, Perry recalls the inspiration of films by masters like DW Griffiths, and of classic European art cinema he originally saw at the Sydney Film Festival such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). “The power and intensity of its images, and its editing, have never left me.” Perry’s persistent, pioneering exploration of original moving images recalls Pauline Kael’s famous reference to Dreyer’s cinema as an art which “begins to unfold just at the point where most directors give up.”

Over the last two decades, David Perry’s works have roamed freely across the arts, from documentaries about jazz musicians and artists (maintaining the fascination in Australian alternative cinema with films about artists by artists) to the creation of drawings, collages and paintings, often in residencies which recognise his sustained contribution to Australian art. These artworks continue to develop Perry’s core themes of abstraction (“after all”, he says, “my great love in art is the formal clarity of cubism”) and landscape, featured strongly in both film and video works and with such memorable form in his work during the Griffith residency (he recently visited the Pissarro exhibition at the AGNSW, and says that “the best of Pissarro’s work reminded me of what I was trying to do at Griffith, that is to depict and to honour everyday life”). He’s also been drafting Memoirs of a Dedicated Amateur, “a profusely illustrated account [of his] working life as artist and film maker.”

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 19

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

Is it ludicrous to imagine that in 10 years time Antalya’s Avrasya (Eurasian) Film Festival might rival Cannes as one of Europe’s pre-eminent film events? The first Eurasian Film Festival and market, held in Turkey from September 24 to October 1 in 2005, was a strategic attempt by the Turkish government to establish an alternative film market and nurture a growing local film culture. Held in conjunction with the annual Golden Orange Film Festival, one of the new festival’s aims was to forge alliances between Turkish and foreign film producers and inspire future co-production activity.

This festival comes abreast of an extraordinary resurgence in commercial Turkish film production. In 2004 local films took 38% of the local box office, followed by a whopping 60% for the first quarter of the year (Anna Franklin, “Local Pix boffo in Turkey”, Variety, April 25-May 1, 2005), a far greater proportion than any country in Europe.

Against a background of limited direct government support for filmmakers, the mounting of the new Eurasian Film Festival beside its 42-year-old Golden Orange counterpart had financial support from the Prime Minister to the Local Municipal Mayor. For the Mediterranean resort town of Antalya, more famous for its ancient ruins and tourism (predominantly German and Russian and annually numbering in millions), this festival is an intervention into the worn-out film festival circuit. Turkey’s dynamic media sector ensured that in the weeks prior to the festival, it was impossible to avoid articles in every national daily paper, while for weeks afterwards the coverage raged on.

The feeling amongst seasoned international guests was that apart from the Turkish films, most of the international feature films in the program had already had fairly wide festival play. Kim Ki Duk’s The Bow (Ki Duk was honoured as a special guest at the festival), Michael Haneke’s Cache, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, Marc Ruthemund’s Sophie Scholl and Krzysztof Krauze’s My Nikifor had already been well lauded abroad. The festival also featured ‘Silk Road Films’, ‘The Cream of Europe’, ‘Lost Souls: Horror Films from the Far East’ and an Eric Ledune retrospective. The only Turkish film in the coveted 1st International Eurasian Feature Film Competition was Semih Kaplanoglu’s Melegin Düsüsü (The Angel’s Fall).

There was some disappointment with the general lack of talent amongst this year’s crop of Turkish features. However, veteran Yavuz Turgul’s new film, Gonul Yarasi (Lovelorn), also Turkey’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, was a favourite amongst many international guests. The film’s leading actor, Sener Sen, featured as the Kurdish outlaw in Turgul’s hit film Eskiya (The Bandit, 1996) which signalled the recent revival in Turkish cinema. Gonul Yarisi won Sen the Best Actor award.

The 2 films that took out the main prizes sparked a heated debate in Turkish media. Turev (Derivative), directed by Ulas Inac, won the Best Film award while Kutlug Ataman’s Iki Genc Kiz (Two Girls), which had its international premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in 2005, received the Best Director Award. Against a tradition of the Best Actress Award going to an established star, such as Meltem Cumbul from Gonul Yarisi, newcomers Beste Bereket from Turev and Vildan Atasever from Iki Genc Kiz shared the award.

Iki Genc Kiz explores the complex social fabric of life in Istanbul through a relationship between 2 marginalised girls from differing backgrounds. Stylistically similar to Turev, with its gritty hard-edged realism, both films display a raw energy for life in contemporary Istanbul, a city in rapid transition. Debut writer-director, Ulas Inac based Turev on a short story from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which a young woman persuades her best friend to seduce her boyfriend to prove his fidelity (or not). A naturalistic DV flick, reportedly made on a budget of less than $20,000AUD, Turev is seen by local critics as inspired by the Danish Dogme movement. As Bilge Ebiri has noted, until the advent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palm D’Or winning Uzak (Distant), Turkish cinema has rarely exploited improvisation or naturalism as a stylistic or narrative device, no doubt due to the technical challenges that post-synchronised sound poses (“Blinking by the Bospohorus: Discoveries at the 24th Istanbul International Film Festival”, www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/festivals/05/36/istanbul2005.html). The dialogue in some Turkish films retains a staged, theatrical quality. Turgul’s Eskiya, made as recently as 1996, was in fact the first Turkish feature film to use synchronised sound during its production.

In the ensuing debate over the awards, Kutlug Ataman, who is probably more renowned abroad for his cutting-edge contemporary visual art and video installations, argued that the role of film festivals should be to reward films (and actors) that don’t get the exposure or publicity that the more big-budgeted, popular films with their star casts can buy. In this respect both Iki Genc Kiz and Turev (also featured at this year’s Istanbul Film Festival) were appropriate choices.

The exciting discovery was the extremely strong selection of documentaries in the national competition. Interestingly, 10 out of the 15 films were directed by women, and many focused on women’s stories. Melis Birder took out the Jury’s Special Award with her documentary, The Tenth Planet: A Single Life in Baghdad. This film provides much needed respite from the US media’s incessant coverage of the war and instead portrays some intimate moments and everyday challenges of living in present day Baghdad from the perspective of Kawab, a young Iraqi woman. This alternative vision of life in war-torn Baghdad, coupled with Kawab’s screen talent and humour, make this a timely and extraordinary documentary.

Of equal note was Pelin Esmer’s Oyun (The Play) concerning the scripting and performance of a play by some rural women, many of them illiterate, living in a remote Turkish village in the Taurus ranges. With the help of a local teacher they script a play from their personal experiences on topics close to their hearts, such as the death of newborn children, domestic violence, errant husbands and coping with childbirth alone. The play they finally perform deftly critiques, as well as gently mocks, the behaviour of the local men in the village, many of whom form its audience. What makes this documentary really outstanding is the way in which the women’s involvement in their play so clearly becomes a transformative experience, echoing the political role that cinema, and particularly documentary, can play in bringing about social change.

The strength of this documentary program bodes well, not only for the future talent in the industry, but also the potential for more female filmmakers to give voice to a diversity of experiences in a country which is often thought of, unjustly in some instances, to be especially patriarchal. While female feature film directors are few and far between, there are a number of notable female producers working in the industry.

An impressive Closing Awards Ceremony held at the massive Ancient Roman open-air amphitheatre at Aspendos wrapped up the festival on a note of optimism. The extraordinary artists featured at this event—a Whirling Dervish, and the mesmeric Sufi fusion band Mercan Dede who played with Kurdish singer, Aynur—perfectly articulated an eclectic but dynamic, modern Turkish cultural identity. These musicians also feature prominently in Fatih Akin’s musical masterpiece Istanbul Hatirasi (Crossing the Bridge, the Sounds of Istanbul) which received an overwhelming response when screened at Cannes earlier this year. If the closing ceremony is any indication, this festival and film market has the potential to become something much larger and more significant on the international film scene. A film industry journalist sitting beside me on the 1-hour return trip from Aspendos admitted clocking up more than 150 film festivals over the last few years claiming that this was the best closing ceremony that she had witnessed.

Rather than looking west to the European film sector to create links, some of which have already been made (through arthouse filmmakers such as Italian-based Ferzan Ozpetek and German Fatih Akin), this Eurasian festival and market should exploit the unique opportunity to glance eastwards and create a niche for itself, perhaps focusing on those comparatively less serviced film industries, such as Russia and Central Asia. Turkey, as a not-quite-yet-European nation, located in the Middle East with cultural links to Central Asia, seems a logical place to host an event such as this. And I suspect that the festival organisers hope that the Eastern Mediterranean city of Antalya, with its calm seas, beautiful weather, ancient ruins and abundant nightlife, may soon be able to attract the kinds of stars and filmmakers that frolic by the Riviera—and on top of that, lure the international media fanfare and press coverage that follows them.1st international

Avrasya Film Festival and 42nd Anatalya Golden Orange Film Festival, Antalya, Turkey Sept 24-Oct 1

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 20

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

What do Albert Einstein, Alan Greenspan, Robert Frost and Woody Allen have in common? They, and dozens of others, are all quoted in a floating banner across the top of the LAMP website, each in their own ways encouraging risk taking and adventurous innovation. LAMP (Laboratory for Advanced Media Production) is a new initiative to “provide a guiding light for the Australian Media Industry.” The floating quotes on their site focus on 2 key LAMP themes: bravery in the face of the unknown, and the galloping global engagement with new media.

Peter Giles, LAMP visionary and Head of Digital Media at the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS), which is host and home to LAMP, describes LAMP’s objective: “to stimulate production of compelling cross-media content in Australia.”

“Cross-media”, according to Giles, means “mobile, broadband, digital TV, digital set top boxes, games consoles etc, and these are increasingly linked by broadband. But emerging media are more important than the platforms. The most interesting examples are hybrid forms, which exist between the platforms. While many producers and broadcasters at the moment are looking at re-purposing linear content, the full potential of emerging media is in interactive services which are clearly different from what has come before them.”

A new narrative

Gary Hayes, founding director of LAMP, describes content that engages with this potential when he talks about the kinds of projects LAMP is keen to support. “We always look for narratives that carry people over platforms, that keep audiences engaged in a world where people are using multiple platforms.” So far, in Hayes’ experience of the first LAMP projects and his longer term experience working in a similar initiative in the UK, the “strongest version of this has a presenter within the project saying ‘go there now because you will get this reward for crossing to another platform to continue the journey.’ These projects keep the narrative engaging throughout and then drop in another call to action on another platform.”

Calling this kind of journey a “narrative” represents a major paradigm shift for filmmakers and film watchers. It gives the word ‘story’, the bastion of the narrative film industry, a new slant. But Hayes says, ‘story’ “does not necessarily mean drama but a good user journey through content.”

Erasing borders

As the definition shifts, the geographical boundaries that define story consumption also loosen. This prospect terrifies some and thrills others. The slippage takes away control by distributors, for example, while for a creative artist it takes the stigma out of geography. No more is there art house versus mainstream for the cinema, nor television versus cinema for that matter. A project that spreads across platforms doesn’t have the imprimatur of one or the other, it is inherently both experimental and commercial at this crucial moment in development of the media.

One of Hayes’ areas of expertise and personal fascination within the shifting definitions of ‘story’ and ‘audience’ is what he calls “personalisation.” “Personalisation is taking part in a play-along quiz with 2 million other people watching TV. The end result is personal to you. Personalisation goes all the way to who you are and what you do with a service that alters and resonates with it. Everything—narrative, interface, the meter, the visuals, the music—may all change. In a completely personal world, you get things that are relevant to you; it is insider service, it morphs.”

Demonstration quality

“Unfortunately,” Hayes says, “we are now seeing media being put out in the same version in every platform. This is a problem because it may kill audiences off; they may say cross-platform doesn’t work—‘why watch mobile video because it’s the same as broadband and I prefer TV.’” The way that LAMP is addressing this problem, according to Hayes, is to “let people see what the future will be. LAMP is about building things and putting them in front of people so they can see and experience the possibilities.”

The LAMP process

The process of building things takes place in LAMP residentials, week-long immersive periods of workshopping content. Giles reports that, “The residential labs are a pretty intensive experience for both participants and mentors.” In the first residential, held in October, Christy Dena, ‘transmedia storyteller’ was the guardian mentor for Insect Men a game/film (gilm they called it) targeting broadband PC, Mobile and Locative media platforms. Hit It TV, “a cross platform participatory musical drama for teenagers” worked closely with interactive designer Catherine Gleeson as a mentor, and Georgina Molloy, a docu-drama hybrid bound for TV and broadband PC, had the guidance of Sohail Dahdal, filmmaker and new media artist. Five other luminary cross-media thinkers and creatives worked closely with the other projects in a process in which “teams pitch and re-pitch their ideas with feedback from mentors and their peers, then create a prototype under the guidance of mentors and with the help of a team of developers. Teams work towards a final project pitch and presentation on the final day of the lab—and we put a VIP audience together to provide feedback.”

The next LAMP residential, coming up in December, will develop 8 new projects specifically for and with the ABC. “A very strong consideration in choosing projects for LAMP is that they have a designated stakeholder”, says Hayes. “Once workshopped at LAMP, they have to go back to their ‘home’ and pitch to their organization which could pick it up and develop it. Then LAMP has done its work, mentored and pushed it into a direction that will be good.” “The ideal outcomes”, according Giles, for the residentials and for LAMP, are “to incubate compelling projects with global prospects and nurture them to fruition. It’s also about developing talent and switching creative people on to the opportunities in this new area.”

In putting together the teams for LAMP residentials, Giles says, “We are generally targeting film and television creative teams rather than technical people.” This is where the LAMP theme of courage in the face of the unknown comes in. The kinds of fears that film industry people have are of technology or of being left behind or, even worse, Hayes says, “a deep paranoia that ‘I think I’m already left behind so I’ll keep doing what I’m dong because I’ll never catch up.’”

A LAMP residential manages these fears by providing “a strong team of mentors who can guide the technical direction of projects” and with the reassurance that LAMP is, as Hayes says, “a place for people to play and make mistakes without major consequences. Mistakes can kill markets off. So it is a sandbox in which to look at a hybrid model. If mistakes are made it’s just a week’s work, and they are a help to identification of other mistakes.”

Giles and Hayes are both upbeat about the progress LAMP has made so far in allaying fears and inspiring adventurous play. As Giles says, “It’s a process of education and I think we’ve made a good start. Developments in the global landscape provide widespread incentive for media producers to find out more. No one knows all the answers but if we can create a forum for discussion and incubation of ideas we are moving in the right direction.” Hayes adds, “Providing a guiding light to anything requires you to keep putting fuel in to keep the light burning brightly, making sure we have a local pool of expertise, people who can carry the flame if one of us falters. We want to avoid putting in overseas expertise all the time, so we need a group of people who can gradually make the light spread across the industry, already lots of media companies are feeling the warmth.”

For further information on how to submit visit: www.lamp.edu.au or email lamp@aftrs.edu.au

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 21

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

King Kong (1933), image courtesy of <BR />Michael Callaghan/Effie Holdings”></p>
<p class=King Kong (1933), image courtesy of
Michael Callaghan/Effie Holdings

Due for completion in November 2006 under the umbrella of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane’s Australian Cinémathèque promises to present and interpret film as an integral part of contemporary visual culture. Queensland Art Gallery boasts that QGMA will be the first Australian art museum to include purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. For QAG’s Head of Cinema, Kathryn Weir, the co-location of art and moving image will result in more frequent explorations of the “lines of influence in visual culture” as well as “profiling influences in cultural production across media.”

While the bricks and mortar are still in progress, the Cinémathèque is already introducing film and video programs into the QAG. Curated by Weir and National Gallery of Victoria’s senior curator of international art, Dr Ted Gott, its launch event is Kiss of the Beast: Gorillas, Wild Beasts and Monsters in Art and Film, an integrated film and exhibition program. Speaking at the launch, QAG Director, Doug Hall, said the new facility aims to “create a cinema literate Brisbane.” Future projects will include involvement in the 2006 Asia Pacific Triennial featuring a Jackie Chan showcase and Andy Warhol’s moving image works as part of a survey exhibition in 2007. Given the emphasis of high profile internationally oriented screenings, the positioning of Australian screen work warrants some discussion. Even more pressing is the status of new media art and experimental practices which remain absent from or under-represented in our national collections.

While Kiss of the Beast’s film program comprises cult monster and ‘mad science’ movies, the exhibition component focuses on representations of the gorilla, which according to Weir occupies a privileged position in humanity’s relationship with nature. It’s privilege, however, is double-edged, as the ape has also come to signify humanity’s lesser drives and desires and Kiss of the Beast explores our perplexing relationship with animals. Featuring not only classic genre films, Kiss of the Beast also includes an array of science imagery, rare scientific literature and science fiction, natural science illustrations, photographs, racialised cartoons, fairytale representations, posters, 19th century and contemporary artworks including Evolution (in order of appearance) by Ricky Swallow and Lisa Roet’s Skull series. The realistic sculptural works of these artists appear as 3-dimensional representations of the Thomas Huxley diagram of skeletons depicting the evolutionary transition from apes to human. Roet’s life-size white bronze primate skulls heavily contrast with Swallow’s miniature cast resin series that culminates in a Terminator-esque cybernetic cranium, thus plotting a trajectory from ape to Arnie!

Speculation, anxiety and outrage about evolutionary science, coloured with colonialism and racism, forms the critical and historical framework for Kiss of the Beast. The centrepiece of the exhibition is Emmanuel Frémiet’s 1887 bronze, Gorilla carrying off a woman, which references an earlier 1859 work, Gorilla carrying off Negress. There is marked similarity between this image and that of Fay Wray languishing in the grasp of mighty Kong; as in many monster films, women are carried in the arms of monsters and this is made explicit in a wall of like imagery sourced from various movies. The images are iconic, symbolic of the bridal threshold, with fragile and sensual beauties helpless in the brutal clutches of presumably malignant beasts. Now an endangered species, the gorilla was only ‘discovered’ in Africa by Europeans in 1847 and museums, as modern institutions that aligned science and spectacle, purchased slaughtered apes to have them stuffed for exhibition. It’s now common knowledge that a minute percentile of DNA differentiates humans and chimpanzees—the beast so feared is perhaps the beast within. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wild man, Tarzan, was one literary experiment that interrogated the diminished distinction between primate and human. However, even with many literary precedents since classicism (and perhaps pre-Christian animism), it’s predominantly in screen culture and cinema that the beauty and the beast theme has been extrapolated at length.

The exhibition and film program culminates with the 1933 film King Kong and while this provides an historical context that maps the gorilla’s shift from object of scientific knowledge to mass cultural phenomenon, important contemporary explorations are peripheral. At the forum Hollywood Goes Wild, featuring Adrian Martin and Barbara Creed, who is currently writing The Darwinian Screen: The Evolution of Film Theory—these contemporary questions received an airing. With recent advocacy of ‘intelligent design’, contention about evolution continues to burn among religious and science groups. Theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz and Donna Haraway, have also prominently reconsidered evolutionary debates. Haraway’s strategy is one of ‘counter-myth building’ and her primatology has examined the work of research scientists Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey who both lived with and observed the apes. There is an urgent message of conservation and understanding—grounded in science—in the documentary and feature film representations of women’s encounters with apes. These contradict the 1932 documentary Congorilla by Martin and Osa Johnson in which, like the 19th century expeditionary adventure stories before them, apes are mindless and savage.

In the films that comprise the Kiss of the Beast program, the beasts and the threat they pose are inevitably destroyed and the Kong that presided over the city atop a skyscraper is also the Kong that lies dead in the street below. The beast, like humanity’s relationship to it, is constantly under negotiation. Now our attention turns to the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong (www.kongisking.net[lc1]). We might, as Creed argues, see via the capacity of film to provide a “zoo-centric perspective”, a film that “allows the beast to talk in its own voice.” According to Martin, we can expect to see “a serious, tragic and in-love Kong, a symbol of wilderness, nature and ecological battle.” Such a shift presents a moment’s pause to rethink the mythic othering of the beast in this time of more pressing biodiversity imperatives arising from environmental awareness.

Kiss of the Beast: Gorillas, Wild Beasts and Monsters in Art and Film, curators Kathryn Weir, Ted Gott; exhibition, Queensland Art Gallery, until Jan 22, 2006; From King Kong to Bride of the Monster, film program, South Bank Cinemas, Brisbane, November; ACMI, Melbourne, Dec 9-18, www.kissofthebeast.com

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 22

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

Minim++, Tool’s Life, 2001 courtesy the artist

Minim++, Tool’s Life, 2001 courtesy the artist

At the heart of the poetics of technological art is a fascination with the line between things that live and things that don’t, the interaction between beings and objects, between man and man-made. Things that confuse this boundary, quintessentially the computer, are described by Sherry Turkle as “evocative objects”, which lead us to reframe our assumptions about ourselves and our creations. Contemporary new media art’s aesthetic inheritance of the evocative object has evolved through many different traditions of spectacle including the magic show and the Wonder Chambers of the past, which relished the ingenuity of the artificial as well as the prodigies and freaks of nature.

It was a pleasure to see this rich vein of techno-cultural aesthetics explored so ambitiously in Experimenta’s Vanishing Point exhibition. It was particularly satisfying in light of the too-oft-repeated claims that new media art lacks “poetry”, which could be heard over and over again in the lecture halls of the Vital Signs conference taking place up the road at ACMI. Vanishing Point not only showed that there was a distinctive poetics to new media art, but that there is a wealth of subtle and beautiful work being produced in this field. As with the historical spectacles to which it claims inheritance, Vanishing Point was popular with the crowd. Huge visitor numbers and delighted faces were testament to the appeal of this work: as challenging as any form of contemporary art—but with happier audiences.

William Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon (South Africa, 2003) set many of the thematic coordinates for this exploration of the ground beyond the vanishing point. In part an homage to moving picture pioneers such as George Méliès, the film merges live action of Kentridge himself in his studio creating work with hand drawn animation. It revels in the capacity of moving image technology to augment reality (perhaps even to fool us that men have landed on the moon). He uses the silhouette—the form of an object reduced to its essence and ready for imaginative repurposing—to release the alternate potential of everyday things. A coffee pot blasts off into the cosmos, a cup becomes a telescope, binoculars and then a magnifying glass. Kentridge explores the power of cameras and other optical technologies to reveal and document new versions of the world, and places them alongside other systems of knowing and representing reality such as maps and star charts.

Despite all advances in optical technology, the simple shadow and reflection remain powerfully arresting visual phenomena. Both are ways of seeing altered, dematerialised, essentially virtual manifestations of the real. Shadows and reflections symbolise the other side of reality: the magical and the subconscious. In Minim++’s Tool’s Life (Japan, 2001), stark stainless steel objects cast crisp shadows on a white table top. When touched these cold, solid objects release alternative shadows—a whisk becomes a birdcage and rabbits jump out of tea-cups. Minim++ reveal the totemic and mutable qualities of objects through interactive technologies as Kentridge does through film and animation.

Luke Jerram’s Retinal Memory Volume (UK, 1997), a work of almost classic status, is the quintessential version of the dematerialisation of the object. In this piece we do not see a thing at all, but the manufactured perception of a thing. In a darkened booth three flashes of light imprint the image of a chair directly on to the retina of the observer. The phantom chair appears with a strange luminous tangibility in empty space. Jerram turns our attention on the mechanisms by which we see and make sense of our vision. Our own perceptual structures are revealed as a kind of optical technology—the observer as proto-camera.

In Shaun Gladwell’s Pataphysical Man (Australia 2005), the human form itself, its construction and reconstruction through human invention, becomes the focus. A video of a break-dancer spinning on his head is inverted so he seems to be spinning from the ceiling. His splayed form echoes those previous theoretical superheroes Vitruvian Man and Modular Man. The work is a study of the physical forces that govern our embodied existence, and our defiance of them through physical feats and mechanical ingenuity. Through our miraculous optical machines we can easily slow down time and invert space, but by doing so Gladwell reveals and celebrates the concrete physicality of the living body in its labours, struggles and triumphs.

Perhaps the most effective piece in the show was one that put the audience themselves directly within the work and exploited the unique capacity of new media to represent in the same time and space the image of the perceiver perceiving. In Alex Davies’ Dislocation (Australia 2005), 4 small mounted monitors are set back in one wall of an enclosed installation space. You need to approach them closely to see what they are showing. It takes a moment to realise that what you can see is your own back, and those of your neighbours peering at the adjacent monitors. The screen flickers slightly, as if there is a minor disruption in transmission, and someone else enters the gallery, nearer to the camera, talking on a mobile phone. The sense of their presence behind you is spine-tinglingly palpable, as is the illicit feeling that you are eavesdropping on their conversation. But glance over your shoulder and you find the room is empty. The other presence was a phantom, a ghost in the machine. I watched people dissolve in delight over and over again, drag in unsuspecting companions and relish the moment of being duped. Even after this moment of realisation, the images of the ghostly others occasionally behaving in inappropriate ways remains compelling. The small audience shivers at each new arrival like ouija board conspirators.

Within the deceptively simple trick is a wealth of complex affects: delight and disturbance, a heightened sense of our physical and psychological relationships to others and an awareness of the captivating rhetoric of our own images. As the mirror image is a metaphor for self, the mediated reflection of the video image is a metaphor for a contemporary technologised self. We are transfixed by images of ourselves, but particularly by images of ourselves made strange. This is at the root of the new media obsession with mechanical transformation. What we are experiencing in the moment of destabilisation brought on by a perceptual trick is a heightened awareness, which lingers after the event, of what it means to be that mysterious psychophysical structure: a human being in the world.

Experimenta, Vanishing Point, curators Liz Hughes & Emma McRae, various venues, Melbourne, Sept 1-30, www.experimenta.org

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 23

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

Bosch and Simons, Aguas Vivas (2002-2005)

Bosch and Simons, Aguas Vivas (2002-2005)

Bosch and Simons, Aguas Vivas (2002-2005)

… art is not necessarily expression. – Samuel Beckett

What would be the ultimate compliment for an exhibition devoted to abstraction in the digital age? A ripped remix of key phrases by Ihab Hassan or George Steiner on the aesthetics of silence, a surround sampling of Susan Sontag’s styles of radical will? No. In the early 21st century, abstraction is sick. Let me tell you why.

White Noise is an overpowering and considerable sensory experience. Curated by Mike Stubbs to showcase the “ongoing relevance” of abstraction in the contemporary art world, it brings together a range of Australian and international works that explore the impact of ‘new media’ on the concept of abstract art. The installation of the works has been astutely designed to maximise our experience of the untranslatable, tantalising illogic of sense at the heart of abstraction. Visitors descend into the Screen Gallery and enter a darkened cabinet of curiosities to be explored via a vertiginous corridor of illuminated frames. Within it, glowing didactic screens recede to a vanishing point, drawing us in like knowing sentinels. The art seems to have already begun. On my first visit to White Noise I shared the experience with a cacophony of primary school kids. One of them disappeared into an installation. Immediately there was an exclamation of such import that I thought he had entered a portal to another world. “Sick!”

And he had. This is exactly what a show like White Noise should do. It should be confronting, intriguing and memorable as an event for the curious and informed alike. This kid had clearly encountered something that was unlike anything he had ever seen or heard before. And may never again. And he had experienced it in a context that was just as engaging and otherworldly as the most chilling ride he went on at Movie World last holidays. The work in question was Peter Bosch’s and Simone Simons’ Aguas Vivas (2002-2005), a mixed media installation in which perturbations on the surface of a moving drum of oil are captured simultaneously as real-time video and still images. If asked what it meant he would have phoned a friend.

For the critically informed cognoscenti of abstraction, White Noise was a bit of a mixed bag. The talking point was undoubtedly Ryoji Ikeda’s spectra II (2002), a beautifully unnerving, immersive work that accommodates one visitor at a time in a ritual of solitude. The journey through a darkened, claustrophobic corridor is punctuated only by the occasional pulse of sound and strobing light. The work’s encroaching terrain samples, in miniature, the architectural topography of White Noise as an enigmatic walk through sensory stimulation, the experience of which is always solitary, beyond communication and thus purely abstract. Another stand-out work was Black on Black, White on White (2005) by local artist Jonathan Duckworth, a beguiling, minimalist exploration of the limits of perception, in which the viewer is challenged to wrestle with the polarisation of light itself. Keiko Kimoto’s Imaginary Numbers (2004-2005) is a visually stunning journey into the metaphysical conundrum of nonlinear systems, which produces a series of dynamic portraits of the beauty of chaos.

On the down side there was a lot of similarity in terms of changing colour fields, data streams and pulsing lights. There was room for variation, too, in the selection of artists. It felt a bit like an Ulf Langheinrich mini-retrospective, with 3 of the artist’s works represented. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate their presence. Drift (2005), a work commissioned by ACMI, was an isometric workout for the senses. High resolution imagery of glistening octopus flesh writhes strangely on the screen. This is the most illustrative image to be found in the entire exhibition. As it morphs slowly into abstraction, it reveals the infravisible weirdness that haunts all representation.

For me the most pleasing component of White Noise was the Abstraction Now collection of online projects (a series of works originally exhibited in Vienna in 2003). The work here, too, was mixed and, in some instances, little more than exercises in the style of abstraction. But what was most satisfying about it was the assumption of digital literacy in its projected audience. There were no didactic panels alerting us to the fact that these were ‘interactive’ works. Nor, for that matter, was there any sense in the works themselves that explanation was required, either directly by way of instructions to the user or in their aesthetics. From the point of view of abstraction we should expect nothing less. From the point of view of media arts culture nor should we either, as such work should by now be accepted as part of contemporary art; especially so in the context of ACMI’s curatorial commitment to interactive works. The haptic lexicon of point and click, scrolling and rollover was thoroughly subsumed into the interaction, eliciting a dexterity that has become second nature in the age of the human-computer interface. This allowed for a deeper exploration of the works in the context of the exhibition’s thematics, rather than awkwardly foregrounding them as media art works that still require explanation and justification.

White Noise admirably reinforces the long-held tenet of abstraction that art doesn’t have to be about something to engage an audience. The street will always find a use for such things. It is to be hoped that White Noise is a sign of things to come at ACMI, which has the opportunity to cement its curatorial place as a space of bewilderment as much as certitude, exhibiting work that confounds and confuses every bit as much as it pleases the eye, or satisfies the desire for narrative. Recently a cabinet containing Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar for 2001 and his 1997 Golden Lion was installed at the entrance to White Noise. A cabinet of an altogether different kind. I presume it was a commercial for the forthcoming exhibition of the auteur’s archives in November, rather than a reassuring emblem of order in the midst of dangerous abstraction. For the time being anyway abstraction rules, okay. Sick.

White Noise, curator Mike Stubbs, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Aug 18-Oct 23

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 24

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

The Dramaturgies Project is available as a PDF (276k).

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 25-

© Peter Eckersall & Paul Monaghan & Melanie Beddie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Held annually in a city in the USA, SIGGRAPH is one of the largest gatherings of the commercial digital media sector staged anywhere and is not necessarily part of the new media arts calendar. Held this year in Los Angeles and with over 29,000 attendees, the scale is phenomenal and includes a trade show, conference, jobs fair and an animation festival.

SIGGRAPH is part of a large network of bodies that fall under the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) banner. An acronym for Special Interest Group Graphics, SIGGRAPH has an expansive international membership of researchers, digital artists, developers, filmmakers, scientists and other professionals who share an interest in computer graphics and interactive techniques.

The annual SIGGRAPH conference is very much aimed at the commercial sector and representatives from this sector comprise most of the audience. Many were there to see the big name keynote, director George Lucas and others were there to hock their wares. The trade fair is a massive enterprise showcasing the latest software and techniques from the big animation and development companies right through to education and academic publications on obscure code and algorithms. It is a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into who is doing what and how they are doing it—and who they’re selling it to.

Hovering around the edges of the corporate melee, and what makes SIGGRAPH an intriguing conference, are the quirky and chaotic events such as the Cyber Fashion Show, the international centre, art exhibition, Guerrilla Studio and Emerging Technologies. Run by a core of dedicated volunteers, these events create a very enjoyable rupture in the commercial overdrive of the main events.

The Cyber Fashion Show is organised and hosted by Psymbiote (“a technology-clad cyborg”) and features a variety of wearable computers, head-mounted displays, ‘smart’ clothes, luminous clothing and accessories, futuristic club wear, CAD/CAM jewellery and bodywear. With a strong Gothic influence and grunge LA attitude, the Cyber Fashion Show provided a sneak preview of “clothing of the future.” Highlights were the wonderful Hug Shirt (by CuteCircuit) that allows the wearer to exchange the physical sensation of a hug over distance and the Report-the-World Trenchcoat (equipped with 10 hidden cameras for 360° panoramic shots) by Japan’s Wearable Environmental Information Networks. Australian new media artist Tina Gonsalves was also included in the parade, showing her Medulla Intima interactive jewellery created as part of a recent residency at Banff New Media Institute.

If, on the following day you were inspired to make you own wearable and interactive clothing, you could head on down to the Guerilla Studio. A makeshift lab, the studio provides an impromptu environment for artists, researchers, musicians and others who are presenting at SIGGRAPH to interact with delegates and provide hands-on demos and workshops. The Guerilla Studio is a great place to escape the SIGGRAPH crowds and get to know some interesting and approachable art and technology practitioners and researchers. Just head on over to the wearable technology table, grab a soldering iron, some circuitry, needle and cotton and an hour later you have technology embedded into your bra strap.

Some highlights of the Guerilla Studio were French/Japanese artist Atau Tanaka demonstrating his new interface under development for Sony. Called Malleable Mobile Music, it is a new generation ‘Walkman’ that takes social dynamic and mobility as inputs to a streaming music re-mix engine. The work extends on simple peer-to-peer file sharing systems towards ad hoc mobility and social computing. Sara Diamond (ex Director of Banff New Media Centre) was also demonstrating The Am-I-Able Design Team projects developed at Banff that focus on fashion, wearables, touch and sensory communication. With catchy names like Company Keeper and Emotional Ties, this experimental clothing line aims to enhance and stimulate social interactions.

The corporate/art focus of SIGGRAPH attracts a range of diverse artists, researchers and developers, most of whom are working for university based research centres or independent labs, running their own businesses or working in the R&D units of large technology based companies. Many of these present their work in the Guerilla Studio or the Emerging Technologies section of SIGGRAPH. Whereas the Guerilla Studio has a freeform style, Emerging Technologies is a more structured event where these centres present their latest innovations and kooky inventions.

Emerging Technologies is probably the most interesting and bizarre section of SIGGRAPH. It’s a kind of Quasimodo’s toybox of body enhancements and intuitive interfaces described in the program as “…digital experiences that move beyond digital tradition…and transform social assumptions. Emerging Technologies presents work from many sub-disciplines of interactive techniques, with a special emphasis on projects that explore science, high-resolution digital-cinema technologies, and interactive art-science narrative.”

Showcasing around 30 projects, the names alone provide an insight into the wonders of Emerging Technologies—Laval Virtual Winner (Virtual VeeJeying); Kobito Virtual Brownies; moo-pong; Interactive Fog Screen; and strangest of them all, Shaking The World: Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) as a Novel Sensation Interface.

Developed by NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Japan, Shaking the World is a sort of ‘remote control for humans.’ The device works by attaching 2 electrodes behind the ears that create electrical stimulation through a weak current. The person receiving the charge can be ‘controlled’ through the use of a remote device that regulates the pulse of the current. Many visitors to Emerging Technologies were eager to try the GVS and provided quite a show as they stumbled around controlled by one of the researchers. To add to the overall weirdness of this project, an accompanying ‘promotional’ video showed real-world applications of the GVS, such as remote controlling young children and the elderly!

SIGGRAPH is certainly much more than an industry forum. It provides an overview of where research is heading and the types of experimentation and innovation going on within well-funded research labs. Some projects, like Atau Tanaka’s ‘Walkman’ or many of the wearable projects are investigating social applications, human interactions and communication, whereas projects like the GVS have an eerie and perverse sci-fi edge. SIGGRAPH offers an overview of all this and more, insight into the technological imagination being driven very much by the US and Japan. From the smallest gadgets to the Hollywood machine, SIGGRAPH is an eye-opener into the enormous influence and power of the very well lubricated digital machine.


Remote Controlled Humans, SIGGRAPH 2005, Los Angeles, July 31-Aug 4

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 33

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

Cobi van Tonder’s Ephemeral Gumboots

Cobi van Tonder’s Ephemeral Gumboots

Small fish

On a bright July day, in the airy open space of Johannesburg’s Franchise Gallery, I am absorbed in watching a goldfish lazily paint flesh onto a cartoon fish skeleton by means of a webcam and computer which translate movements in to brushstrokes as he meanders round his tank. The artwork, Scale Model, by Mitch Said, is part of Return, a group show of similarly playful interactive works by students studying for their Masters in Digital Arts at Witwatersrand School of Arts.

It’s a lighthearted start to my self-appointed mission to explore the landscape of new media arts in the new South Africa. I have family links to the country, and have traveled here a couple of times. On this journey I want to come to understand South Africa in terms that relate to my own work in new media art and to strengthen my intangible link of heritage to the country by discovering contemporary common ground.

Eleven years after the end of apartheid, in a country in the midst of seismic socio-economic change and still revelling in the joy of unfettered interaction within its own population and with the outside world, how are South Africa’s artists, audiences and curators engaging with new media and communication technologies? What is distinctive and unique about their new media art scene and how have contemporary techno-cultural forms taken root in South African soil?

This exhibition is a great starting point as it shows what the next generation of artists is up to. It seems to me less a return and more a departure. Their work is whimsical and playful, with an exuberance and wonder at the possibilities of digital technology and communication. As well as this freshness there is a resourceful quality to the show that mirrors the spirit on the street of Johannesburg. Nicky Nagy’s quirky assemblage of cast-off household appliances that spring to life unexpectedly, Funguye To (“Does it work?” in Slovak), has the trash+imagination aesthetic of the city’s markets where electrical cables are turned into basketware and tin cans become radios and toy cars.

Johannesburg Downtown

After a degree of struggle with well-meaning relatives I brave a trip to the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The JAG is a grand old building in Joubert Park, once the genteel civic centrepiece of the city, now the heart of the city’s pell-mell hawker district. Following the desegregation of the city, white businesses and residents withdrew like a tide flowing north to the suburbs of shopping malls and gated communities—leaving the JAG and other city institutions and colonial relics to take their chances amid a transformed social landscape. The gallery’s surrounding park is now inhabited by what the Johannesburg official tourist website disarmingly describes as “the homeless and the mischievous.”

On the day of my visit this uneasy conjunction is being played out paradoxically on the gallery walls through Guy Tillim’s extraordinary exhibition Johannesburg Downtown 2004. For 5 months Tillim, well known for his photographic portraits of the victims of African conflicts, lived with and documented the lives of the residents of the vigorously squatted high-rises of the inner-city surrounding the JAG. These near derelict ‘bad buildings’, often without any utilities, have become vertical inner city versions of the sprawling “informal settlements” that surround South African cities. My companions and I gaze at his haunting photographs that show the daily struggle of living in the neighbourhoods we have driven through, handbags stashed under car-seats, to get here.

Most of the gallery is taken up by the blockbuster retrospective of William Kentridge, South Africa’s most famous visual artist, who has finally, in a sense, returned home. His historically sensitive fascination with the transformational quality of tools and technologies, evident in all his artwork, establishes for me the idiosyncratic context of South Africa’s economic and cultural relationship to technology. Johannesburg is a city built on seams of gold and the layers and layers of pain of those who have dug it out from the ground. Kentridge’s animated Shadow Procession shows a parade of the dispossessed and the damaged in which men carry tools and men are made of tools, mine-dumps, pit heads and mechanisms become people and melt back into objects. In South Africa both minerals and people have been the raw materials that have fuelled an economy built on inequality. But things are changing. The gold is dwindling and there is no longer a disenfranchised labour force to be sent deeper into the earth to extract it. As the South African economy transforms itself, what role will be played by creativity, innovation and information technology—the ingredients of the knowledge economy that has transformed other countries’ economic models? Already the seeds of this transformation are in place, the IT skills base growing amongst the skill-hungry population. How will the perception of South African culture evolve to express these new realities?

The new cultural entrepreneurs

One man who clearly sees the potential of cultural and economic exchange in an innovation driven and media saturated world is Marcus Neustetter, artist, organiser and co-director with Stephen Hobbs of Trinity Session, a powerhouse contemporary art production team specialising in digital technology and the urban environment. I meet Marcus at Premises, the city centre gallery space run by Trinity Session. He gives me a tour of their headquarters which have the air of a campaign office in the midst of an election. It is exhausting to contemplate their array of activities. A selected list describes 35 projects since 2000, amongst them tactical media art works for the leading European festivals Transmediale and Ars Electronica, community media and training initiatives, an impressive exhibition program at Premises, plus a string of high-level strategic consultancies.

For Trinity Session, the tension between South Africa’s new cultural and social openness and the desperate economic need they perceive in the neighbourhoods around them has resulted in a compelling mix of a socially engaged regeneration agenda, global reach artistic ambition and a gung-ho approach to entrepreneurship that does not wince at ruthless marketing and cultural opportunism. They describe themselves as investigating “creativity as commodity through consultation processes and art and retail experiments”, which includes curating the artworks for the South African Big Brother house of 2004—turning the reality TV show into a showcase for South African contemporary art.

After our tour of the office we head off to a nightclub in Newtown, the city’s cultural quarter. It is 11pm and the stage for Johannesburg’s Make Poverty History concert is being dismantled; it has been a bit of a non-event in the city. In comparison to the self-sufficient, creative, entrepreneurial spirit of Trinity Session, Bob Geldof’s attempt to put culture at the service of African economics seems distant and impotent, even retrograde. An affair, in one newspaper commentator’s words, “of fading rockstars and little else.”

Gumboots in Grahamstown

A few days later I am flying south for the 31st National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The festival is acknowledged as a barometer of the country’s changing cultural climate, so I’m interested to see 2 events in the programme which show that new media art forms are finding a home in South African culture and developing a distinctive identity.

In Petra, a multimedia dance work, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha, digital technologies are integrated with live performance to explore one of the darkest issues at the heart of South African society. Through a series of beautiful but tortuous duets, the work starkly confronts the way HIV/AIDS has invaded all our relationships: from the intimate and personal to the public and societal. Nathaniel Stern, new media artist, and tireless blogger of the media art scene in Johannesburg, has created a hauntingly poetic digital backdrop—a combination of sombre, abstract textures and live video feed which enacts a disjointed dialogue with the dancers. Reminiscent in its brooding shadowy forms of Kentridge’s parade of coal black despair, Stern’s work is a new media expression of South Africa’s new sorrow.

And finally over at the exhibition hall, in an impressive exhibition of interactive music-making machines, I find the perfect conclusion to my quest to discover a uniquely South African take on new media. Sounds Crazy has been co-curated by Grahamstown’s own Studio for Interactive Sound and STEIM, the Dutch electronic music laboratory. Amongst the fabulous mixture of homegrown and international exhibits are Cobi van Tonder’s Ephemeral Gumboots, a poetic combination of old and new in which the stamping and slapping of the dancer wearing the boots drives a soundscape of rhythmic electronic music. The boots are a contemporary version of one of the most distinctive South African forms of cultural expression, gumboot dancing, born in the bunkhouses of the gold mines; they are the new spirit of creativity and innovation shot through with the memory of South Africa’s deeply layered cultural ground. Van Tonder writes that in her sound art she is “…mining the subconscious. Sometimes you strike gold, sometimes you sweat for months on end without any certain reward. My work is not about technology. It’s about imagination.”

Weblinks: Trinity Session: http://onair.co.za; Nathaniel Stern: http://nathanielstern.com; Studio for Interactive Sound, Grahamstown: http://www.ru.ac.za/org/sis/index.html;
Cobi van Tonder: http://www.otoplasma.com

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 34

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

The Vital Signs conference and exhibitions from ACMI (White Noise, see p24) and Experimenta (Vanishing Point, p23) combined to prove that not only is new media art ticking over, but it is alive and kicking, fuelled by vision, experiment, R&D, controversy and a sense of enormous potential. This is not to say that the conference itself was a picture of unanimity; on the contrary, its participants numbered detractors, the disappointed and the disaffected, and not a few of the uncertain (“What is it?”, “What is ‘new’?” “What am I?” etc). With over 400 artists, various experts and commentators gathered for this RMIT conference, directed by an indefatigable Lyndal Jones, a range of responses was to be expected. However, while the parameters were set for debates to come, the conference itself could resolve little with large panels of speakers, parallel sessions and precious little time (in the Australian manner) for serious discussion, let alone debate and opportunities to pull together an overview of the state of the field. What Vital Signs did achieve was to live up to the promise of its title in offering evidence of a functioning body of diverse, overlapping and largely emergent practices integral and reponsive to a radically changing world in which art can play a part in everyday life in unprecedented ways. Here are some moments I witnessed of Vital Signs.

The body mechanical & mediocre

CEO Jennifer Bott iterated the Australia Council’s commitment to new media arts but framed it in terms of “the research and development possibilities of new media arts not being sufficiently recognised”, of the potential for the field in “design and engineering” and “access to all industry sectors.” Well, that sucked the air out of a few lungs, and, over the next 2 days, speakers like Mari Velonaki and Stephen Jones kept us mindful that new media art must not be reduced to a handmaid of industry or decoration for science. Lyndal Jones defended new media arts against those, especially visual artists, who see the field as “process-driven”, while also arguing that universities need to see that “our practice is research.”

Media artist Philip Brophy led the first of several attacks on the field, blaming the demise of the New Media Arts Board not on the Australia Council but on artists: “You blew it!” An opportunity had been lost, he said, because “not enough exciting, illuminating works” had been created. Worse, new media artists were whingers (“you believe you are opposed by visual artists”), rhetorical, a-political and not visionary. Brophy decribed the root of his own success in “the accident of being nomadic”, of working across artforms.

In another session, film critic and author Adrian Martin celebrated “the orphic”, “the poetic moments of the audio-visual medium”, but said he had experienced no such moments with new media art works, taking instead his examples of transcendence from intriguing film and photographic images. Martin declared new media art to be “gesturing towards poetry”, but not making it, “strangled by machinery”, short on intervention and yielding “a new slew of cliches.” “We must be vigilant about this staleness”, he declared. Martin offered no examples of new media art he had encountered to demonstrate his claims, only adding that assessing such work for funding had been disagreeable. I wonder what he made of ACMI’s White Noise. For not a few this exhibition offered many transcendent moments. Fortunately, in the same session Melinda Rackham’s account of the triumphs and tribulations of webart gave us just a glimpse of the strange beauties of several works, and an account of the power of network collaborations and “the network as artwork.”

The body is ill

Digital art lecturer Larissa Hjorth’s upbeat account of the social uses of mobile phones in different cultures—the ways the machines are customised by users, shared in Korea, imbued with personalities in Japan in “a warming up of cold technology”, and submitted to creative perversity—contrasted with Lisa Gye’s disappointment with the mobile phone camera in another fascinating talk. Unlike its antecedent, the Kodak Box Brownie, the modern tool was portrayed by Gye as individualised and non-tactile compared with the collectivity of family sharing of photographs and the show and tell that goes with it. Media arts commentator and author Darren Tofts wondered “where is the social” in a culture of “enforced eavesdropping”, of “public space as an annexe of private space” in an “onanistic rather than coital culture.” The post-panel discussion debated the wonders of children multiplatforming and media weaving, or not; the Reality TV-type performance of ordinariness increasingly embodied in the new communications; and whether or not art will, like sex and sport, make the leap to mainstream media platforms. The discussion epitomised the push and pull of the new media for artists and experts for whom the technology is their passion and even the basis of their livelihood, but which commerce deploys in morally suspect ways.

Media artist Ian Haig diagnosed a different kind of sickness, among artists themselves: “a psychopathological relationship with new media”, a condition he has consistently parodied, and an “implicit utopianism” about which he felt cynical. In his own art he has left behind technology, he said, in favour of hybridity, of “works that can’t be pigeon-holed”, that question interactivity (“the toilet as interface”) in the Haig boy’s-own-Freud body of work. His objection to “button pushing literalism” of interactivity, however, reminded me how little of it I’ve seen lately and certainly not in Vanishing Point.

Unbounded & inclusive

As the conference progressed and more works were invoked, reminders of what had been achieved and what was possible started to lift the mood. Talks were laced with discreet retorts to new media art’s critics. Curator and theorist Lizzie Muller’s account of the impressive work of George Khut with biofeedback systems exalted human-centred design that works from bodily awareness and privileges subjectivity. She declared the work as neither passive nor pathological. Choreographer and multimedia artist Hellen Sky mused over “experiential embodiment”, of the experience of being simultaneously virtual and physical when “the real and the virtual fold into each other…I think I’m a cyborg.”

In her search “for a rationale for digital art”, photographer, digital artist and industrial designer Gay Swinn conjured “a diaspora in cyberspace”, claiming digital works as “immanent, not just imitative”, and, in their use of irony and blasphemy, opposed to “those who would make us in their own image.” Cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiardis, in a conversation with Ross Gibson and Pia Ednie-Brown, reminded us that we are “not just bodies but modes of consciousness, not bodies that finish at the skin…that we feel thinking and vice versa.” In the “rising mania for user-centred” works and experiences we must, he argued, develop open-ended, “un-edged, unbound arenas of inclusiveness.” There can be no closing of borders as governments do, or publics fearing complexity—institutions must be open to the new.

An overloaded session on curation told us little about why and how curators choose what new media art to exhibit, but revealed that a lot is going on, from Rawspace’s admirable residencies program in Brisbane to multimedia ventures in Tasmania’s 10 Days on the Island, but with less action in major galleries. Next Wave director Marcus Westbury with his familiar “what I do is in what I don’t do” manifesto (not into art, not into form, not into new media art—”it’s not a form”, “I’m into the circulation of ideas”) made one of the more important observations in the conference—“media art is the folk art of my generation.” The truth and extent of this could have made for a conference in itself, as with the issue raised earlier, about whether or not kids really are wired.

Body growth

As she did at MAAP in Singapore in 2004, producer and curator Yukiko Shikata (Japan) gave us an entertaining and extensive update on developments in the field with accounts of works and events many of us won’t get to experience, exploring biosemiotics, the visualisation of gravity, DNA cooking for kids, data architecture, collective mobile phone art, and the moblab (mobile laboratory) project. As the Moblab bus travels through Japan, collaborations are forged between young Japanese and German artists (www.moblab.org). Shikata described these adventures in “new subjectivities and new expression” as “utopian, but plugged into reality.”


Former ACMI CEO John Smithies argued for acknowledgment of new media art’s unique pedigree, its distinctive platforms and tools, its very different engagement with the viewer, its user-driven fundamentals and the revolution in income generation and collection through micropayments. That the film and television industries cannot afford to ignore these developments, emphasised by the successes of Canadian multiplatform broadcasters (see RT66, p19) and the opportunities offered by the AFTRS LAMP program (see p21 in this edition). Nell White and Claire Jaeger described their work-in-progress, the AFC-funded Stowaways Guide to the Pacific, an interactive online program for 8-12 year olds. It’s a narrative embedded with all kinds of information and featuring 2 children on The Endeavour in 1769, but with the capacity to time travel.

Filmmaker Michael Buckley described a changed film world in which “the old feature film as holy grail is going”, where there is a “renewal and diversification” of resources…not locked into old venues” and where makers can create and control their own distribution networks. For Buckley this has also meant seeking out new and diverse financial sources in local government and community services to make work that otherwise would grace no platform. Documentarist Pippa Wischer, offering engaging examples of her own work and others, argued that traditional forms are being incorporated into new ones, that modern documentary has absorbed the interview, the compilation and the mockumentary, in works that can go resolutely beyond the gallery to television, DVD and online. The session chair, dLux media art director David Cranswick, enlarged the picture by describing the potential of the mobile phone platform.

The beleaguered word

In the session on critical writing, the occasionally heard lament that writing on the visual and new media arts was not up to scratch was challenged, the focus shifting to the poor conditions under which it is usually done—unpaid or lowly paid, not having the time to fully engage with new kinds of work, struggling to develop the vocabulary with which to adequately describe it, and getting past increasingly vigilant cultural gatekeepers. Addressing the issue of how to foster a critical voice, Adrian Martin argued that reviewers are not those gatekeepers—it’s the advertisers and marketers, editors and sub-editors, and the ABC, he said, with its bevy of comedian hosts, who dumb down the arts, and conjure a “phantom public” as their rationale. The danger, he said, is that new media art will be sold like the video clip, as fun, fun, fun—false advertising for work and audiences that need to be taken more seriously.

Celebration & ambivalence

The plenary session ranged across a number of issues that had emerged from the conference, or which had not been addressed, like the “crisis at meta-level” (Mike Stubbs, Head of Exhibitions, ACMI) affecting new media arts organisations around the world and not just in Australia. I posited an ‘ecological’ model of new media arts as a set of practices and groups of artists, organisations, festivals and schools around Australia, a cohesive, organic network recently subjected to negative pressures requiring a response that questions current funding models and the attitudes of government agencies. Some didn’t want to go down this path, preferring to discuss ‘the state of the art’, especially given the repeated criticisms that new media art is cliched, utopian/a-political, lacking poetry and technologically fetishistic. It’s a pity that Vital Signs’ atomistic approach didn’t provide some detailed, extensive overviews, instead of the many glimpses of fascinating works, forms, personalities, networks and events that were difficult to assemble into a meaningful picture. Perhaps Darren Tofts’ recently published interzone (see reviews in RT 71) will provide a rare opportunity for doing so in the near future.

Other participants were eager to discuss the means to find new sources of financial support for new media arts. Brendan Harkin of XMediaLab pointed to the significant funds for new media developments in key governement agencies; others spoke of the difficulties of tackling such organisations and the secondary role that artists can end up playing in projects. As Mari Velonaki argued, the artist is the one whose vision requires the scientist to develop the software or hardware that will realise the innovation: spinoffs that benefit science and industry will only ever be occasional.

There were sessions on sound art, video and hybrid practices, which were outside my timetable, but I hope the transcipts of Vital Signs become publicly available and doubtless play a role in the Australia Council’s scoping review on new media art.

Taking shape

In the end, I think Yukiko Shikata’s image of media arts as “utopian but plugged into reality” an apt summing up of where we are in new media arts—utopias have a bad name after the brutal excesses of the 20th century in their name, but if we have no vision where can we go? Above all, we need a comprehensive overview of new media arts in Australia so that we can come to know more precisely what this body is and what its vital signs mean. The conference has provided a rich plethora of detail of the working parts, what drives them, and which Darren Tofts’ interzone and, I hope, the scoping review, will give shape to, as perhaps will the formative Australian Media Arts Organisations (AMAO). The last decade has been a period of critical growth for new media art, but it’s a body still emerging, still forming, developing a sense of itself. Vital Signs was a mirror on this process.

Vital Signs: creative practice & new media now, convenor Lyndal Jones, School of Creative Media RMIT, with the Australia Council, Australian Film Commission, Australian Centre for the Moving Image; ACMI, Melbourne, Sept 7-9 vitalsigns.rmit.edu.au

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 35,

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

Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark eds
At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet
Cambridge, Mass: MIT/Leonardo Books, 2005, ISBN: 0262033283

As editors, Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark accomplish such an elegant thematic and formal structuring of their richly diverse material that, as reviewer, one feels a challenge has been issued. At once intimate and transnational in its articulations, the conceptual and material achievements of this book are difficult to convey.

Despite the ubiquity of that evocative prefix across contemporary networked and distributed media platforms, the affect and activism of art ‘at a distance’ has not been adequately historicised. In response, Chandler and Neumark locate a poetics of distance within the histories and technologies of activist arts practice, focusing particularly on the 1970s and 1980s. For the editors, distance functions as both organising principle and central problematic. The 3 sections of this beautifully designed book are structured by the socio-aesthetic relations of distance, as Neumark explains:

Part I is written at the greatest distance from the projects themselves [where] the aim is to raise and explore issues, concepts, and arguments, rather than detail specific projects…The chapters in Part II approach their subjects more intimately, written…by or with people who were involved in the projects discussed…[and] Part III returns to the voice of cultural criticism with a rethinking of networks, a key figure that appears throughout the book …

Consisting of 20 chapters from writers, artists, curators, academics and activists, this anthology critiques the figure of the network through its enabling conditions of geographic dispersal, collaborative political action, technical modes of distribution and tensions of affect. And it is mail-art, in particular, which provides the aesthetic framework for many of these contributors. John Held, for example, presents a detailed historical analysis of mail-art by exploring the artistic methodologies of foundational figures such as Ray Johnson (‘the father of mail art’), Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, Mark Bloch and Marcia Tucker. Held scrutinises the categorical debates that have shaped the genre arguing that ‘the Mail Art community…was fixated not on the postal exchange, but rather on the aesthetics and distribution of communication.’ Demonstrating crucial links between networked art activism and postal circuits of communication is Simone Osthoff’s insightful chapter on Brazilian artists Paulo Bruscky and Eduardo Kac. Both curator and mail-art practitioner, Bruscky’s transgressive deployment of the institutional frameworks of postal technology resulted in his arrest on a number of occasions. He staged, with Ypirana Filho, Brazil’s First International Mail Art Exhibit in 1975 which was shut down by police within minutes of opening since many of the Latin American participants had included “messages denouncing state violence and censorship.”

Continuing to explore the convergence of network and mail-work is Craig Saper’s dialogue with Anna Freud Banana who, he argues, introduces a “new psychoanalysis” that “mobilises parody as an analytic tool.” Central to this parody is Banana’s name which she adopted after it was coined by her students. As Banana explains, her aesthetic performances allow her “to go Bananas by parodying the bureaucratic codes of the networks our lives exist within: stamps, popular magazines, organisations, governments, corporations.” Also noteworthy for its contribution to political and technological formations of mail-art is Melody Sumner Carnahan’s fascinating project, produced with partner Michael Sumner, titled The Form 1970-1979. This work involved soliciting one line ‘reactions’ to each of the years of the 1970s and predictions for 1979. Correspondents included John Cage, Dick Higgins and Andy Warhol as well as friends and relatives. Although not overtly defined as mail-art, the artist’s book in John Kelly’s recent show at Niagra exhibiting his polemical correspondence with The Australia Council, demonstrates the centrality of the postal within contemporary aesthetico-activist practices.

In addition to the postal system, ‘distance art’ is also networked by such socio-technological forms as ‘telematic art’, telerobotics, video activism and sonic art practice. Exploring the historical and political impact of many of these is Andrew Garton’s contribution about “the theatre of activism”, and the emergence of Australia’s “vintage networks.” Garton has long been involved in using digital media as an agent for social change and he details various collaborative projects which helped to establish “a community of network activists extending the capabilities of computers and modems and their use in the developing world.” Further explorations of “telematic simultaneity” include Heidi Grundmann discussing her curatorial work for the REALTIME and CHIP-RADIO projects of the early 1990s, which raised “serious problems of documentation and interpretation common to all fugitive, process or time based art projects”; a “journey through the archives” with Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, and Don Joyce on the “sonic spontaneity” of Negativland.

‘New media theory’ is continually seduced by network promises: open, decentralised, egalitarian and emergent. Yet as a number of these contributors note, networks are inflected by regimes of power, economies of desire and the restless rhythms of global capital. As Jesse Dean explains in his discussion of the video network, Gulf Crisis TV:

…not all networks are created equal. The notion of net seems to signify a democratic sharing, an equal distribution of nodes, all connecting to other points, without hierarchy. Few networks are like that…networks, like other technological creations are…not simply discovered or invented, but are engineered into existence and put into place by institutions of power.

Similarly, Ken Friedman argues cogently for “art networks” to recognise the fundamental issues of governmentality with which they must grapple in order to achieve “sustainability and resilience.” And Sean Cubitt’s eloquent, if elegiac, critique of “destructive consumerism” reminds us of the socio-political urgency of networked relations: “the miseries of the last factory workers and raw-materials producers are removed geographically from the sites of retail and consumption, the specificity of their work bathed in the indifference of logo-branded goods and services.”

It is idiomatic that Australia occupies a poignant relation with distance. In these xenophobic times, however, how heartening to discover works such as this (also relevant here is Darren Tofts’ recent monograph on Australian media arts) which explore the specificity of location without eliding the impact of transnational flows. Chandler and Neumark’s book should appeal to artists, academics and activists for whom distance must always remain poignant.

See also Darren Tofts: interzone: Media arts in Australia, Thames & Hudson, 2005 (reviewed in RT 71).

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 36

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

Counter Voice in Milk - Adelaide Version 2006, video stills

Counter Voice in Milk – Adelaide Version 2006, video stills

One of the most valuable and rewarding characteristics of time-based work is its capacity to create and modulate rhythm: visual and aural ebbs and flows orchestrated to respond to, and to produce a response from, its audience. The emergence of such rhythms is noticeably pleasing in the Counter Voice film works of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima. Interestingly, the internal rhythms of the works are not only a result of the filmmaker’s sensitivity or proficient manipulation of the subject matter. Rather, they arise from the natural rhythms that emerge as each of a series of actors concentrates on performing a prescribed activity.

Tatsuo Miyajima is well-known for his large scale LED installations which tackle themes of ‘time’: life and death; permanence, impermanence and change, history and eternity. In 2003’s Death Clock viewers were confronted with a countdown to their own deaths, while Mega Death presented at the 1999 Venice Biennale, was a reaction to various historical catastrophes initiated by humankind. Here 4 Counter Voice works are presented: Counter Voice in Water (1995) and Counter Voice in Air (1995), Counter Voice in Wine (2000), and Counter Voice in Milk, filmed and produced in Adelaide in June 2005 expressly for presentation at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia.

In the Water, Wine and Milk versions, actors each engage in the same activity. Seated before a bowl of liquid, they count backwards from nine to one before leaning forward and submerging their faces for a brief period. They then raise themselves and begin to count again, a sequence that is repeated for 15 minutes. Counter Voice in Air features Miyajima himself, suspended from a harness and dangling in space, similarly counting. This is the most overtly strenuous routine. While the others perform relatively calmly, Miyajima struggles, flailing his arms and legs, slowly expelling each number from his mouth with contorted effort. Yet while the actors in the other works do seem more inwardly focused, neither is theirs the peaceful, meditative activity—melodiously chanted countdown, calm faces descending into pools of liquid in a cleansing ritual—that one might imagine. In fact the task is obviously taxing: they splutter and cough, struggle to breathe, wince as the wine stings their eyes, and visibly tire.

The Counter Voice routine has its roots in Miyajima’s Buddhist beliefs. Immersion in the liquid follows as the counter reaches zero. In this way Miyajima rejects the concept of zero as ‘nothing’ and instead embraces it as an expectant state—the promise of new beginnings. Yet what principally arises from the works seems to be not so much a meditation on such belief, as a detailed study of the characters who appear in them. What fascinates is each person’s reaction to the gruelling exercise and their transforming demeanor as the 15 minutes pass. Initial enthusiasm wanes and is replaced by dull stares; erratic movements are calmed; the effort of breathing becomes more pronounced; and individual features are smoothed into similarity by the sheen of water, milk or wine.

In the close-up of the frame we notice every uncomfortable drip and trickle, every strand of hair plastered to the cheeks, every lick of the lips, each blink and sniff and grimace. We notice the way milk catches in a moustache, the specks of sediment on someone’s face dipped in red wine or the way it dyes burgundy a blonde woman’s eyebrows. It’s these details that mesmerise, and, while narrative is no concern—and indeed the preoccupation with eternity and the cyclical nature of history would seem to make the idea of ‘story’ insignificant—there’s still a sense of anticipation and a curiosity as to how each character will fare.

How the performers react to the task—the speed and volume at which they count, the vigour or hesitancy with which they dip their faces into the bowl, the time for which they immerse themselves—creates certain rhythms, both within each and across all the performances. This is particularly the case in Milk. While Water, Wine and Air show only one or 3 characters at any time, 10 Milk actors are constantly displayed in randomly placed freestanding boxes, surrounding the viewer with a clamour of counting and a frenzy of bobbing, dipping, dripping faces. Twenty-four actors on continuous loops create multiple combinations of characters and performances, and consequently a constant, and constantly fascinating, variation in the rhythms, energy and mood of the total work which alternately lulls and surprises.

Tatsuo Miyajima, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, Sept 9-Oct 30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 37

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

Sue-ellen Kohler, Premonition, still, Mahalya Middlemist

Sue-ellen Kohler, Premonition, still, Mahalya Middlemist

Reel Dance Installations 02 is about contemporary dance and movement presented through film and video installation as an emergent aesthetic form. At this point in its maturing development, it can be regarded as practice-based research where dancer, choreographer, media and sound artist collaboratively explore the possibilities, as evidenced in 4 medium scale installations in the Performance Space galleries. The installations all articulate physical space, the working material of each of the collaborators, in their various and respective ways. Three of the works achieve this using multiple screens deployed within the spaces, immediately establishing a relationship between static deployment in the room and dynamic representation on the surface of the screen.

The dancers’ movements traverse the spaces the screens occupy—rigid frames projected or contained in monitors become the ‘marks’ around which the performers work, as in A Film of One’s Own [Fugue Solos]. The 4 monitors are placed side by side across one wall, displaying black and white images of choreographer Sue Healy and the dancers she worked with during a 15-year period of collaboration with filmmaker Louise Curham. Lighting, framing, angle and costume evoke the classical dance movie, but surface disruption of the film, using paint, scratching and inking, interrupts any implied seamless flow of image or movement. Sound originates from the optical track of the film as percussive, rippling rhythms, caused by physical carry-over from the picture disruptions into the soundtrack area. As the title implies, looping and sequencing develops movement patterns, both rapid and languid, laterally across the screens. The 4-minute loops generate polyrhythms and interruption patterns from the palette of movements articulated by the dancers, recorded by the camera, selected by the film-maker and organised into a system that never seems to replicate.

The cognitive faculties of the visitor are central to an experience of each of these works, with the process of perception completing the creative cycle. Multiscreen works do not provide a focus for the faculties, as when seated in a live performance. The eyes, the ears, the mind, are required to remain alert differently, in the knowledge that the show will begin again after the piece completes, though probably not in exactly the same way each time. The visitor completes the synthesis of the work of the dance choreographer and the installation artist in this redefined space of performance.

Space and duration are palpable material common to both film and dance, within the space and represented on the screens. Martin del Amo choreographs and performs in A Severe Insult to the Body—the Installation, appearing like a pietã in high heels and jocks. He scans the horizon, steadily, stealthily, moving imperceptibly in the darkened rooms which his spot-lit body inhabits. Sudden body contortions interrupt this steady progress. His centre-framed image appears on 3 small monitors framed in turn to either side of a larger projected image. The edited tapes bring 2 temporal spaces into proximity—between each cut on the single screen and between recording sessions across the 7 screens (the tapes having been recorded from 1997 to 2003). The tape and the physical space is designed and installed by Samuel James, fragmenting this history into a coherent present and bringing a pulse that runs beneath del Amo’s palpable physical presence.

The cognitive faculties are stretched again when peripheral vision is engaged in Premonition. This arrangement seems to exploit the sensitivity of our eyes to movement at the edges of the field of view. As I concentrate on the dancer in the central image of 3 vertical projection screens arranged around 3 of the 4 walls of the room, it is possible for the same dancer to become an ensemble. As a 20-minute loop, the solo dance performance (like other exhibitors’ work previously seen performed ‘live’ at various times at Performance Space) fragments and phases the original coherence into new shapes and durations determined by the tapes prepared for the 3 screens.

Premonition (1998) is the most recent of the 3 works by Mahalya Middlemist and Sue-ellen Kohler. Falling (1991) and Vivarium (1993) are both works that again testify to the longevity of dance and video/film collaborative relationships. These single screen works rely on the fixed, enlarged projected cinema image as the frame through which the dancer moves, in Vivarium, anatomically, in Falling, as a whole-body chiaroscuro of microscopic movement terminated by the fall.

The act of re-presentation within a performance-like space by exhibition curator Erin Brannigan, by the artists, choreographers and performers, extends and enriches past moments of recorded dance movement, bringing them into a dynamic and contemporary present.

ReelDance Installations 02; works by Samuel James, Martin del Amo; Louise Curham, Sue Healey; Mahalya Middlemist, Sue-ellen Kohler; curated by Erin Brannigan, OneExtra, Performance Space, Oct 13-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 37

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

Pieces for Small Spaces was Lucy Guerin Inc.’s first curated season of mixed works, developed and shown in the choreographer’s rehearsal space. Although the intimacy of the room might suggest a studio showing, most of the pieces used lighting, music and costumes, testimony to performance as performance (rather than, for example, process). Perhaps because it was the first piece to be shown in a context of emerging artists, Under Your Skin by Kyle Kremerskothen seemed to raise creative questions regarding what to do, what choices to exhibit and explore. Interactions between 2 dancers posed issues of agency; whether the motivation to move arises from the outside, a point on the body, a body part or between bodies. This was a work of relationships in motion, with moments of rupture in tempo and dancerly clarity.

Byron Perry opted for object driven pathos in a creative and entertaining drama between TV and partner. With a television monitor on his head throughout, Perry and Kirstie McCracken danced a duet of control, influence and romance. What was nice was the fealty exhibited towards the object as TV, on the one hand, versus anthropomorphic interpretation, on the other. Sometimes McCracken would relate to the TV as a TV, fiddling with its controls, generating differences of content through channel surfing. And sometimes she would partner “it”, so that the relationship between the 2 was also played out as a human duet. Gogglebox benefited from the longstanding dancing relationship between the two.

Adam Wheeler adopted a Brecht-with-charm approach, introducing each section of A Tale of Soz and Snuf with hand-painted placards. This was an ambitious work that promised to transform the everyday of a haircut into a Dr Strangelove world of madcap eccentricity. I have the feeling that this piece requires big time props that, in the meantime, the audience had to imagine. Its nicest moment came in the form of Wheeler and Susan van den Ham standing, grinning in front of their audience, placard in hand: The End.

Jo Lloyd has used her very own off-beat energy for some time in making work. Mute was danced with Tim Harvey who has danced with Lloyd in many of Shelley Lasica’s works. Lloyd combined large movements that criss-crossed the space with the smallest gestures. Something elastic and glutinous connected the performers as they traversed the room with sustained and intricate kinaesthetic input.

Shannon Bott’s Hang On was the most poignant of all the pieces. Bott and Jacob Lehrer performed the simplest of movements, each dancer showing him/herself through bounces which slowly moved them towards their audience. They weren’t hidden by ‘dancing’ but revealed themselves as individuals in motion. There was text, and other things, but it was their direct and vulnerable expression which I found moving and optimistic.

Finally Antony Hamilton’s scare show, Species for Small Spaces, was an hilarious closing act for the night. This was truly site specific, creating multiple scenes of horror in the back rooms of Guerin’s studio. We were allowed in only a few at a time. I was dragged in by the wrist and the door slammed behind me, no doubt for making loud jokes. I knew something horrible was in the shower—I saw it through the glass. An involuntary scream nevertheless escaped my lips when the doors slid open. Luckily, I didn’t wet my pants.

Pieces for Small Spaces, curated by Lucy Guerin Inc.; Lucy Guerin Inc. Rehearsal Studio, Southbank, Oct 4-8

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 38

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

Avril Huddy, Churchill's Black Dog

Avril Huddy, Churchill’s Black Dog

Avril Huddy, Churchill’s Black Dog

The “black dog”, Winston Churchill’s name for his own depression, is a resonant metaphor suggesting a relentlessness within the self at once inescapable but with a familiarity which seeks mastery: a domesticated companion, dependent and loyal to the death, or a stealthy pursuer, attacking its prey in moments of weakness; something both evil and needy. Either way, it never lets go, so there’s potential romance in this metaphor which creates a fantasy world of epic struggle. For many who saw Clare Dyson’s Churchill’s Black Dog, this challenging and rich mixture yielded a dark and powerful work.

Churchill’s Black Dog is not about the man himself, but his metaphor is a starting point for examining aspects of depression, seeking reality via popular myth. Like the metaphor itself, those myths are composed of half-truths, projection and other defences the mind conjures to protect it from itself. Certainly there’s a popular notion which wants us to believe that suffering is somehow creative and ennobling. Similarly, the theatre can be a safe and glamourised vantage point from which to investigate difficult issues. So to the artists’ credit, the work does not romanticise the issues, attempting instead to depict a debilitating condition—more disease than gift—which also afflicts perfectly ordinary people, eroding their thoughts and stifling their ideas.

But like the metaphor, the medium provides the reality with a certain glamour, as if decoratively laid over experience. Imagery from World War II—performers in pale petticoats carry battered cardboard suitcases, and a 1940s soundtrack—projects a slightly chic nostalgia for familiar values and the fantasised safety of childhood. Half-demolished walls suggest both “slice of life” and dereliction. Bath, table, chair, doorway are places of loneliness and leave-taking and the thick covering of autumn leaves on the floor evokes things fondly remembered as well as detritus, neglect and death.

For a moment, a naked man and woman appear pressed to the wall at the back of stage. Their eyes are closed as if asleep, but their hands reach for each other’s bodies. A girl lies in a bath—there are hard surfaces, the glare of light, ill-health, perhaps blood. A performer carries a suitcase, another collects newspapers, folding them meticulously for some unknown purpose. We see them fold, pack and sweep with immaculate attention, obsessed by a need for order. Performer Brian Lucas sits at the table talking about writing, forming the letters, folding the paper, licking the stamp—all dry, meaningless tasks fulfilling only the mechanics of work, designed to have the appearance of normality, but trivial, obsessive, and made important by the requirements of despair to cling to recognisable, if useless, order.

The fantasy of saving someone, nursing them back from the brink, is replaced by the reality of annoyance with the afflicted, a pretence of concern and the avoidance of the ill. Lucas’ text vividly depicts how damaged people project their own weakness onto others. Curled up under the table, he begins a soft mantra with apparent compassion—”I’m worried about you, are you all right? Can’t you make an effort?”—phrases which become progressively more accusing, until their persecutory nature is revealed in the screamed “You’re pathetic!” Later he recites a litany of facile tips for the deeply depressed (“Take warm baths”, “Visit friends”), which become in turn justification for further persecution.

Epic aggression and naked ambition are also features of depression, themes not as well developed in this work as helplessness and futility, but very telling when looking at the life of a man who coined the phrase the “black dog.”

Churchill’s Black Dog, Created by Clare Dyson in collaboration with performers Avril Huddy, Brian Lucas, Vanessa Mafe-Keane, Elise May; ANU Arts Centre, Canberra, Sept 14-16

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 38

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

SLEEP 2002, Trevor Patrick and Wendy Morrow, <BR /> video image by Dean Golja

SLEEP 2002, Trevor Patrick and Wendy Morrow,
video image by Dean Golja

Dance artist Wendy Morrow’s career spans 30 years and includes work with Monte Carlo Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Sydney Dance Company and DanceWorks. She has worked as a dancer, choreographer and teacher in professional companies and tertiary institutions throughout Australia. She has studied dance and improvisation in New York, Europe and London. Morrow has a strong history in creating innovative models for arts learning, and was recently awarded an Australia Council Fellowship to create new professional development models.


What are the motives for the models of practice you are initiating?

The Australian independent dance field is small with clusters of artists generally seen to be aligned through shared practice, histories or aesthetics. In the last 10 years or so there have been enormous developments in opportunities created for younger ‘emerging’ dance artists. I believe we now need to balance that with the other end of the spectrum, appropriate professional development models primarily for mid-career and mature artists. I’m interested in the work and thinking of my peers who have established a practice and knowledge-base, but who have become isolated and uncertain about finding a context for their work.

People’s lives are complex; as a maturing artist a kind of relentlessness and fatigue can set in as you try to balance art-making and life. There seems to be a loneliness and isolation that’s chronic throughout the field, that gets stronger as you get older, and becomes a significant contributor to people not engaging. To support mature artists in sustainable practices, we need structures and programs that respect their independence of practice, and can assist to clarify and galvanise their real experiences, while maximising the economic and artistic resources being made available to them, otherwise as a culture, we face the risk of losing valuable people, historic insights and industry expertise.


The models I’m developing—Mature Artists Programs (MAP) and Artistic Risk Management (ARM)—are in response to a perceived desire of mature artists to rekindle communities of practice. ARM is a program of facilitated project management to assist generally younger artists to develop frameworks to structure and consolidate their artistic experiences. Artistic development and investigations can be unwieldy, lack structure and have no relevant evaluation processes. Projects where the overall artistic experience is unfulfilling pose real risks to an artist’s future motivation to engage in further artistic research.

MAP comprises a portfolio of projects and initiatives centred around teaching, facilitation and learning. Conceptually it’s a big-picture thing, but for more experienced artists. The idea is to work in small artist-driven clusters to strengthen professional communities. Possibilities include one-to-one facilitation, creative laboratories, structured forums, presentations, professional dialogue, residencies, or something much larger that might take several years. The communication and support provided by these networks goes way beyond practical advice. It aims to establish and maintain relationships among these artists, and addresses issues of sustainability and artistic isolation, and to enable relevant issues to become visible to the field. MAP is concerned with how we can, as experienced artists, enrich and contribute to a broader dance culture.

Two kinds of MAP structures formed the initial pilot study in Canberra, in September 2004, and MAP-Practice at Dancehouse in Melbourne in August 2005. What was your thinking about those?

The pilot for MAP last year explored one model of professional development in a structured framework where the participants determined the content of the program. There was a formal structure which required a fair amount of preparation by participants who were asked to consider an issue within their practice for discussion, and make a 20-minute presentation. Aims were to provide a platform for individuals to identify issues within their practice; utilise the expertise within the cluster to gain insights and clarification about problematic issues through dialogue; develop a stronger community with peers to promote individual and varied practices; and introduce alternative ways of thinking, and circulate knowledge that develops the collaborative nature of professional development.

For the MAP-practice residency at Dancehouse, there was no agenda for people to present themselves in any particular way. It was very personal. Five people with overlapping histories met for 5 days. The point for me was about the conversations which developed during that time; about recognising who these people were now, what they did, what affected them, and how removed they might feel from something that was considered current mainstream practice.


Were these conversations held within a dance context, or art practice, or completely outside of these?

The conversations were about ideas on art, and the relationships we have to art in our lives. They were like a continuous improvisation over 5 days. I know these people in a strongly artistic way and their artistic integrity is undoubted, so the conversation moved me into a much wider perception of what professional development might be. It didn’t have to be about skill development, although there was a lot of teaching and learning from each other. It was about people feeling that they’re worthwhile, that their aesthetic is worthwhile, and that there’s a natural respectfulness and belief in art-making that goes way beyond the practice or production of art and which needs recognition. This MAP-practice model is really the centre-pin for my work.

Identity and context

What came out of the MAP-practice group is quite complex, and might be reserved for another conversation. But primarily what we talked about is mature artists determining what they need for their own professional development. When people talk about artistic practice, they often seem to think it’s something you can go and shop for, and you come away with a practice. But it’s just not like that, it’s something integral to the person you are, evidenced by the way that you think, or speak or do things. What seems almost like a guiding principle behind working is, how you can even think about making work when you don’t actually have a basic sense of where you are, and what’s important to you now. That’s what we need to find and reaffirm—our identities and context. If you lack that vital context, you can’t make work regardless of how many opportunities and how much funding is around.

The idea of a creative laboratory for me is that, if you get the right people, the natural hothouse trajectory is really profound, and it doesn’t need justification beyond that. It stirs things up in people, and affirms that they and their ideas are worth something, and they will therefore naturally develop, and move into making work or to produce an outcome of some sort. It’s about actually recognising what art does for people in their lives, rather than have them feel like a machine that has to make art, and have someone come and pick it up and circulate it. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what happens when we fall away from the product. Not that you don’t want to make and create something, but neither do you necessarily want to try and fit it into an alien framework, because then you’re beholden to many other things that don’t fit your life, things you’re not attracted to or interested in. So what’s happening to these people? Are we losing them, are they choosing to go elsewhere because the context of working in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney or Perth is not really an attractive one for them?


It’s not a question of ‘wanting’ to be an artist—you just are, and you can’t help it, because what’s important is the kind of sensibilities with which you engage with the world. For many people the flow is up and down, intermittent; you can’t rely on a financial support system. You have to develop your communities, and that means connecting and then re-connecting to those links that are significant for you, and learning from each other. Sometimes the issue of money is a distraction because it prevents people from making communities. It creates a blaming mentality where you can sit back and complain, and that kind of engagement is counter-productive. If you look outside the realm of the arts, people everywhere are talking about changing the nature of their society, to create different social structures and systems that are more useful in managing their lives. They are not dropping out. They live firmly within the social and cultural milieu, and for them it’s about finding alternatives to the prevailing structures with which they are at odds.

At the age we are now, ideas often require different time scales. Development may not occur within this year’s funding round. We know that underneath the visible there’s a multitude of other things, potentialities we need to give heart to, because if it isn’t in people’s consciousness and allowed to have a life, we will never experience all the viewpoints that individuals and art can offer.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 39

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

Jerry Yoshitomi

Jerry Yoshitomi

Jerry Yoshitomi

A lot of international arts consultants spout long words and are masters of the incomprehensible pie-chart thrown up on a screen. But how many can bring their theories down to the practical problems of an independent artist, a small dance centre or a community art gallery? In Jerry Yoshitomi, though, we may well have found a really practical consultant who is also tapped into the ‘public value’ zeitgeist that promises a post-Rationalist era in the arts.

For this American guru, born in Los Angeles to the children of migrants from Japan who’d arrived as long ago as 1910, sees it as his task to “distill all that academic research being published telling us how to engage new audiences, how to ‘broaden and deepen’ their numbers and experience, and turn it into usable chunks. I advise arts people not to read whole books of such advice, but to read the one useful chapter in 10 different books,” he says.

Or you could just go to a Yoshitomi workshop. He gave them in Sydney and Melbourne in September, plus public lectures in both cities and Canberra as part of the Australia Council’s Leading Voices 2005 program, which also brought in Ruud Breteler from The Netherlands to talk about a theatre focused on non-mainstream Dutch populations, and the English duo of Andrew McIntyre and Gerri Morris to discuss audience-building in both the performing arts and museums and galleries.

Not that you’d necessarily have been wooed by the language used by the Australia Council! The brochure advertising Yoshitomi suggested that “Participants will become familiar with a behavioural model of participation and understand consumer and client decision-making processes by exploring the drivers that influence decision-making and methods to reduce the barriers that discourage participation”. Whoopee!

When I taxed the man himself, it came down to the beautifully simple: “The arts are an emotional experience—they need to be taken back from the rationalists and the elites so that people feel free to be moved. At the Krannert Center in Illinois, for instance, we came up with slogan ‘Come as you are, leave different’.”

Yes, Yoshitomi is admitting that the arts have provided a place for an elite to hang out and divide themselves from the masses. “They almost spit on people at classical concerts who clap at the end of a movement because they were excited by what they heard. But that’s how it was done when that music was first played—and orchestras would repeat that movement. Now, at Krannert they have an ‘afterglow’ session at each concert so that people can drink a coffee and share their experiences with others—maybe even strangers. All the research is showing there’s a great deal of the social gathering to art-going. The arts therefore need to create social opportunities outside the theatre, concert hall or gallery.”

And this will require greater flexibility than Jerry Yoshitomi often finds in “the fixed mindset of executive leadership in the arts—especially in big organisations. At the top they think they know it all—senior management is apparently too busy solving problems to gain the new knowledge necessary to do just that. The fact is you can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it. But the big boys mostly sent younger or mid-level managers to my workshops in Australia. They’ll only actually move when someone of a similar ‘world-class status’ makes a change. Small organisations are much more nimble.”

By way of example, Yoshitomi cites the tiny Nanaimo Theatre on Vancouver Island that worked out (with him) the idea of surveying its subscribers for their happiest arts experience of the past year, took photos of a nice demographic range and threw them into its next year’s brochure, all between April and June. “‘People like me are going there and having fun’ is a great message to get across”, explains Yoshitomi; “though we also used lines like ‘My father and I don’t get on, but we share an interest in music…’. Then we talked about organising neighbourhood parties for subscribers in the off-season. That’s creating social connections in a small town.”

And that was an idea picked up by Fiona Burnett, Melbourne workshop participant, jazz artist and Australia Council Music Board member. “I’d never thought of getting the postcode of my CD-buyers before”, she explained. “But what a resource to use to lobby their local festival organisers to book me for a concert. And I’m also working on the idea of listing my favourite I-tunes on my web-site, then getting users to list theirs. It’s certainly not polluting my ‘art’ to know what works, what can develop and maintain my audience. Self-sufficiency is pretty essential for the independent artist in this competitive day and age”.

Burnett is also thinking outside the comfort zone of the jazz clubs where she normally performs. And that sort of flexibility is required, says Yoshitomi—to find the ‘Echo-B’ audience (under 25s), who need less social organising, but do need more time. “Time’s the big barrier these days. A 3-hour concert is a real problem for them—though they’ll happily slip into a gallery for 15 minutes at 9.30pm (if it’s open) prior to a night at a club. So we need to think up patterns like the 20 minute concerts that the New World Symphony in Miami do—every hour from 7pm. Or the Tokyo plan where they play a big Mahler symphony twice, at 6 and 9pm, either before or after dinner. And let’s face it, just one piece that demanding does allow you to really concentrate.”

Craig Donarski, marketing man at the Sydney Opera House Producers’ Unit was an enthusiastic participant in Sydney. He was particularly concerned about the preponderance of women amongst the SOH Studio’s ‘fashionably wired’ audience. “Only 55% of them are female, but 75% of the tickets are bought by them. They’re dragging their blokes along. Now, we’re already keeping shows down to 70 minutes, and we’ve done things like adjusting the starting time on Thursdays which were a disaster until we realised they had to shop as well that night. But I think we may need to play on the ‘Chicks go to the theatre’ line, and set up a speed-dating area in the foyer afterwards where singles can meet and discuss the show. QPAC already markets Admit One—Share the Excitement to Brisbane singles—and that’s right across the range of shows from the Queensland Theatre Company, the Queensland Orchestra and the commercial Merchants of Bollywood.”

Yoshitomi stressed that these single-ticket buyers are different people from subscribers—whose numbers are beginning to crumble according to the Adaptistration website on orchestra management (www.artsjournal.com/adaptistration). Unamplified references to Mahler or Brahms in brochures for the latter need to be replaced by comments like ‘Brahms, the lush Romantic’ or ‘Mahler, the Monty Python of composers’ for the tyros. And Sasha Iwanick of Melbourne’s Comedy Festival, took up the idea that such “cheat sheets would definitely help to break the elitism down. And then there’s so much technology these days—I’m definitely looking to use mobile phone interactivity to take the Comedy Festival to the people effectively.”

But in a sense, these were mere details. It was the post-Rationalist, emotional stuff that came as the greatest surprise to Yoshitomi workshop participants—we’ve all been entwined in the ‘business of the arts’ and ‘arts economy’ lines for so long. “But why not?”, said Iwanick. “We’re moving towards an experience economy, even at the shopping mall.” And Fiona Burnett “really liked the idea of ‘memory objects’—the power of even those bloody mouse-ears from Disneyland to recall an event, an emotion”.

As Bridget Ikin, producer of the 2005 AFI Awards Winner for Best Direction and Best Film, Look Both Ways, commented recently: “We observed how the film affected people emotionally—revealing a craving for films that speak quite deeply to the national psyche about things like anxiety and fear. So we previewed the film heavily to maximise its positive word of mouth quality.”

The final link in the chain is to sell all this new emotional, even intellectual value back to sponsors and government paymasters. “Arts managers need to be more aggressive”, insists Yoshitomi. “There’s a great spirit of innovation here, a preparedness to scour the globe for answers. But they’re reluctant to sell the combination of emotional and entertainment value because of the taint of ‘entertainment.’ But if sponsors can connect their name to a ‘great experience’, they’ll be happy. And if society can gain a better understanding of, say, Islamic culture as a result of an interesting exhibition, then there’s a clear public benefit which any government should buy.”

Leading Voices: Jerry Yoshitomi, From Transaction to Transformation, presented by Australia Council’s Community Partnerships and Market Development Division with fuel4arts; Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra; Sept 6-17

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 40

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

Vico Thai, Katia Molino, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines

Vico Thai, Katia Molino, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines

Vico Thai, Katia Molino, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines

It starts loudly, with a stolen fast car, drag racing down Parramatta Road at 4.20am, going 100, 110, 120 miles per hour. It concludes gently, in a tiny tractor engine-powered boat escaping from Vietnam with a desperate human cargo, struggling to make it to Singapore and safety. To make it to Bankstown…

Urban Theatre Projects’ Fast Cars and Tractor Engines is an oral history project, with actors performing a tightly edited selection of interviews with a diverse range of community residents—a Maori boxer, a former soldier turned refugee, an Aboriginal man and his mother, the Mayor of Bankstown and her mother, a group of giggling African teenage girls, an elderly German woman, and a young Arabic man and his brother. On the opening night, the Mayor declares it to be a “thought-provoking eavesdrop on our community”, and it is, even for those who aren’t locals. The “our” of this community is expansive. It may be from and about Bankstown, and performed in its heart (upstairs in the Bankstown RSL), but you hardly need to be a local resident to be captured by the power of the performance.

These stories are continually surprising which makes for compulsive listening. But what makes the performance so striking is its unique vocal mechanics. The actors are listening to the interviews on headphones as they speak the words, while the audience hears the ambient sound from the location (skilfully interwoven with Oonagh Sherrard’s subtly evocative soundscape and Fadle El-Harris’ video backdrops). Director Rosalyn Oades acknowledges the influence of London-based Non Fiction Theatre Company in pioneering this technique, but she and her actors (stellar turns from veteran Katia Molino and newcomers Mohammed Ahmad and Vico Thai) take it to the extreme. It’s a bizarre simultaneous translation, reproducing every fumble, strange pause, overlapping statement, cough, and stutter. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. The unpredictable and idiosyncratic vocal rhythms, pitch, and timings of the interviewees produces a magical transformation in the bodies of the performers, who occupy a space somewhere between acting, ‘being’, and possession.

The slippages from person to person are mesmerising, registering the impact of each new voice—from reflections on motherhood, how to accept being hit in the boxing ring, finding oneself being shot at but not being able to decide where to dive for cover—given a choice between the latrine trench on one side and thorn bushes on the other. “It’s funny now…but it was not funny then.” The disjunction between body and vocal identity is illuminating—the young Arabic male actor performing the saucy old German woman, and later that same Arabic man being performed by an Italian woman. It never feels like parody, despite the many moments of humour. While there’s an immense amount of craft at work in this performance, a disciplined precision in both the words and the apparently casual body language, it sometimes doesn’t feel like acting at all.

Another refreshing element of Fast Cars is that, despite the obvious integrity of the interview process, the performance manages to avoid sentimentality in re-presenting these personal stories. It’s a tricky line to walk when telling community stories back to the community as theatre. Not everything about the people presented here is likable or noble—the nice old lady who makes tea and shows her collection of photos of the Queen’s visit later tells us that she refuses to shop in Bankstown because there are too many Arabs there now. The old German woman who liked her men admits that she probably wouldn’t have married her husband if she’d known he was a Jew. They’re each flawed and fascinating, and the elegance of the transcript editing and shaping (dramaturgy by Andrew Ma) gives them the time and space to be complicated, real people. This is director Rosalyn Oades’ first full-length work (Fast Cars was originally a 15-minute performance presented in UTP’s Short & Sharp in 2002), and she’s been well supported (especially by artistic consultant Chris Ryan and production manager Simon Wise). Fast Cars and Tractor Engines brings a new level of technological and performative sophistication to community theatre, reinvigorating the form. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen all year and deserves to be embraced by a wider audience.

The tractor engine-d refugee boat is hopelessly lost at sea, but our narrator finally sees land over the top of a gigantic wave—“and we had hope again”. And we do as well.

Urban Theatre Projects, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines, director Rosalyn Oades, concept Tim Carroll, Rosalyn Oades, dramaturgy Andrew Ma, performers Mohammed Ahmad, Katia Molino, Vico Thai, sound Oonagh Sherrard, video Fadle El-Harris, artistic consultant Christopher Ryan; Bankstown RSL, Sept 7-10

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 41

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

Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, King John

Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, King John

Millennial visions too often prove disappointing, and it is perhaps for this reasons that onlookers are reluctant to historicise theatrical movements at the start of a century. It does not take a prophet, however, to see that Melbourne’s first years since 2000 were characterised by a flurry of activity, especially in the formation of new theatre companies promising original structures, novel interpretation and dynamic programming. In a short period, we saw the coalescence and cross-pollination of the now-stalwart Red Stitch Actors Theatre stable in St Kilda, The Store Room venue in Fitzroy North (recently settling into a curatory stance), the consistently strong Theatre@Risk team, The Eleventh Hour group in Fitzroy and the related, though more anarchic mass of The Hoist, Theatre in Decay under Robert Reid’s guidance, and several more. What distinguishes these troupes from the constant turnover of fast-fading projects is the intensity of their idealism, the high number of productions put out in a short period, and the quality of work produced under such pressure. Moreover, though many have maintained a constant presence in Melbourne’s calendar, even those who may have appeared to succumb to the inevitable entropy, have proven able to continue their mission at least until the current moment.

The Eleventh Hour recently returned after a hiatus of 2 years with a pair of works presented under the broad title The Shining Sun is Up. The phrase is taken from a line near the conclusion of the first of the works, but in reality there is little to tie the twinned selections beyond the superficial. This is not meant negatively: the company has here created a pair of productions deeply worthy of consideration, but each could certainly stand alone as a valuable take on an established text.

The Crucible

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would seem an odd choice, done to death by high school drama classes everywhere. Even those unfamiliar with the original work are probably aware of both the metaphorical themes and the historical import of the play; though The Eleventh Hour’s précis focuses on significant, sometimes canonical works by ‘great’ authors, there would appear to be little The Crucible could offer that has not already been absorbed into the common critical literature which accompanies it. As it turns out, the company restores several scenes deleted from the play since its initial production, and the outcome centres not on the usual allegorical reading of the text (treating the witchhunt as a straight symbol of McCarthy-era US politics) but as a complex psychological drama that goes beyond the socio-political.

The company suggests that much of the internal struggle faced by the protagonists of The Crucible is symptomatic of the marriage breakdown suffered by Miller during the play’s writing, but if this is indeed the case, this production wisely avoids psychologising the work as a simple roman à clef. Instead, dramaturgical attention has been paid to the subtle realisation of character motivations and intentions, and a rare level of sympathy is offered towards the oft-maligned character of Abigail Williams (Nicole Nabout). Equally, John Proctor (Peter Houghton) is presented as a fierce and at times fearsomely unforgivable figure. Apart from some arresting vocal soundscapes which occasionally hover over scene changes, however, The Crucible never quite manages to move beyond the position of expertly-produced drama to become a genuinely original and challenging comment on a contemporary classic.

King John

King John is a more overtly ambitious rendering of a text bearing the connotative epithet ‘lost’, and makes good any claims for the company’s valuable contribution to Melbourne’s current theatrical climate. The producers point out that (as far as they know) Shakespeare’s play has never been performed in Australia, and this alone should be enough to pique the interest of theatregoers. Rather than relying on novelty, however, the forgotten work is articulated through a fictional rendering by World War I soldiers and nurses holed up in a military hospital. Less a framing device than an interlocking of two distinct dramas, the conceit works wonderfully as the audience takes on a kind of double-consciousness, extracting Shakespeare’s tale from the often hilarious and sometimes moving play staged by the wounded. Their stories are never unwelcome intrusions, but their own situations (on crutches, wheelchair bound, romance blossoming) act as both provocative comment on the unfolding drama and entirely enjoyable alternative to the sometimes stiff original text.

Peter Houghton’s officer is for much of the piece blindfolded by a gauze bandage, and upon its removal pauses before curtly confirming his permanent blindness and soldiering on as the King of France. Fiona Todd’s nurse erupts as an increasingly histrionic grieving mother (Lady Constance), hinting at maternal longings confounded without shoehorning an unnecessary plotline into proceedings. In this way, the drama of the Great War soldiers advances gently but thrillingly alongside the ostensible subject of the evening.

Eleventh Hour, The Shining Sun is Up: Part 1 – The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Sept 8-Oct 1, Part 2 – King John, after William Shakespeare, Nov 10-Dec 3, direction/composition Anne Thompson & William Henderson, performers Nicole Nabout, Shona Innes, David Tredinnick, Fiona Todd, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape, Christopher Brown; The Eleventh Hour Theatre, Fitzroy

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 41

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

Motor Home

Motor Home

Motor Home

On any Sunday, rain or shine, Newcastle’s harbour foreshore is taken over by motor vehicles and people with a passion for them. Cars crawl bumper to bumper as drivers cruise or ‘lap’ up and down a half kilometre stretch of road between roundabouts. The roadsides and parking bays are littered with stationary vehicles, many with bonnets raised and boots and doors flung wide open. Groups of people gather in and around the metal carapaces to check out body art, engine modifications, state-of-the-art sound systems, interior outfitting and design and, of course, each other. The gathering spills over onto the grassy verges of the roadside where old couches, picnic furniture and eskies are unloaded from vehicles so that the producers of the spectacle may also consume it in comfort and at leisure. The live experience of this DIY culture with its aesthetics firmly grounded in motor vehicles and place is so powerful for the participants that it has a half life most weekday afternoons and Saturday evenings and is augmented by a virtual community (www.newcastlelaps.net). At the same time, the forceful presence of a predominantly youth-oriented car culture in a prime public place, recently redeveloped for recreational uses, has ignited community debate and moral panic.

The spectacle of this Newcastle car culture has captured the imagination of creative teams who’ve seized on the opportunity to showcase, develop, adapt and diversify its grounded aesthetics and performative rituals. In 2004 and 2005 Hammer and Tongs (formerly Freewheels Theatre Company) worked with car culture afficionados to co-produce the site-based, new media performances, Speedcity (director Sally Sussman) and Speedcity: Full Throttle (Stefo Nantsou). Cars, divided and grouped by type (stereo, show, history, works in progress), took turns to lap a straight stretch of road leading onto a large roundabout in the middle of which an audience of the curious and enthusiastic had gathered. Cars were choreographed so that their arrival on the roundabout coincided with sound and video, created by the participants in VJ-ing workshops, detailing aspects of the cars and the attendant ‘lifestyle.’ Quite spontaneously, spectators climbed into cars parked on the roundabout and rode along for parts of the performance. Performers and spectators continued to mingle around the cars for well over an hour after the performance ended.

L!vesites, a progam initiated by Newcastle City Council in 2003 and supported by arts and corporate funds, also draws on the Newcastle car culture and Hammer and Tongs’ Speedcity in Motor/Home, described as “an intimate performance event in motor vehicles.” Livesites director Michael Cohen invited Simone O’Brien to develop her festival hit, Hell on Wheels, performed solo in her XF Panelvan, into “a group performance in non-traditional theatre venues.” O’Brien conducted workshops with local artists and TAFE and Newcastle University Drama students to create an on-site event presenting multiple images of “our domestic transport environments”—private worlds on wheels.

In a public square, a score of motor vehicles are arranged in a large circle. Tables and chairs in the middle of the circle are turned towards a jazz band playing in an open topped convertible. Spruikers talk up business for their acts and, with limited audience capacity, record names on a blackboard to reserve places for the next 10-15 minute set piece. I Left My Heart in a Small Van Disco (DJ Kooky Mama, DJ Kato and DJ Patsan) is a Ford Transit van decked out inside with mirror balls and lights. The DJ sits in the driver’s seat, manipulating the deck over the van controls while about 6 of us dance in the back. It’s a non-threatening introduction to intimate ‘vehicular theatre.’

I grab some popcorn on the way into Huw’s Kombi Cartunes. Huw Parkinson projects his own animations onto a screen set up in his Kombi (orange on the outside, red velvet on the inside) while he plays self-composed accompaniment live from the boot. Next is Aunty Peach (Alison Brazier), a petite and proper looking elderly lady happily knitting and chewing gum on the bench seat of her EH Holden. As we climb into the car (boot and all) she removes the gum, sticking it to the end of her knitting needles. She reels us in with tales, familiar yet strange, and offers of Iced Vovos. I notice plastic insects entangled in the lace decorating the inside of the EH. It suddenly feels very close in the car.

Escaping from Aunty Peach, Hell on Wheels’ Sera Tonin (Simone O’Brien), an 80s fashion devotee in stretch denim jeans and ‘Physical’ T-shirt, stuffs us into her XF Panelvan. She climbs into the back of the van with about 5 or 6 of us and demonstrates her acrobatic skills, even more impressive in such a small and crowded space. After this warm-up act she elicits from us stories of sexual experiences in cars. Then there is some rearrangement of spectators from front to back in the XF as Sera takes over in the front seat for some singing and lip synching with a mechanic’s car lamp to an obviously much loved and very distorted tape of Cold Chisel’s Khe San. We are encouraged to join in a couple of verses and the chorus but Sera and her melodramatic lip-synching steal the show.

Tumbling out of the XF I finally manage to get inside Trail O’Gold (Lauren O’Brien, Yetta Abrahams), a popular act performed in and around a caravan (with spruiker, ‘Sven’ doubling as ‘masseuse’ to his demanding star). Inside, and once she wakes from her post-coital nap, we are offered an audience with the ‘Novocastrian, almost A-grade star’, Denise Logie-Gold. This act gently parodies Newcastle’s love affair with amateur dramatics and minor celebrities. It includes some hilarious local references and a rendition of The Newcastle Song (Bob Hudson 1975), confirming it as a firm favourite on the circuit.

L!vesites offers an extensive cultural programme of fun and lively site-based performance events of which Motor/Home is just one example. The success of the program has much to do with its director, Michael Cohen who is responsive to and draws on community initiatives. He also puts something back into place by drawing on his broad contacts in the world of contemporary performance and utilizes them to train up and build the creative capacities of local artists. In this form L!vesites is an immeasurably important addition to a local scene where opportunities are reduced due to the much documented crisis in the ‘small to medium’ arts sector. It is about to claim Hammer and Tongs and has already erased a whole range of other things around town. Cohen’s cunning use of a corporate sponsored position to generate popular performances is actually creating a vibrant performance scene in Newcastle and expanding the sense of what might be possible and performable in the future.

Newcastle L!vesites, Motor/Home, performance director Simone O’Brien, project director Michael Cohen, designer Tim Neve, production manager Gererd Wilson, sound designer George Calligorous; Newcastle, Fridays in September.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 42

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

Vincent Crowley, Jason Klarwein, A Thing Called Snake

Vincent Crowley, Jason Klarwein, A Thing Called Snake

Vincent Crowley, Jason Klarwein, A Thing Called Snake

What is A Thing Called Snake? It’s “a raw mash-up of hip hop, pole dance, performance poetry, rock, punk & brutal burlesque”, according to the flyer—a description that confuses alliteration with literary style. I’m surprised no one came up with “The Bible meets Trainspotting”, or “based on an original idea by God.”

Stephen House’s script is a moral tale devoid of moralising. Its Biblical source is openly acknowledged with characters named Adam, Eve and Snake acting out the ancient allegory in a new setting. Gone is the Garden of Eden; in its place the urban jungle, or at least the squalor of inner-city bohemia. It is in part a love story with antecedents in the late 19th century. Adam and Eve have artistic ambitions—we have not moved far from the Romantic idea of the artist as outsider living precariously on the fringes of society. For all its contemporaneity it is a world that would have been recognisable to the Symbolists and Decadents. The story would presumably lose something if Adam wanted to be a plumber and Eve a hairdresser. No doubt both Adam and Eve fled from comfortable middle-class suburban homes in order to live dangerously. Desire becomes addiction when they are consumed by the desperate pursuit of “the Purple.” It’s a drug, but the name has a poetic ring (like ‘the azure’ of Mallarmé) that suggests a spiritual dimension to desire. That puts them in a line that includes Rimbaud and the Beats, but for Adam and Eve addiction has become destructive.

Enter the transvestite, Snake, with a promise of fulfilling desire at the cost of succumbing to temptation. It sounds familiar and predictable, but House gives this well-worn plot some original twists that lift it above the ordinary. His language ranges from the scatological to flights of poetry, ending with Adam and Eve achieving a kind of redemption through love. In fact the tender, hopeful ending is the biggest surprise of the evening.

For this production the Space has become a nightclub with burlesque acts, pole dancing, rock songs and live jazz. Nearly a century has passed since Marinetti exalted burlesque theatre (‘The Variety Theatre’, 1913) as the antidote to the stultifying conventions of traditional theatre, and it has not lost its appeal. The challenge to achieve real integration of such diverse material remains daunting. Geoff Cobham’s set is on 3 levels with pull-down blinds that also serve as screens for rear-projected video by Justin McGuinness. In front of this are two poles on which Eve (Alexandra Schepisi) and Snake (Vincent Crowley) perform, with Schepisi in particular demonstrating considerable prowess in this exotic form of dancing. Further forward is a small, raised stage surrounded by the audience, sitting at tables adorned with glowing coloured eggs and little plastic bags of a crystalline (but presumably legal) substance.

Schepisi is fragile and desperate but has inner strength that is essential to the lovers’ eventual redemption. Adam (Jason Klarwein) is the weaker of the two, perpetually in danger of falling off the edge. It is not surprising that he, rather than Eve, is the focus of the Snake’s manipulation. In spite of living on the street, both are curiously naïve and vulnerable. Klarwein and Schepisi give brave performances of a script that makes great demands on both of them with its explicit language, nudity and unflinching examination of painful emotions. Crowley is a commanding physical presence on stage as the cunning, worldly Snake.

Peter Nielsen’s sound design is restrained, but it is highly effective when combined with the on-stage playing of saxophonist Chris Soole. Soole’s diverse musical experience gives him a great expressive range and his contribution to the production is vital in providing continuity to the show. He becomes a musical Greek chorus commenting on the action and occasionally participating.

Director Ross Ganf has fashioned an ambitious production that at its best is provocative and disturbing. It could have been staged more simply, to equal or greater effect, but Ganf evidently believes that more really is more. On the other hand there’s no denying that he has elicited powerful and committed performances from his actors. He and writer Stephen House intend to jolt the audience and they have succeeded

InSpace, A Thing Called Snake, writer Stephen House, director Ross Ganf, designer Geoff Cobham, Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Oct 13-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 44

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

A young man in a motorised wheelchair rather abruptly asks us to follow him into a plush-curtained waiting room. It’s all very luxurious, and I notice the gold-leaf angels painted on the ceiling. There really are angels in this architecture. Unexpectedly one wall begins to move slowly away, pulling the curtains with it. Space expands. The world changes, revealing an intricate, seemingly ramshackle performance environment that swallows the audience whole. We’re not in Shopfront anymore, Toto.

We’re seated amidst an enormous set comprising platforms and islands, with adjoining bridges and a wild profusion of clashing building styles, colours and sounds—a monumental design by Joey Ruigrok van der Werven, with production by the late and very much lamented Ian Bowie. It’s a marketplace cum cargo-cult village, and it’s heavily populated with over 20 performers making themselves at home in dozens of nooks and crannies, communicating noisily through a Babel-like confusion of repeated vocalisations, percussion and scraps of various languages.

In this world, we, the audience, are clearly the foreigners, and we’re left to sort through the fragments of phrases we might understand, trying to put the pieces together. Luckily for us, the locals are friendly, and have prepared a spectacle to welcome us into their home. While it is unclear what this spectacle is about—Creation myth? Cautionary tale? Moral fable? Bedtime story? All of the above?—the ingenuity and enthusiasm of its staging makes this question quickly redundant. The story involves an angel, rescued from the air, carrying a transistor radio, transmitting sound through space and bodies. A boat carrying a performer in a wheelchair sets sail across the sea of audience, and arrives safely at a distant port. A strange bird places her treasures safely in a large metal sphere, high in the air. Up on another wall, a piano is played raucously. Television sets grow on trees (video Sean Bacon), and flowerpots mysteriously transform into drums. The village is alive with sound. This unnameable spectacle is anarchic, energetic, and epic, the airwaves featuring indecipherable messages.

It’s frequently very loud, possessing a joyous, infectious strangeness. Director TJ Eckleberg and associate director Marc Carra run about the edges of this world like demented ringmasters, feeding fragments of rhythms around the room, spreading energy like a virus. Abstract emotive sounds fly rapidly around the town, feeding on each other, riffing on phrases—“Hey you!” “Freedom in the choices!” “You rock!” Some of the audience join in.

By rejecting a model of social competence based on a formal command of language, and by relocating the signifying process of performance in rhythm, pitch, sound and image, the Angels collaborators have levelled the performance playing field, effectively integrating an energetic mixed ability cast. The physical abilities of these performers may be different, but in this world, no one is disabled. In this work Shopfront has created an important enabling place, creating lines of flight for those usually flightless. Disability art? For these young artists, disability is someone else’s word. Highly engaging and vividly realised, Angels in the Architecture is a wild night in the theatre.

Shopfront Theatre for Young People, Angels in the Architecture, director TJ Eckleberg, associate director Marc Carra, design Joey Ruigrok van der Werven, aerial artist Bernie Regan, multimedia Sean Bacon, sound design Trevor Brown, textiles Marty Jay, costumes/props Herbert Peppard, lighting design Ian Bowie; Shopfront, Sydney, Sept 2-11

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 44

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

Buddy Dannoun, Paul Barakat, The Pessoptimist

Buddy Dannoun, Paul Barakat, The Pessoptimist

Buddy Dannoun, Paul Barakat, The Pessoptimist

We spend much of our lives in rehearsal—in mimickry, game-playing, education and inner dialogues. Obsessive observation of other lives, whether real or imagined, is another form of rehearsal, a monitoring of the social world, its roles, plots and possibilities, and the theatre is just one place where we do it. For novelist Milan Kundera, however, there is no rehearsal, it’s all life: rehearsal is as unpredictable as life itself. The title of a show by visiting Norwegian dance duo Visibility Zero, …it’s only a rehearsal, shaped my thinking, with a bracing synchronicity, while watching other recent performances in Sydney.

The Pessoptimist

When it comes to prediction, optimists, pessimists and cynics alike have got it all worked out—there’s little need for rehearsal. In director Don Mamouney’s adapatation of a novel by Palestinian Emile Habiby (a former Knesset member and winner of the Israeli Literature Prize for the novel), Saeed from Haifa has played a carefully calculated role for much of his life. It’s about to be undone and he’s not prepared. Saeed’s betrayal of his people to the Israeli government is perpetrated with a kind of wide-eyed innocence—he’s like a modern Candide, joyous and certain. But the best of all possible worlds is only his own and no one else’s. Laughing, he can declare that his spying is “shameful work, but it’s a living”, and he lives without remorse. Even separation from his beloved Yuaad resolves to: “I ceased crying for Yuaad and began crying for myself.” Saeed’s manipulation of his masters and his own people eventually reaches its limits: the spy bosses are too demanding, his son turns to the cause Saeed has betrayed, and the stolen treasure he has secreted is beyond his reach. The world turns Kafka-esque, everywhere a prison, and ghosts are beginning to appear.

The Pessoptimist plays out against the several decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict realised vividly as large video projections (Assad Abdi)—a relentless if eerily engaging evocation of war, displacement, torture and murder. Saeed’s small but brutal contribution is a microcosm of this bigger picture, revealing the absurdity of his condition—the transformation of a deep pessismism about human value into a joyful, showbizzy drive. The bizarre fusion of optimism and its opposite yields an unexpectedly delirious pragmatism with actor Paul Barakat excelling as Saeed, the expert playing direct to the audience: a fool for the times, but never divine. If it at times overwrought, over-acted and over-produced, The Pessoptimist is grimly engrossing and bleakly comic, never blinking at horror nor backing away from complexities beyond its protagonist’s grasp. If Saaed is the product of inexorable forces, a man trapped in the middle, the production nonetheless leaves us in no doubt that these forces are not equal and that Saeed is ultimately another victim of Israel.

There and Back

Life is much harder to rehearse if you can’t hear it. The Australian Theatre of the Deaf’s There and Back is a comprehensive account of the struggle to communicate, in part with the hearing world, but mostly within the deaf community. In a tale of 3 companions driving to a regional festival in New South Wales, tensions spring up not only about partnerships, sexuality and talent, but also about categories of deafness and systems of communication. Pivotal to Kate Nelson’s script is Evan’s withdrawal from the hearing world. He’s profoundly deaf but resolutely opposed to any remedy, hostile to his girlfriend’s part-hearing engagement with the world of the hearing, and cruelly antagonistic to Fiona, a country girl with a cochlear implant, to which Evan objects in particular, and her English accented Auslan. Evan wants one world, one community, freed from the complexities and dependencies demanded by the hearing world. Although a social comedy, and there’s a lot to laugh at and with, There and Back grows increasingly tense, painful and revelatory. Melissa’s belief in her singing ability, Fiona’s isolated life and Evan’s caustic dogmatism each signal withdrawals into certainty, but on the road and at the festival they are flung into the trial and error of the unexpected, rehearsing and enacting new lives.

For the audience, hearing or not, writer Nelson and director Caroline Conlon have dextrously layered levels of communication-speech, Auslan, mime and, with 3 supporting hearing actors, they have cleverly embedded onstage interpreters in a host of roles. If at times laboured and initially too expository, There and Back is a very strong showing in performance, direction and design from ATOD and Conlon, its new artistic director.

The Candy Butchers

Of circus we assume intensive rehearsal: the risks are greater than those in everyday life. A significant trope of postmodern physical theatre has been what goes wrong when the unexpected enters the well-rehearsed routine, with performer personae deranged or just not up to it. It’s demanding work, requiring that little extra skill, risk-taking and directorial inventiveness. The Candy Butchers takes that conceit and runs with it, lurching into the dark side of the circus and sideshow—tension, betrayal, unnecessary risk, disaster. While we are warmly welcomed with fairy floss, another vendor moves among us with a tray of forks, some of which are later impaled in a fellow performer. But for the most part The Candy Butchers only flirt with evil and accident, the personae of its performers barely sketched in, the plotting loose, although Jess Love is consistently nervy and bashful, and DJ Garner’s virtuosity keeps him well in focus. We are curiously denied the full force of the Azaria Universe personality. However, Candy Butchers definitely has its moments and some substantial ones at that, especially when a whole routine, stage apparatus and all, comes apocalyptically down.

…it’s only a rehearsal

The first part of …it’s only a rehearsal places dancers Line Termoen and Dmitri Jourde in a tight cycle of movement that initially keeps them apart. They glide, they fall, rise up, become aware of each other, circle tenatively until their legs entwine, the faltering piano score quickening, and they collapse into one. But his grip and the application of his weight look oppressive and, later, even murderous with his hands around her neck. Is this a bad spouse scenario? Both perform solos, his furiously energetic, hers relatively languid. He runs at her; it looks like a tackle, but amazingly she absorbs it and the pair sink into sensual embrace. They’ll do it again and, again, the way his hands reach around her neck, the way he sits her on his lap, her weariness, suggest a trap. Or is it foreplay? She lifts him effortlessly before they embrace (she says, “kiss the eyes, but don’t let me steal your breath away”).

In a radical gear change, the performers tell in English and then, at length in French, the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the virgin goddess Artemis who wreaks vengeance on Acteaon, the hunter, after he sees her naked. Is what we first witnessed a modern variation on an ancient theme of male invasion and violation, but one more palpable and more dangerous than an intrusive gaze? The hunter is turned into a stag and eaten by his own dogs. The story is delivered (if untintelligibly for many), with vigour after which the couple return to their dancing selves, he to exhaustion after a barrage of break dancing inflected moves, a head spin and sudden hand stands. She sinks into her sinous self and reaches out…for him? Performed with power, subtlety and a spooky intimacy …it’s only a rehearsal is enjoyable dance theatre yielding moments of fine choreographic inventiveness and an intriguing theme. It also lives up to its title, it is a rehearsal, the rehearsal of myth, its tireless return and reinterpretation in the search for meaning. Only the word ‘only’ niggles; something more serious is afoot.

Sidetrack Performance Group, The Pessoptimist, directed and adapted by Don Mamouney from the novel by Emile Habiby; performers Paul Barakat, Buddy Dannoun, Amanda Mitchell, Hani Malick,Mariam Saab, Ben Tari, video montage Assad Abdi; Sidetrack Studio Theatre, Sydney, Oct 20-Nov 19

Australian Theatre of the Deaf, There and Back, writer Kate Nelson, director Caroline Conlon, performers Michael Ng, Neil Phipps, Medina Sumovic, Anna Hruby, Danni Wright, Gerry Shearim, dramaturg Donna Abela, sound design Blair Greenberg, design Jhulan Aupouri, Felicity Bailey, Maria Lentidoro, Grant Kay, lighting designer Inka Stafrace; Sidetrack Studio Theatre, Sydney, No 23-26

The Candy Butchers-A Circus Sweetmeat, creators, designers, performers Derek Ives, Azaria Universe, Jess Love, DJ Garner, show director Stephen Burton, lighting Marko Respondeck, audio stitching Lynton Carr; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Nov 16-27

zero visibility corp., …it’s only a rehearsal, choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen, dancers Line Termoen and Dmitri Jourde; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Nov 1-12

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 45

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

Ernie Althoff

Ernie Althoff

Ernie Althoff

“I’m really not interested in artist as hero or artist as superstar”, Ernie Althoff’s voice bristles from the speakerphone. Althoff has been making music since 1977 when he bought his first Superscope C-104 cassette recorder. “They’re terrific machines. They have very responsive keys so you can play them just like an instrument.” He had already heard “bands like Soft Machine where they would have lots of squeaks in their tracks that deviated from your traditional rock music”, and then “‘New Music’ was being played on 3CR at the time”, where he heard a lot of experimental music from abroad.

A short course in electronic music with Ron Nagorcka the following year was to have a lasting effect on Althoff’s enthusiasm and approach to music making and performance. Nagorcka introduced him to a community of experimental musicians who held events at The Organ Factory in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill. Althoff’s compositions featured his Superscope cassette recorders, found objects and cheap homemade instruments and electronics. His approach hasn’t changed that much since then; however the level of sophistication and the refinement of his ideas, machines and performances have.

“I’m building some instruments at the moment.” For the last month, following the release of his new CD, dark by 6 that documents five installations from 2000-2003, Althoff has been attempting to rectify what he sees as an inadequacy in his music making machines. “There is one thing that always eludes me and that’s a bass: a bottom end. I look at the laptop brigade and they’ve all got this very easy bottom end. I don’t want to go down that road, I must admit, so I’ve been concentrating on building a 2-string bass instrument—actually more like an Indian tambura.” A detailed description follows involving 2 small motors, leather beaters, guitar nuts and the physics of string music. However, after studying the history of such instrument types, the machine isn’t responding as Althoff imagined. “It plays what it wants to do rather than what I want it to do and you know, that’s fine, I’m happy to work like that.”

When Althoff was first making music he was conscious of the work of John Cage as well as performance artists of the day and began developing his own techniques in chance compositions and scores while also testing the relationship between the performer and audience. He developed graphic scores for performers and instruments (mostly his own) and his machines were built in such a way that their sonic outcome would be different each time they were ‘played.’ He also began using his voice and breaking down the conventions of performance. “I was the performer, the narrator, the musician and at the end I even became one of the characters by putting on a mask”, he says of one of his earlier performances.

There is an undercurrent of socio-political ideology in Althoff’s use of recycled, found or readily available materials, the ways in which he makes his music and in his approach to performer/audience relationships. “I propose political models by example rather than being didactic. I would never say this is what you have to do, rather, this is what I’m doing, have a look at it. I’m far more concerned with the integrity and quality of the work that comes out rather than the person that’s generating the work.”
Ernie Althoff, Tide Shelf

Ernie Althoff, Tide Shelf

Ernie Althoff, Tide Shelf

There is an openness and playfulness to Althoff’s work. “Well, I like to have fun”, he freely admits. There is also a simplicity to his approach—an almost minimal aspect. “I don’t particularly like complexity for complexity’s sake”, he says. “I do like to keep things simple. Often what happens in this day and age, people expect a degree of complexity, but pull the wool away from their eyes by doing something that’s incredibly simple and yet works, well, people are quite dazzled by the beauty of that simplicity.”

Althoff’s installations are elegant in their design and functionality. He states that they are all site-specific and allow the audience to move in and around them as they please. “There is no way I’m going to demand people see my work in a certain way. The thing I like about sound and music is that it’s so ambiguous. Everybody brings their own system of evaluation to what I do and everybody takes a different version of it home and it’s fine by me, I’m quite happy to have it work like that.”

The installations are generally made up of a series of machines that produce percussive sounds. There is little mystery about what is going on. In plain view one can see the apparatus and how it works. Wood (mainly bamboo), rocks, wire, shells, metal and other objects are set in motion by record players, cassette players and fans or are struck by objects extending out of or affected by them. The beauty of these pieces is that they work on different levels at once. There is the moment-to-moment percussive act and then, over time, the installation starts to develop its own sonic character. The installation is the composition itself as Althoff places certain sound producing machines with others after much experimentation and listening.

Althoff’s installations make links with nature through their materials, design, layout and even sometimes their titles, such as The Emergence of Mammals and Song of the Centipede. “Nature’s the best resource we’ve got, basically. I’ve tried to use the natural world and geology, which I see as a strong indicator of the natural world and natural patterns, in my work.”

In the liner notes for dark by 6, Althoff warns that the “documentations presented here should not be seen as replacements for the real-time auditory experience.” On the night of the CD launch (September 3 at Ignifuge in Brunswick) Althoff performed with an array of machines and sound making devices. It seemed to be an improvised performance but Althoff says, “I had the framework worked out. I prefer to leaves things open and rough and then trust myself to do it.”

It’s getting harder for Althoff to find venues to perform in and to place installations. “Back in the 80s I would do 20 to 25 gigs a year, nowadays I do 2. I did all that for those Rechabite Hall shows in 2003 and in a way, sure I got a lot done but in the same way it’s tiring and exhausting because not only do you have to come up with the work, you also have to do all the administration and all the blah, blah with it and sometimes I get a bit jaded about having to do all of it, all the time.”

At the time of the interview there were no future gigs booked but it seems there is no stopping Ernie Althoff. One only needs to see his discography to see how prolific he has been. I ask if he still makes compositional music. “Improvising is too much fun, basically. I like the risk in improvising.”

Althoff’s machines are kept in “a lot of big old cupboards and old bookshelves”, in his garage. “I deliberately make things that disassemble and consequently if I can take things apart it means I can use the equipment again and again for another thing.” It will be worth looking and listening out for what “things” Ernie Althoff assembles next and this time maybe debuting his new “elusive bass” instrument.

dark by 6, Five Installations by Ernie Althoff, CD, antboy 07, www.antboymusic.com

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 46

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

Lovely Midget, Haco, Gail Priest, Typhoon

Lovely Midget, Haco, Gail Priest, Typhoon

Lovely Midget, Haco, Gail Priest, Typhoon

A senior music reviewer once challenged my support for young artists and audiences with: “But how do you get them to listen?” To which I retorted,”Clearly you haven’t been to a sound art event. It’s like going to church, or a chamber music recital: heads down, eyes shut, ears open.” Artspace’s recent sound art program Typhoon, curated and hosted by caleb k, was played out across 2 nights of performances and an afternoon of talk, but with performative and visual components that added some intriguing cross-systems dynamics, especially for those who find laptop only concerts tedious.

Joyce Hinterding, large aerial hoops in hand, gathers and shapes found sounds from the aether with the appearance of someone in a slo-mo discombobulating wheel chair. Soft, shuffling static is interrupted by sharp cracks like ice breaking up, cross rhythm hums form as the hoops intersect, the pulse quickens and big Bach organ chords manifest out of nowhere, until the cracks and giant pops fade like a dying camp fire. It’s like watching a magician with wands, or at one point as an aerial was lifted aloft, a haloed nun at the steering wheel. The sounds are heavenly, in several senses of the word.

Fast Mountain Die’s instrumental set begins with bass strums and high overtones followed by a spastic bass outburst, a return to rhythmic security and some melodic simplicity on the way into a sound storm that finally winds down to a blinking aural signal and a thud before filling out with a final satisfying big chord, by which time the musicians have disappeared beneath the keyboard like preoccupied car mechanics.

Robin Fox’s inspiring performance was rapturously received. It’s like seeing what you hear, although not in any way illustrative as sounds and oscilloscope interplay, moving from slow visual and aural blips to staggeringly elaborate spirographic raptures, great oceanic washes, enveloping visual flashes and a final thudding withdrawal. Difficult to describe but utterly engrossing, Fox’s dancing lines and distinctive sonic compositions make for a unique experience in which the performer remains invisible while we focus on his virtual puppetry.

Japanese sound artist Haco’s visibility is key to her performance, her presence amplified by a large, live projection of her hands on her miked laptop computer as she wrings every possible sound out of its body. And what sounds! A few days ago I saw on television, in closeup, mikes and all, the first recording of the chatter of ants. Here too, Haco turns a microcosm into a consuming universe. Strange hums, crackles, grindings and savage downpours flood out as her fingers move across surface, depress keys and, especially, open files. The big moment comes with Force Quit which sounds like the universe diving into oblivion. After all that, a Restart reprise was less than interesting.

Stasis Duo have a performative look, cool and wearing shades, but stillness is everything and the frequently puncuated sound does the moving—static with a bank of pulsings; an isolated note that develops a curious sheen; a big hum that goes up a notch with all the rawness of insect buzzing; watery rushes; contrapuntal crankings and sweet statics; and finally, and at last really engaging, the evocation (not all intended I’m sure, but how do you speak of such things?) of a weird techno-mechanical contraption, clock-like with a stressed spring and dull chime, beating its way to the end of time, dying in a hum and leaving a watery residue.

New Zealand sound artist Lovely Midget commenced her laptop/keyboard composition with a bracing gong and feedback settling back into a big guitar chord. Hark the source! Taste the grape. Throughout, you were never in doubt that Midget was working acoustic guitar sounds from her sonic bank to the nth degree: solo strings, chord clusters and harmonics, until the whole thing mutated into a bristling electronic night forest, growing lyrical and slowing into a spacey fade, but forever accompanied by spooky, hovering feedback.

The eeriness often evoked by sound art reached a new level in Gail Priest’s conjuring of Gertrude Stein in a work in which the pouring and consumption of red wine (by Priest herself), the shifting levels of the liquid, and the playing of the rim of the glass, uncannily unleashed Stein’s voice along with the music of the vessel. The distinctive sound world passes through tick tocks and little crashes into deepening and ever more complex notes as the wine level drops; rhythms grow more complex and a host of wild sounds like spirits set loose tumble forth, until bluntly cut away to leave Stein reverberating into nothingness at the last drop.

Guitarist and singer Jojo Hiroshige from Japan displayed a pair of lightning fast hands that could chord, strum and thrash with the best of them, with a few unusual byproducts like searing siren and struka effects. Most listenable were the NY-type art-rock passages of strange chord patterning and half spoken singing. However the set was dominated by dramatic outpourings (attributed to love gone wrong, but untranslated) and a matching assault on the guitar with not a little feedback art: sound art as melodrama.

Typhoon offered aural delights and some visual and performative correlatives to an attentive, appreciative audience; this was not the church of the laptop, but an enjoyable, open-ended exploration of hybrid potentialities.

Typhoon, curator caleb.k, Artspace, Sydney, Oct 21-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 47

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

Russolo’s intonarumori

Russolo’s intonarumori

Imagine starkness:

A late evening in the future—Krapp’s den.
Front centre a small table, the two drawers of which open towards audience. Sitting at the table, facing front, i.e. across from the drawers, a wearish old man: Krapp. …
Very near-sighted (but unspectacled). Hard of hearing. Cracked voice. Distinctive intonation. Laborious walk.
On the table a tape-recorder with microphone and a number of cardboard boxes containing reels of recorded tapes.
Table and immediately adjacent area in strong white light. Rest of stage in darkness…. Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

This is Krapp and these are the minimalist stage settings for the first performance conducted between a live actor and a tape recorder, a dialogue between a man and the recorded voice of his younger incarnations—the year 1958.

The motivation for this critique is prompted by a sense of disgruntlement (similar to that so willingly displayed by the wearisome Krapp!) with contemporary computer based sound-art performance. The bitch is threefold; with history, or rather the alarming fog of amnesia that obscures the recent archaeology of sound art and sonic performance; with the hijacking of the term ‘sound art’ under the cover of these murky conditions and its re-purposing as a synonym for lap-top electronica; and with the death (or dearth) of the performative within this genre. The following scenarios are offered as a rough guide to what habitually goes unacknowledged and an attempt to give an historical tag to the “new” in “new media.”

Imagine intervention

London, August 3, 1972, the Mokka Bar, 29 Frith Street, Soho W1. Outside London’s first espresso bar stands a man with a grudge against the discourteous proprietor, his frizzy haired wife and their poisonous cheesecake; in his hands a sonic weapon playing back audio cut-ups of material recorded on location. The man, who also insists “language is a virus” (nein, mein Liebling, it wasn’t Laurie Anderson) persists in his sonic assault until October 30, 1972 when the Mokka Bar closes down. William Burroughs’ strategic use of audio cut-ups delivered in situ were designed to spread rumours; to discredit opponents; to function as a frontline weapon to produce and escalate riots and as a long-range weapon to scramble and nullify associational lines put down by mass media.

This is pretty serious stuff, and certainly of interest to the federal forces of evil; neither should we overlook the fact that all this could be done with razor blades and sticky tape!

Imagine gesture

The mise en scène is not so stark this time; the setting, a large opulent salon furnished predominantly in red. A young man stands behind another as if in a tentative embrace, their arms outstretched before them, their hands moving together rhythmically, the younger man carefully guiding the elder. In the corner of the salon, next to the tall casement windows, a woman is playing Glinka’s Skylark on the piano. Halfway through the recital the young man releases his gentle grasp on the older man’s hands and quietly steps back to observe Comrade Vladimir Il’yich complete the piece with tolerable skill. An enthusiastic round of applause follows and Lenin beams at 26 year old Leon Theremin, pleased at his encounter with the world’s first electronic musical instrument. We are in the Kremlin, the year 1922, the Revolution is still rosy and the gestural interface is a Soviet concept!

Imagine the future

Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound. This musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front…the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling. Luigi Russolo

Anyone with even a vague interest in industrial sound art is simply delusional if they haven’t yet read the Art of Noises, written in 1913 by Luigi Russolo. His “Intonarumori” devices were designed to produce a gamut of machine-like modulated rhythmic sounds emanating from “howlers”, “exploders”, “crumplers”, “hissers” and “scrapers.” The debut performance, Gran Concerto Futuristica on April 24, 1914 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan witnessed formally dressed performers defending themselves from a hail of rotten fruit and vegetables, their output balanced by the howls, screams and hisses of the audience.

Imagine ubiquity

Personal computers are now as ubiquitous as the Singer sewing machine in the mid-19th century or the Brownie Box camera in the early 20th. They are marketed in exactly the same manner and generate very similar social effects. These devices ensure, by their ubiquity, a profound level of banality and are successful to the degree that contemporary society reifies the mundane, orchestrated by the televisual cult of the lowest common denominator.

Like the Singer and the Brownie Box, the laptop is a powerful tool that relocates the serial production work of the factory within the home, blurring the boundaries between industrial labour and domestic pastime, spawning yet another generation of semi-industrialised ‘out-workers’ engaged in forms of electronic cultural macramé in which the exponential proliferation of texts, images and sounds ensures a concomitant reduction in the level of significance of the individual artifact.

Imagine the gig

And now to the subject at hand. Imagine a darkened room, front centre a small table, a profusion of wires exposed to the audience.

On the table a mixing desk with microphone and a number of interface devices centre of the table, expensive new laptop, to the left a mouse.

Table and immediately adjacent area in weak white light. Rest of stage and audience in darkness…

Sitting motionless at the table a young man stylishly down-dressed, partially obscured by the lid of the machine, upper half of the face illuminated in pale colour-less light.

It is not hard to recognize the scenario, sitting awkwardly on worn out cushions scattered over an unenthusiastically cleaned concrete floor; as in Vipassana meditation the discomfort is integral to the experience. The audience is transfixed, all eyes upon the pale light bathing the performer’s motionless face. Nothing more of note transpires, beyond the crackle and drone of ersatz industrial audio (proudly flaunting OH&S noise abatement limits) and the occasional flick of the right wrist creating that Wabi-Sabi moment when a glimpse of red light escapes from under the mousing hand!

The experience, save for some incidental movements, is entirely acousmatic in nature (but lacks the intellectual rationale that acousmatics pursued). From the perspective of the audience the performer’s physical presence is merely instrumental, offering no palpable connection between action and outcome (could he actually be doing email?).

So what of this lineage? Acousmatics (from the Greek ‘akousma’, what is heard) has its origins with Pythagoras, 6th century BC, who delivered his oral teachings (oracle-like) from behind a curtain in order to prevent his physical presence distracting his students, a technique designed to grant them a pure focus on the content of his words.

In 1955 the term “acousmatique” was employed by the poet Jérôme Peignon, at the beginning of musique concrète, as an adjective, meaning a sound that we can hear without knowing its cause, and to designate the distance that separates a sound from its origins by obscuring, behind the impassivity of the loudspeaker, any visual elements that may be associated with it.

Then in the early 1970s, Francois Bayle introduced the expression “acousmatic music” while director of the Groupe Recherches Musicales in Paris, employing it to denote a specific kind of music as “an art of projected sounds shot and developed in the studio, projected in halls, like cinema.” Laptop sound performances are in this ballpark but have added a dash of ego-based DJ personality in the guise of a ‘live’ event.

The sparse aesthetic of contemporary laptop gigs makes it is difficult to avoid the sensation of déjà vu (or maybe déjà entendre)—Edith Sitwell probably had a more radical idea when in 1922 she performed Façade through a megaphone, from behind a curtain (at least it provoked an uproar!). Naturally the FSOL (Future Sound of London) had it all well sorted; who needs the hassle of airports, road-cases and roadies who can only count to 2, when it is possible to stay at home in the studio and beam the stuff in! Or dear old Kraftwerk? Their impassivity in front of a row of shiny laptops in their recent performances is a self-reflexive critique, a pastiche of their own earlier mensch-machine shtick, as well as a very intelligent image renovation strategy that bridges generational gaps in music culture.

Maybe those smug and culturally bereft corporate types are onto something with their trite “Think outside the square” mantra—it’s high time for the electronica crew to gaze past the dim light of the 17” rectangle!

Krapp motionless, staring before him, the tape runs on in silence. CURTAIN.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 48

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

Virginia Hilyard, In the Depths

Virginia Hilyard, In the Depths

There’s no doubt that inner-urban Sydney’s Chippendale is already well into the process of gentrification; its huge brick brewery no longer emitting the smell of hops and slated for re-development. The surrounding area is trying to market itself as a bit of a local Soho, with galleries, warehouses, coffee shops and moped stores springing up alongside the old Socialist Resistance headquarters and the untouched Shannon Hotel (a few places-that-time-forgot still remaining). Nestled in these back streets is the new artist-run non-profit gallery Pelt. A beautiful white cube-like space, it’s at first not at all what you’d expect of the new home for impermanent audio. Though with its fully legitimated feel and in prime real estate, Pelt is quite a coup. The gallery regularly calls for expressions of interest for its exhibition program—providing installation, multiple projection and live performance space for artists engaging in the broad areas of sound and visual practice.

Video/installation artist Virginia Hilyard’s is the fourth exhibition to be held at Pelt since it opened in September this year. Her work In the depths seemed perfect for the space, which particularly suits solo work, allowing it due gravitas. Hilyard’s aesthetic has a refreshing clarity, despite her use of intentionally jerky hand-held camera work and Super-8 film stock. The overall effect is all about exquisite grain rather than grunge. We follow the journey of a woman (the artist) climbing the metal stairs out of a limestone cave, then splice straight into her wending her way through a high hedged garden maze (a colonial legacy shot on the Mornington Peninsula). Originally conceived as pleasure gardens for the bourgeoisie, it’s clear she’s traversing more anxious avenues here, with exits guarded Cerberus-like by vicious dogs. Next she’s wandering around inside a mirror maze (shot in a travelling sideshow in Dapto) which she navigates in a polka dot sun frock (a Yayoi Kusama moment). The previously black and white film suddenly changes to intense colour, as she’s back amongst the foreboding foliage of the hedges, before finally entering into an old library (past the spines of musty encyclopedias and their call numbers).

The loop ends at a bleached out window and then keeps going as the film stock peters out into brilliant Technicolour patterns. The sound track, set in speakers at the rear of the room, ranges from clanging metal, to footfall, to howling winds. These are all labyrinthine spaces of eerie entrapment, though our heroine keeps her composure throughout, transcending any conventions of cheap horror. I think we all recognise times when our lives are like this; when the walls start closing in and the contemporary world seems haunted by the psychic and mythic substratum of the old world. How great if we could just revel in it as an aesthetic, relieved of contemporary pop culture, entering into the silences and moody European sensibility of a cinema, one which is textured, full of lights and darks. Virginia Hilyard’s work goes further, affectively gesturing towards a spiritual odyssey as much as a cultural one, suggesting incarcerations of the mind overlaid on real sites.

In the Depths, Virginia Hilyard, Pelt, Unit 2, 46 Balfour St, Chippendale, Sydney, Oct 19-30; http://impermanent.info/pelt

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 49

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

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, Floribots

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, Floribots

Everyone has their favourites: the garden of programmed robotic flowers that rise, unfold, snap shut, fall again, lines rippling like wheat in wind. The Porsche-like, white, seamlessly cast manta ray. Starfish pinned together into fishing-nets that hang like an island welcome over the entranceway. Forms that are organic, computer-generated, classically-referenced, or based on negative space; thrown into corners, clutching walls, caught in crystal, precarious on floors. An arc of Buddhas chant; another is sculpted out of Easter egg foil. There are boxes of memories and mementoes; paper folded into sea-sponge cells; dress-shoes and a hand-bag cast in lead, coffin-prints, lost accessories. How strange, amongst several fetishistic collections of objects, the thin earth-to-sky abstraction of the Yolngu burial pole. And the winning work, American crater near Hanoi, #2: a negative space marking out the zone of damage. Surrounded by an origami of Viet and American currencies, folded into shirts, all tied (as the people were) floor to ceiling with string.

Ahh, sculpture competitions: much better represented now in Australia than they used to be. By the sea (Sydney), in the park (Werribee), or as here, held within walls. Much more space than before; this, the third Gallery event, seems to have gained kudos, been allowed more space, attracted higher calibre submissions. Newcomers beside old hands. Fewer mistakes.

The first mistake: squashing them in. In the first two National Sculpture Prize exhibitions (2001 and 2003), I actually missed site-specificity: pined for installations in grasses and on plains, Richard Long-type spirals of stone and sand. This time, I’m really glad I’m in this building here. The placing of works is really right: the art is given space. Sculpture is BIG, even when small. Even hanging on a wall, sculpture works out into space, asking questions wider than its dimensions.

The second: I’m not sure it’s a mistake as such, but the previous 2 exhibitions had phenomenal prize-winners, and a lot of work that was very thin. Technique in this year’s entries is incredibly strong: from the very senior Bert Flugelman’s understanding of the effect of light on polished and ground steel, to Drake-Brockman’s programming of motions and rhythms between elements across a large field, to the various manipulations of plastics, tape and paper, foams and foil, optics and animation. These pieces are allowed their worlds. I deeply understand Flugelman’s phrase on the way art reflects “what one might euphemistically call the ‘real world’.” Art also lives; it is. Even reflections on death (Glen Clarke’s Hanoi; Mel Coates’s underwater video of a drowning parachutist) create a space that lives.

Sculpture, more than painting, dissects dimensions in space, and in that dissection time separates: whose is this body Charles Robb reveals, the classic portrait ‘bust’ against the wall, popping a substance through its orifices, a second revealing its insides (heart and lungs)? The best works dissect the forms we think we move with and through in the world.

Alisdair Macintyre draws together hundreds of works of art and art sites he would like to have visited from several continents, miniaturised into one “theme park” which holds them all. As with the dance of the mechanoid Floribots, and Ian Howard’s enormous scrap-yard of life experiences, adults and children alike are held in thrall.

Works in this exhibition spiral, hide, hollow, store, map and conceal. They spread, climb, hover, fold into myriad cells. They engage in damage (what remains after war, or the sufferings of the ecosystem), and hope (what of both art and life survive). It is little surprise Glen Clarke’s Hanoi #2 wins the prize, as it engages in nearly all of these. There is a conscience and a consciousness in these works. The exhibition has a brightness I haven’t seen in years.

National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition, 2005, National Gallery of Australia, Dimensions Variable, Contemporary Sculpture Festival, Canberra, July 15-Oct 9

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 49

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

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) since 1999, and previously director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham for 10 years, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor says she came to contemporary art ‘by accident.’ Majoring in languages at university, she took art history as an ‘outside subject’ and quickly fell in love with it. Yet her focus was traditional art history, with its attendant disdain for the contemporary. After a stint as a volunteer in public programs at the National Gallery of Scotland and a Diploma in Museum Studies, she began developing a passion for facilitating audience engagement with museum collections. That passion grew during the first job that brought her in contact with contemporary art—curator/driver of a gallery housed in a converted bus that toured regional Scotland. Macgregor learnt on the job about contemporary art and the conceptual side of curating, while also handling every other aspect of running a gallery. But it was her experiences with the general public, who were far more open to ideas than she had suspected, and with artists, who awakened her to an entirely different perspective on the world, that cemented her desire to work with contemporary art.

Access and understanding

Where do you think that passion for access, for audience development comes from?

Because I didn’t come at contemporary art from an academic route, I built up my understanding and enthusiasm by direct contact with artists. I’ve always felt myself, even now, as a bit of an outsider. I haven’t studied contemporary art as a discipline. Because I come at it from that outside perspective—and because I’ve had to justify my professional interests to my family, in particular my father who used to tease me, as in ‘Is that the air-conditioning unit or the artwork?”—I learned how to explain art to outsiders. My family was always quite questioning, philosophically, so that tradition of wanting people to think for themselves also played a role. I’ve always seen art as a very useful tool for developing discussion and dissent. If people have the skills to discuss and debate aesthetic issues, that can flow into everything.

And meetings with artists fed into my preoccupation: how to make manifest, as a curator, all that information that you have? The orthodoxy has often been that the art speaks for itself, but I think that’s nonsense. Curators don’t just choose exhibitions on the basis of looking at the work, but rather on the dialogue they have with the artists, which informs the curator’s critical decisions and selection processes. We expect the public to come in without any of the benefits of those clues. So without saying we should be putting up interpretations, what we should be doing is giving the audience some of the insight that we as curators have had.

Sometimes that sense of befuddlement and wonderment can be a positive experience…

If you’re used to it, but if you’re not…! You can be very intimidated. But if someone can provide you with some idea, you start to engage with it. I think the best way of providing that information is to have people talking about the work—both artists and critics. We’ve just started a DVD project called The Artist’s Voice, where we’re getting the artist into the institution ‘unmediated’ as a talking head. The first program is currently in the Level 4 collection.

But that emphasis on access was also hugely important when I came into the director’s position in 1999. I realised that a concerted vituperative attack on contemporary art had dominated the agenda in the major media outlets. And because people were not coming to the museum—because of the door charge, because it was perceived to be in a spiral of decline—critics were able to highjack the agenda. I felt immediately that I had to counter the main message, to demonstrate the breadth and diversity of contemporary art. Although now there isn’t one orthodoxy: contemporary art itself has moved on, there’s more acceptance of different approaches.

To what do you attribute that?

In the UK, for example, the influence of artists such as Damien Hirst was quite profound. He took things out of the normal sector, created media interest and eventually attracted wide audiences. I couldn’t believe how many people came to the Tate the year I judged the Turner Prize and Damien won it! In other words, there was a complete disjuncture between the reality on the ground and the media representation of popular opinion of contemporary art. Who would have thought that Britain, of all places, would now have a contemporary art gallery as one of its biggest tourist attractions? People now rush to be associated with contemporary art.

Sensation and success

Do you think there’s any down side to that popularity?

Absolutely. There’s a problem with the rise of the sensational. I’m very wary of doing things just because they’re sensational. For example, when the National Gallery of Australia cancelled Sensation [the controversial exhibition of young British artists from the Saatchi collection] there was pressure for us to take it. But why should we? First, the MCA had already done a very good show on British contemporary. Second, the show was not really that sensational, it was just being portrayed that way by a particular media spin. I didn’t think we should take it just because it would get a lot of sightseers coming through: what would that really mean in the end? We want to develop a long term engagement with our audience. If you have to keep providing sensation, you are likely either to oversell—and disappoint the audience—or to run out of possibilities. I call it the Lego syndrome, after a gallery in Bradford UK that put on a show with artists doing Lego sculptures that was HUGE! From then on the poor gallery staff spent the whole time explaining to their councillors that they couldn’t do another Lego show, or thinking up ideas of what would be as popular. We all have our benchmarks of attendance for the MCA—it’s exhibitions by Tracey Moffatt and Wim Wenders. But I think these are easy to replicate, whereas if you go too far out of your patch, how do you ever replicate it?

What about the argument that sensationalism creates a particular kind of audience experience that is different in kind to what you hope to encourage as a response to art?

I have changed my position on this somehow since my purist stance in Birmingham. I do think you have to give the audience some kind of visual buzz, although you can’t apply it to everything. Now we think very much about the importance of the visual—it has become more of a mantra, because of the way that conceptual art did eventually disappear up itself—but not as a sensational experience. People expect a more fulfilling experience from the museum. The other thing is that people used to complain there wasn’t enough in the MCA, particularly when there was an entrance fee. What people can do now with free entry is to sample, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I have been accused by certain quarters of the art world of pandering to the suits. What’s wrong with people wearing suits coming in at lunchtime, I ask myself?

Directing, curating, listening

Can you describe how the curatorial program is put together, and how hands on you are?

I’m very hands on! [Laughs] I’m a curator, occasionally they let me do projects! No, I have always been a director, never solely a curator. I was director of Ikon, and because it was a much smaller gallery, I did about half the curating. But now my input would be more like 80/20-80% directing, fundraising etc, and 20% artistic and curatorial. I think it’s incredibly important that the artistic side drives it. If I’m out trying to raise funds for the museum, I need to be able to talk about the program from an informed perspective, not just from having attended a briefing by the curators. That way, you can convey knowledge and enthusiasm about the program, and when you get thrown the curly questions—such as ‘Tell us about that pile of bricks at the Tate’—you can answer them. We have a very collaborative process here that involves the curatorial team, head of marketing and head of education. We also pay a lot of attention to what our front of house staff say. I’ve really tried to foster that sense of openness, about listening to criticism.

In developing the program, marketing might remind us of the need to include a few big names, or of striking a chord outside the art world. We are also mindful of giving the curators opportunity to do projects they want to do, as well as bringing input from outside at times, as with Primavera. We also try to respond to the reality of what artists are currently engaging with. We set up artist and Indigenous advisory groups, where we have robust discussion about what we should be doing. These groups comprise 7-8 members from around Australia, and meet 4 times a year, chaired by a board member.

The exhibition Meridien 3 years ago came out of discussions with the first artists’ advisory group, where there was a feeling that mid to late career Australian artists were under-represented in the program. Artists also give us feedback, and a sense of what’s being said out there, the mumblings in the corner. It’s a good forum for us to be held to account for our decisions. At the same time, these meetings are an opportunity for artists to learn about the processes of mounting exhibitions and running a museum—it isn’t that easy—and for artists to acknowledge that they form only one part of the MCA audience.

There are no rules, no criteria as such in putting the program together. It’s ultimately about what we judge to be the most interesting work at this moment in time.

What do you think are some of the key debates at the moment for artists?

I think Russell [Storer] tapped into a very interesting thought in Interesting Times: artists are thinking very carefully about how to make work in a climate where so many of their values appear to have been forsaken. The impact of Tampa, and the refugee crisis: even if artists are not political as such, they are wondering, how do we respond to it? Do we take to the streets, or make work about it? There are aesthetic issues as well. There are always discussions going on about the ‘return of painting.’ Where did it go? That’s my question. Another key debate is about the physical longevity of video and DVD art. Tapes from the 70s are already deteriorating. How to preserve this work is a big issue. The whole new media area is another talking point.

Uniquely MCA

Where do you position the MCA relative to national and international institutions, and what museums do you look to as models?

The MCA is unique. We are the only institution in Australia that is dedicated exclusively to the exhibiting and collecting of contemporary art. Because of that unique focus, the experience of contemporary art is different at the MCA—it’s holistic, you’re immersed in it, as opposed to the state galleries where your experience of contemporary art is necessarily framed by the historical. And now with the extension of Level 4 to show the permanent collection, it gives the experience another dimension.

We draw inspiration from international museums. The MCA has always seen itself up there with MoMA and the Guggenheim: I’ve always been amazed at how Bernice and Leon [Murphy and Paroissien, founding directors of the MCA] were able to position it way above its actual reality. While we have good relations with the Tate and MoMA, that’s not really where we are positioned. In reality, our peer group comprises the likes of Hammer in LA, the New Museum in New York, MCA Chicago; MCA Kanazawa and Mori Museum in Japan; and the Whitechapel and Serpentine in London. We’re also trying to build up links in other parts of the world, such as South America.

Who are some of the artists who inspire you?

I did two shows recently that I’m very proud of. One is Maria Fernanda Cardoso (RT55, p10): I love the way she takes those natural materials and infuses them with another narrative. Her work has that strong sensual and visual quality that I respond to very well. The other is Mona Hatoum (RT66, p10), whom I’ve known for a long time: I was alarmed to think, when looking at the dates of some of her performances, that I was actually there! Her early works were so visceral and angry and political, yet she’s adapted her new work to a different kind of politics, while maintaining the sensual, the visceral within it. And I have also always been a big fan of painting. I was personally thrilled to pull off the Brigid Riley show. And I’m a huge admirer of Callum Innes and Ellen Gallagher.

What are your ambitions and future plans for yourself and the MCA?

Well, I never plan, so for myself I’ve got a contract for another five years. As for the MCA, the big challenges are to build the collection; to keep the program quality up; and to develop some innovative projects outside our physical confines, with other institutions such as Penrith Regional Gallery and Casula Powerhouse, and outside the building. And we need to fix the building: access is shocking; it’s working against everything we want to do. And it can be done without knocking down the building and starting again!

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 50,

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

The 3-day ARC Art, Design & Craft Biennial, organised and hosted by Artworkers in Brisbane, was packed with speakers, good sized audiences for most sessions, and, while there was little time allocated to open discussion, unleashed some key issues which kept coming back at us. The gathering of artists, curators and writers from visual arts, craft, design, fashion and new media art from across Australia and beyond made discrete issues of form, criticism and survival mutually accessible and provided some intriguing insights in a time of great fluidity between practices and fields.

Evolution and environment

The opening session addressed the big picture, the evolution of art. The discussion focused on the context for survival and success. Cathy Hunt, Director of the arts consultancy, Positive Solutions, said that for “organisational success, you need a successful environment” where companies are in control of their own destiny, where research and development is built in and risk accepted, and the arm’s length funding principle maintained. She called for changes of attitude so that arts grants are seen as investment rather than handouts, and for sponsors to be called partners. I spoke of the need to see survival and growth in terms of networks and communities, as part of an arts ecosystem, organic and at odds with the forces of fragmentation, and requiring of governments devolution of funds to innovative organisations and consortia who are more in touch with artists and emerging practices. Robert Heather, the Director of Artspace Mackay described how a regional gallery strictly reliant on local support keeps itself in the loop from which governments would excise it by developing a strong regional presence (including the South Pacific) and touring shows.

The following session on artist-run intiatives covered familiar territory, but reminded us just what hard work such operations involve, how critical they are for the bottom-up emergence of new forms in the arts ecology, and how such ventures range from open-ended community-based models to highly focused micro-movements. One thing in particular stood out, a desire to loop into larger networks. For example, Rawspace in Brisbane brings together local and national curators in its program, and Rocket Arts in Newcastle features a mix of visiting and local artists. Isabela Pluta of Rocket Art spoke of the pride involved in being able to “export work.”

Art words

Edward Colless’ reverie on critical writing was apt for the wide-ranging ARC Biennial ambit. He declared Play Station 3 as “setting the cultural benchmark”, surveyed the stages of the Play Station evolution, and celebrated the advertising creations of filmmaker Chris Cunningham—“exquisitely empty stuff [going] directly to the adrenal gland.” Here was a writer talking honestly about what grabbed him and what he thought culturally significant. Rex Butler too spoke of the need “to respond to enigmas.” And both Butler and Tim Morrell spoke of “reviews that should aspire to be as good as art.” Colless’ droll forecast of “art criticism going off-world” in our culture of re-mix and post-production warrants elaboration and publication.

Designing women

Tracey Moffatt was one of several soloists in the conference who played to crowded houses. As stand-up artist Moffatt entertained us with a trip through her latest work with herself in the guise of powerful Scorpio women: Georgia O’Keefe, Hilary Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Marie Curie, Joni Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Marcia Langton and many, many more, but not including Condoleeza Rice, whom she says she does not respect. Moffatt spoke of her art as arising from obsessions and the need to defeat boredom, which she described as an invaluable state; “creativity comes out of it” and growing up in Brisbane, she said, provided plenty of it.

Three emerging fashion designers spoke variously of the challenges of revealing and hiding the shape of the body, the dynamic of the useful versus the decorative, and the ethical commitment to sustainable materials, eg hemp instead of pollutant cotton. The work of one of the designers, using “a glove as point of departure”, was intriguing. The environment for these young designers is a tough one, a high cost Australian economy in which the target markets are small niches of the wealthy.

The cross-cultural test

Alison Carroll brought wit and wisdom to the issue of cross-cultural exchange, providing a chart with the categories ‘poor’, ‘fair’, ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ into which contacts between nations were allocated. India and Britain were ‘good’ in the 18th century, but not so good thereafter. Something positive was going on between India (Calcutta in particular) and Japan in the early 1900s. “Fragile…and not getting better” was how Carroll described the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. As for the USA, poor in all its cultural connections. And events? Venice Biennale, fair, Asia Pacific Triennial, excellent, and Asialink, her own organisation, 80% excellent. In playing this impressionistic game of evaluation, Carroll made us sit up and think, pinpointing how impact cannot be measured by media response, audience size, number of events and the budget scope. Less measurable indicators, but ones with long term impact, like establishing new horizons, the power of small moves, “touching souls”, and the heat generated, or that shiver up the spine, need to be acknowledged, said Carroll. Lee Weng Choy, director of Singapore’s The Substation, described his own “natural” cross-cultural evolution (involving Malaysia, USA, Philippines and Singapore), contrasting it with difficulties in S-E Asia: “there is no density of exchange, The Substation has to work for it.”


There were 2 sessions devoted to “crossover.” While they were significant in bringing together visual art, craft and design, the absence of new media art in the mix was notable. There was occasional but incidental mention of digital work. Brian Parkes, Associate Director at Object (Sydney), described new works he’d seen recently in Europe including digital wallpaper (inspired by William Morris) and an intelligent coffee table able to stand on 2 legs if required. However, other themes began to emerge in “Crossover” that would continue to be addressed from various angles: technical training and the shifting lines bewtween art and craft, and the rise of design at craft’s expense.

The new meticulousness in the visual arts was noted, described as a “resurgence of the handmade”, epitomised by the presence of Fiona Hall on the panel. Hall described her commitment to “intricate crafting” as “connecting to the specificity of the natural world and the natural sciences.” She ascribed the technical foundations of her work to her 70s art school training in design, lettering, “a bit of sculpture”, welding, photography, and drawing (“like doing scales”)—even though finding her place in the art world took some time.

Although Noel Frankham (Professor of Art, Tasmanian School of Art), like the other panellists, applauded the retitling of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts & Craft Board as simply the Visual Arts Board in a time of great fluidity between forms, he worried that in the resultant “blur we might lose our language.” Likewise he opposed the functional jargon of the Creative Industries movement and its desire to “create and entertain.” Sketching a history of the fate of the craft field, he noted its continuing dimunition in art schools and the parallel evolution of marketplace-friendly design courses.

While some worried about the reduction in skills teaching in tertiary education, Adrian Clifford of the design group, Rizen, in another session, was concerned that a new emphasis on technical education was beginning to squeeze ideas and theory out of the universities.

New models

Discussing the relationship between art, science and technology, artists Keith Armstrong and Trish Adams, curator Julianne Pierce and SymbioticA’s Oron Catts outlined the challenges of collaborating with scientists—different ways of working, different expectations and the huge problem of ethical clearances—but also the pleasures of the process. A scientist working with an artist might be called upon to meet the artist’s vision with significant innovations (as in Pierce’s account of robotics scientists working with Mari Velonaki on her Fish-Bird project), or, as in Trish Adams’ case, the scientist might find their role exploratory rather than fully research-oriented. Catts detailed the possible levels of involvement and Pierce outlined the challenges to such work and to new media art in general—mainstream arts and media wariness, a limited gallery focus, a lack of curatorial training, and the functionalism of a Creative Industries approach recently evident in Australia Council CEO Jennifer Bott’s announcement at the Vital Signs conference (p35) that opportunities would be sought for the field in design and engineering!

The following session, New media—where to now? addressed different kinds of opportunities in the new media art engagement with the commercial sector (gaming) and arts institutions (artist and QUT lecturer Deb Polson on her innovative mobile phone commissions and for visitors in galleries in Victoria). Corporate interest in the potential of mobile phone art is also high said David Cranswick (dLux media arts) in his account of the Mobile Journeys project. On the one hand, new media artists don’t want to be relegated to the role of supportive technicians or content providers. On the other hand they want to make the most of the opportunities of new and multiple platforms for their work that could produce income and audiences. As Peter Giles of AFTRS says of the emerging communications model, “a project that spreads across platforms…is inherently both experimental and commercial at this crucial moment in development of the media” (see p21 on the LAMP intiative).

Design issues

For John Warwicker of the Tomato design team (UK), who collectively (if globally far flung) create commercial design for corporate clients as well as their own individual artworks, the line between experimental and commercial, and between design and art is thin indeed. Warwicker’s demonstration of un-fixed (constantly morphing) and label-less logos, spare, witty mobile phone visuals, a giant animated Absolut bottle on an airstrip and a massive chillout room in Japan, suggested the joy of creation and lateral thinking, and recalled Edward Colless’ “exquisite emptiness.” But like artists, Warwicker asks important questions: “What is a screen?” “What is a brand?” “What is change?” He answers: “Art is not change; what changes is the culture and the commodification of art to keep itself alive…[it’s] a primal process of being human.” This blunt Darwinism is matched by his retort to a query about working for the likes of Nike: Tomato has no group ethics, and he has to support mother, former wife and kids and second wife and child, pay 30% of his fee to Tomato and tax as well, leaving very little after earning twelve thousand five hundred pounds a month. Some laughed, some reflected on equivalent compromises between survival and conscience, if on a much smaller scale, in their own life and art.

If innovative art is finding more space in the advertising sphere, speakers on the public art panel gave a sad account of worrying trends: a demand for merely illustrative works, the squeezing out of dissent, art objects used as security barriers and, above all, the redefining and dimunition of public space.

Award-winning designers Alex Lotersztain and Brian Steendyk presented accounts of their fascinating works. Lotersztain is nomadic, working with communities in the Philippines and Africa, oscillating his focus between craft, art and design. In Africa he helped a community of expert basket weavers whose market was failing to come up with new designs with international appeal. Steendyk started out as an architect but moved into design, creating innovative chairs in plastic, and a desirable bath that looks like a hybrid of boat and chaise longue, a thing of beauty in itself. The fluidity of roles and forms in the work of these men is of the moment.

Critical limits

Matthew Collings, the British art critic tied himself (and us) in knots, apparently not happy that he’s popularised the contemporary art of which he is critical, and which, he says, is no less obsure for all its successful repackaging on TV and in galleries; unhappy too about the failure of his own painting to find a niche, and about the ills of postmodernism (“ban it”) despite admitting himself a product of it. As stand-up critic, Collings did a lot of quotable quipping which kept the audience agiggle if uncertain about where he was going (everywhere), declaring contemporary design often more interesting than art, craft as trying too hard to be art (“the Tracey Eminisation of craft”), but with a few interesting things to say about how—beyond the old standbys of form and colour—we read paintings, from Rubens to Pollack, which is about where he draws the line.


There were other panels I didn’t get to, on Aboriginal art and markets; there was the Rawspace launch, too joyous and crowded to experience some good looking new media art, and there was the closing event, the bizarre Matthew Barney film, De Lama Lamina. This features a street pageant installation created in Bahia with the great Brazilian New York art-rocker Arto Lindsay. Lindsay’s band plays on the float, a performance artist above them builds a geodisic dome from a tree and, in the innards of the massive metal float below, a solarity figure masturbates against the rotating shaft of the engine. If this left us speechless, perhaps it was not a bad thing after 3 days and a zillion words spent worrying at the interplay of visual, art, craft, design and new media art in all their hybrid complexities and functional, educational and commerical perplexities.

If we were enlightened or not about any of this, there was no room for complacency. Speakers reminded us of the impending Anti-Terrorism Bill and its sedition section, of art funding limits and the ongoing difficulties in art education. I think it was Adrian Clifford who said in question time in his session, “We tend to think we’re at the end of history and that there’s little to do, which is garbage. We’ll look back on now as the dark ages.” Artworkers cast a little much needed light, an arc-ing spark in the dark, with a very welcome ARC Biennial.

Artworkers, ARC, Art, Design & Craft Biennial, Brisbane Town Hall, Oct 28-30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 52,

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

Assyrian tribal garments (Tiare & Tkhume)

Assyrian tribal garments (Tiare & Tkhume)

Assyrian tribal garments (Tiare & Tkhume)

In From Mosul to Fairfield, a multimedia installation at Fairfield City Museum & Gallery, Samiramis Ziyeh, an artist of Assyrian background picks up lost connections between her displaced and disinherited community and their homeland using as her central metaphor the traditional dance called Khigga.

Before they learn to walk, Assyrian children, held in the arms of dancing kin, learn Khigga.

In her catalogue Ziyeh notes: “Today’s Assyrians trace their origins to Mesopotamia (now eastern Syria and Iraq) known as the Fertile Crescent which stretched along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Assyrians have endured countless persecutions; the most traumatic of these during World War 1 when 750,000 Assyrians lost their lives in massacres and deportations that virtually exterminated entire villages and emptied whole regions. Large portions of the culture are slowly vanishing due to dispossession of traditional land commencing with the tragic impact of World War 1 on the small Assyrian nation.” There are around 20,000 Assyrian-Australians and many have made their new home in Fairfield, Western Sydney.

The gallery is filled with the rhythms of dahoola (drum) and zoorna (flute) that accompany the dance in which a line of straight-backed men and women linked hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, skip and stamp the ground in unison.

With each repetition of the dance sequence they travel only the distance of the width of one foot. With each beat, they touch or step on the ground beneath them, affirming again and again that where they stand, in the body and in the present moment, is home.

The installation is dominated by video documentation of Assyrians dancing Khigga in the many places of their dispersal, the earliest footage from Moscow in 1914. Continuity is evident in the serious, dark-eyed faces of these handsome people—even when the ornately decorated clothing and boots of the dancers in Northern Iraq are replaced by the t-shirts (“I’m with the Band”) and sandals of young Assyrian-Australians in Fairfield’s Neeta Shopping Centre.

Samiramis Ziyeh spent 3 years researching and collecting dance forms, music, costumes and objects for this exhibition. She also “stood by the moving spirals of dancers, listening, observing their conscious and unconscious exchanges.” At the outset of the project in 2003 after the first invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces, she says, there was cause for some optimism amongst the community that they might regain at least some of their traditional lands. As the project developed and the war worsened, despair only deepened.

In the centre of the gallery, Ziyeh reflects on this sense of loss, evoking in response a space of contemplation, “illuminating the unchanging human instinct toward community, culture and art.” Using an overhead projector, the artist goes to ground, creating a “pool” amidst a curving line of leaves, twigs and earth. As you gaze down into the screen, a female figure spins; fingers sift sand and water; old hands pass small clay figures to younger ones who place them in circles on the ground.

While tracing the bodies of local Assyrian community members on the walls of the gallery is a powerful idea, this third element of the installation is less effective in execution. Strangely moving, however, are the beautiful traditional costumes which feature in photographs on the walls accompanying the history of Assyrian struggle. In two tribal garments (Tiare and Tkhume, as pictured) originally made on the traditional land and dating back to WWI, you sense the dancing bodies beneath the cloth.

Clearly, From Mosul to Fairfield is a labour of love, entailing personal as well as cultural revelation for the artist and her community. Beyond this inner circle, the exhibition adds another definition to the dictionary of displacement. The resilience of the Assyrian community is echoed in the voices of waves of other immigrants to Western Sydney that speak from static displays in the Fairfield Museum next door. Like the dance it celebrates, Samiramis Ziyeh’s project is ongoing. As I left I had the sense that the artist hadn’t finished, but had simply downed tools for the day.

From Mosul to Fairfield: in a spiral we dance as the earth moves beneath our feet until we are home, multimedia installations Samiramis Ziyeh, Farzin Yekta, Jim Prisuda; collaborators Nicholas Al-jeloo, John Homeh, Dishoo Ziyeh, Donald Barkho, Maureen Beckett; community facilitators Paul Gorgees, Marlin Babakhan, Lina Ishu; Fairfield City Museum & Gallery Oct 2-30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 53

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

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

If classic Antipodean Gothic can be read in terms of transparently colonial themes, it’s perhaps no surprise to sense a recent resurgence of the Gothic aesthetic, rife with contemporary anxieties, fears and terrors. Indeed, the curatorial premise of this show seems to be in linking the past with the present. Strangely familiar isn’t about art providing a mere spooky or uncanny thrill, however, and there’s a much more plaintive sense in which things could be said to seem ‘strangely familiar’, the return of conservative politics for one. In terms of domestic protest, this is a lot more than an exhibition of work by the Fionas Hall and MacDonald—it’s a uniquely collaborative installation.

Washed up on trestle tables, along the front window of the UTS gallery are 49 dead birds. They range in size from a hulking albatross (it’s amazing how many people referred to it as a Dodo) to tiny colourful kingfishers. They are all immaculately preserved—with arsenic and smelling of mothballs—yet so unceremoniously dead. Outside of the museum context, where stuffed things are so often ameliorated by fake habitats whenever they are put out on show for the viewing public, these prostrate birds form a disturbing shoreline shrine. It’s not hard to make the tangential leap to avian flu, due in any day now from Manchuria. A drape hangs behind the birds enclosing the entire front window, behind which the art proper starts. People entering the gallery hesitate to cross the threshold, the birds warning them off perhaps, with whatever confused notion of the inexplicably sacred (or sordid) we still hold.

Inside the gallery to the left is a woven photographic print of James Cook Island (in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters) by Fiona MacDonald. Seems harmless enough. An artificial island and suburban residential development, each house on its hollowed out crescent replete with swimming pool. Though to risk a very overused photographic cliché, this is a photo with a psychic punctum. The curator, Ricky Subritzky, who was doing some research into Cook in the popular imagination, saw something ‘strangely familiar.’ In an anamorphic moment the shape of the Aboriginal Wandjina spirit appeared, an effect of all the jetties sticking out from the curve and the aerial view. This is the spirit imprinted onto place who wreaks vengeance through extreme weather. A harbinger of global warming perhaps, for societies who pay scant ritual attention to their environment.

It’s clear, casting a glance around the room, that this is an exhibition about bringing it home. The interior is mapped out like a sparse household; with rugs, wallpaper, drape, lamp and shopping bags. For Subritzky, the space is built around ideas of comfort and terror and he began with a synergy he’d detected between these 2 artists’ works, in particular those which are critical of US-style global capitalism. For every benign domestic surface there is a disruptive patterning; raptors sillouhetted onto shopping bags, or flapping around a lampshade diorama, bird nests made out of US bank notes and camouflaged fighter planes in wallpaper. Fiona Hall’s rug, Mire (2005), juxtaposes botanical swamp specimens (their names embroidered in Arabic underneath) over heat images of the Afghanistan landscape. Fiona MacDonald’s silk drape, Crusade (B-1B) (2005), also uses militaristic imagery to kaleidoscopic effect, showing war, as seen by fighter pilots, as like a lurid video game, dehumanising the reality.

In a University Design and Architecture Faculty environment, where things can too easily be reduced to property development and the clean advertising image, it is a relief to see such substance emanating from style. It’s also wonderful to see the birds get an outing from their specimen drawers at the Macleay Museum, in a show which intelligently dovetails museological and visual art curation. The show forms part of the annual Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference, held at UTS at the end of November —and, fittingly, on the conference’s opening day, a young Goth girl student has volunteered to be the gallery attendant and baby-sit the birds.

Strangely Familiar, artists Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, curator Ricky Subritzky, UTS Gallery, Nov 1-Dec 2

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 54

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

Bronwyn Bancroft, mural

Bronwyn Bancroft, mural

Bronwyn Bancroft, mural

Sydney’s Marrickville Council engaged Bronwyn Bancroft to design a contemporary Aboriginal mural for the Robyn Webster Sports Centre at Tempe Reserve in 2004. The site was recommended for a public art work, based on community consultation conducted as part of the Marrickville Public Art Strategy, People, Place + Art in 2003. The mural also marks the sports centre as a gateway to Marrickville and, strikingly, for many visitors arriving at the airport, a gateway to Sydney and Australia.

Bronwyn Bancroft is a Sydney based artist, Acting Chair of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative and the Convener of the Indigenous Artist Lobby Group, which is focused on contemporary Indigenous representation in Australia.

Can you outline the size of the centre?

The shed itself houses two basketball courts and is 100 metres in length, 15 metres high and 20 metres wide. The trees planted around the shed are still growing, so it looks quite bald and in-your-face. I like that, the work looks comfortable there, it looks like it’s going to grow there.

There are 5 symbols in the piece. What is their relevance?

In the centre there is a snake and on either side is a man and woman; within the context of a man and woman I’ve also done a transgender, the male with empty breasts. The reason for transgender is to reflect their presence in the local community and in all cultures. I set it up so that the man and woman epitomised Adam and Eve but also became the creation story with the rainbow serpent. The snake, again, was evident in the Bible. I make these analogies between different religions and between women and men.

On either side of the man and woman are fish which represent the midden, an archaeological site dating back 60,000-70,000 years. Marrickville Council saved a midden and I wanted to demonstrate this integrity by Council toward Aboriginal people. On the opposite side of the fish is a sand goanna, the totem of the Wangal people, the original inhabitants. Even though most died of smallpox or killings, I didn’t want them ignored. In these ways I tried to put quite a serious debate behind the images but also make the images so that they are easily read.

What contemporary influences do you bring to this design?

Humanity. For me the mural represents that man, woman and child are created from nature and ecology. These things have to be respected, not politics. I’m trying to bury divisiveness and create a link culturally. This mural reflects my philosophy on life. I evolve my work through the creative process and during that creative process what I take with me are the stories of the people that I’ve been involved with.

How has your background as a textile designer influenced this mural design?

Even though I haven’t designed fabric for 15 years, it seemed like an obvious, natural progression to have something very simple on that shed and something that people could read from a long distance away. The way I placed the units diagonally meant they formed a diamond effect, a shape very important to Aboriginal art in NSW. I wanted to accentuate the fact that NSW Aboriginals are also culturally progressive because the dominant focus [in Aboriginal art] remains on the Northern Territory.

Could you articulate the significance of the 2 colours chosen to paint the mural?

The colour base of the structure was an off-white—eggshell if you want to get technical. It wasn’t difficult to work out I was going to do a mono print. Black and white was too harsh; it was too politically and racially divisive. I wanted to use the symbolic colour of red because it not only symbolises the earth but also blood. When we cut ourselves we still bleed red, all of us. This to me signified the commonality of humanity. Paint was developed using red oxide like soil, so there’s actually pigmentation in the paint that allows it to sustain for 15 years. As a painter I use thousands of colours but with this it was so simple.

What is the religious significance of the piece?

In my family we practise Aboriginal spirituality as opposed to the Christian religious doctrine I grew up with. We believe in our ancestors and old people and they guide us. Aboriginal people are still recovering from past abuse that occurred through the church and I would like to increase the debate on that. However, people can read the piece from their own religious context.

Who are the people who act as Indigenous mentors in your life?

Sally Morgan does, she’s a mate of mine. The people I really admire are Uncle Lester Bostock who guides me as a male elder and his sister Euphemia Bostock who refers to herself as the black mum I never had. She brings to me an informed and political debate, having had the lived experience of the Tent Embassy movement from the 1970s. My cousin Robyn Bancroft, Aunty Elsie and my mum, who is a white woman. I admire people who do positive things in Aboriginal art and dislike people who undo all of the hard work that generations of Aboriginal people have fought for.

Bronwyn Bancroft, Commissioned Artist 2003-2005, Robyn Webster Sports Centre Aboriginal Mural, Marrickville City Council, Sydney

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 54

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

Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Sophie #2, 2005

Van Sowerwine speaks affectionately of her creations at a Stills Gallery artist’s talk, of the making, naming and keeping of them, these disturbed and disturbing dolls. Here, it’s Sophie in a series of large photographic images that suggest an incident and subsequent distress in Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth. Upstairs in the gallery, on a video monitor, it’s Clara grappling with the torments of the imagination in the wake of a fellow child’s death, and torturing herself in an act of grief-relieving masochism.

As you enter the gallery you come face to face with a large portrait of Sophie, the classically inscrutable doll-face onto which we can freely project. Inside, again staring out at us, Sophie sits alone at the end of a table on which are placed a model cooked chicken and 2 plates of vegetables. In an adjoining image her plastic hand reaches out to touch a very real bright-eyed but very dead fish. Elsewhere she’s on the floor: perhaps simply at rest, thoughtful, or withdrawn and upset. In another image, milk is splashed across the floor, a small toy bear lies on its back, broccoli heads nearby. To the right, another shot of Sophie, this time in profile, perhaps crying, her skin eerily real, yet plastic at the same time. Finally, right down on the carpet, a dustball or dried weed cluster. Like the fish, it’s as if the object has caught Sophie’s gaze, entrancing her, and us, with its reality in an otherwise synthetic environment. There’s a narrative being played out in this series, perhaps as mild as a temper tantrum when compared with Clara’s pain, but it’s up to you to decide. Certainly you can’t escape Sophie’s sense of isolation but, just as intensely, her curiosity about the fish and the dustball—it’s as if you’re stretched out on the floor beside her with the extended concentration span that educators sometimes would deny in children. It’s this play between views detached and subjective that gives Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth its peculiar power. Whether working with stills or animation, Van Sowerwine expertly and vividly suggests emotions from barely inanimate materials. Clara won a Cannes Film Festival Best Mention in the Short Film Palm d’Or.

The photographs in Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth are large and glossy, the details however sometimes raw. Sowerwine explains that the images were taken straight from transparencies without any touching up, the closeup, for example, of Sophie’s hand reaching for the fish, revealing the powdery edges of the body. Sowerwine designs the doll which is then sculpted in plasticine from which a model-maker casts Sophie in silicon. Sowerwine chooses eyes, the hair type, inserts each hair and sometimes makes the clothes. She designed the space for Sophie and worked with a commercial photographer, John Billington, using a Hasselblad. Much of the work is painstaking: lighting such a small figure over a week was, she says, a particular challenge, especially given that Sophie is not as manipulable as the multi-jointed Clara in the film. However, working on the film, says Sowerwine, was infinitely more labour intensive: the team included animator, designers, composer and cinematographer (Billington) over an 8 month production period with a 10 week 16mm shoot with a parallel video recording to check the movement was right.

At Artspace I finally got to experience Mari Velonaki’s magical and curiously affecting fish-bird. Two wheel chairs wander the space, face and skirt each other, pump out messages (on small strips of paper) sufficiently enigmatic to yield many interpretations and not a few eerie personal synchroncities for viewers. Even stranger, they seem to sense your presence, moving away as you advance or sometimes following you. Their association with vulnerability and service, their prosthetic function, makes Velonaki’s mutation of them into apparently sentient beings particularly potent. As with Van Sowerwine’s dolls, the encounter is both eery and amusingly prophetic.

Van Sowerwine, Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth; Clara, animator Isobel Knowles; Stills Gallery, Sydney, Oct 12-Nov 12; Mari Velonaki, fish-bird circle b-movement c, mechatronic system design David Rye,, software architecture Steve Scheding, track system & software design Stefan Williams; Artspace, Sydney, Sep 22-Oct 15

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 55

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

Deborah Kelly, Beware of the God, 2005 (installation view)

Deborah Kelly, Beware of the God, 2005 (installation view)

Deborah Kelly, Beware of the God, 2005 (installation view)

Concerned about “the rise of religiosity in the public sphere”, leading activist artist Deborah Kelly has countered with an artwork in public space—on the clouds above Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour as part of the MCA’s Interesting Voices program. A massive projector, courtesy of Sydney Bouhaniche, spells out “Beware of the God” on passing clouds. “I don’t have a problem with God”, says Kelly, “just with people who say they have God on their side.” Religious literalists in the USA, for example, legislate against homosexuality and, in the teaching of science, the Darwinian theory of evolution.

For Kelly, Beware of the God is a little different from her other work: “The words are surely ambiguous, as well as threatening and kind of wonky-funny. I am delighted they can be read so variously depending on your standpoint…Usually, my work is not that slippery. I love it, ‘Beware of the God’ won’t stand still.”

Kelly’s inspiration for a project she’s had in mind since 1993, variously came from Batman, the Angel of Mons (who appeared over World War I trenches and was possibly a lantern projection), and even a 1948 KGB plan to project an image of Stalin onto the clouds for his birthday. The cost of such a projection, however, would have “stripped me of all my assets”, says Kelly, but fortunately Bouhaniche’s generosity and the assistance of friends in running the project saved the day, and she’s grateful for the support of the MCA’s Russell Storer and Christopher Snelling. For the most part, the weather played along: “I have turned into a weather vane.” Not only that, she spent a lot of time “willing the clouds down.”

Aware of the power of multiplatforming, Kelly has a 30-second version of the work playing to thousands on billboard screens in CBD railway stations where the MCA promotes its shows. You can also see it at www.bewareofthegod.com/wp-images/movs/beware.mov. Plaque versions, attachable to your front fence or door, where doubtless they will alarm religious prosletysers, are available from the MCA shop. And for more information, documentation and essays go to www.bewareofthegod.com. Wherever you encounter it, Deborah Kelly has created a far-reaching artwork, all the more powerful for its economy and wit. RT

Deborah Kelly, Beware of the God, projection, Circular Quay, Sydney, Sept-Nov, as part of the MCA’s Interesting Times Focus on Australian Art.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 55

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

Ruark Lewis and Rainer Linz, Banalities for the Perfect House

Ruark Lewis and Rainer Linz, Banalities for the Perfect House

Ruark Lewis and Rainer Linz, Banalities for the Perfect House

For the first 15 or so minutes of Rainer Linz and Ruark Lewis’ Banalities for the Perfect House, I try to figure out how all the elements fit together and what drives the piece. I am continually perplexed by its disembodied nuances, begging lots of questions. Even as the work coalesces around me, I have a sense of there being some sort of teasingly elusive internal logic. Along with the intricacy in the construction of the space, the shafts of wood, light and shadows, there is a sense of continual interruption, either by vocal or sound inflection, or a shadow across a piece of text. You read signs, trying to make sense of the words, but they are run together so it’s difficult to understand the space in a whole way. In attempting to read the shapes of the set—elaborate, meticulous spatial structures—there is a huge sense of something hidden which I will never find without looking beyond the work, and for me, this is what animated Banalities for the Perfect House.

The design is architectural, cathedral-like, but not fixed. Sound and architecture work together, moving and plastic. Twelve variously segmented grids are positioned like walls or room dividers, and black and white wall-bars with continuous text are clamped vertically to one wall. There are road blocks that can be shifted and dragged, and now and then people are herded into different spaces. These fixtures, even the fonts and lettering that display the text are on a very human scale, and because of that there is familiarity, despite the teasing quality.

This is a performance work, neither dance nor song, but a transformation of the space with spectral light and sound. Two signs at one end of the space read “Tyranny of distance”, upside down, and “Threnody for a lost overture”, intimating an elegiac sense of loss and survival, so ideas of time, age and memory became important.

On the wall in the foyer, there are photocopies of grids, offering a kind of map by which to navigate the work inside. These depicted structures are reminiscent of how pictures hung on a wall once removed leave shadows, the shapes of spaces in between. Perhaps this is a ghost house, where one might glimpse residues of discontinued and disembodied processes, the detritus of lost practices just lying about like museum pieces, but creating new if unintentional patterns, old material re-collected and reconstituted, a process of denuding and reclothing.

The fabric of the sound seems woven from material so familiar as to have its own peculiar sense of being: Morse code, phone pips, clock time; lists of abbreviated phrases marked by number; facile aphorisms dropped into the mix like dye; cooking instructions; dubious headlines from newspapers read years ago. At first, as part of the soundscape and then proclaimed from a podium by Ruark Lewis, phrases like “The female of the species”, “Trees conceal small books” and “Tools of negotiation”, seem quizzically performed, left hanging. “Give war a chance” and “Mental health is dead” drag behind them a past of absurd bravura.

Lewis’s text was pre-recorded and the sound transcribed by Rainer Linz into a collage, designed to pan from one part of the space to another. Sometimes it’s a delicate micro-sound creeping into the ear, or machine-like and cold. Some of the sounds are more literal, you can hear words. Often there are ambient drones and blurts, electronic beeps and bings, playing with text repetition—stuttering, grinding, purring, bleating, humming sounds. Some of the texture is glossolalic, delivered by Lewis in a machine gun blather, as he walks around the space, reading spools of paper forwards and backwards. Everyone scurries out of his way.

Twice Lewis recites lists of times—“19 minutes past 7”, “7.45” or “a quarter to 8”, each line inflected with a peculiar tonal quality. The second time around, to a bip-bip-bip, it’s with sloppy diction, mistakes, trailings off, like guessing or rough estimates; the bipping is irregular and stuttering.

Over the 50 minutes or so of the work, Lewis defines a pathway connecting various areas of the space, as if visiting different rooms which are characterised by particular texts. In the ‘kitchen’ Lewis sits with Linz reading lists of statements and directives about food, both playing with the vocals through abstraction, rising inflexions and repetitions (“Couscouserie”, “Say no to purée”). In the “Patrick White room” Lewis sits facing a lit square of phrases projected onto the floor, reading aloud from the first 26 pages of The Solid Mandala, as if peering into a pool. More poetic and sustained this time, but still broken, the sound comes from different spots in the performance area.

The audience focuses on the physicality and the fragility of Lewis’s movement with walking stick, progressing through the crowd, like a ball in a slow pinball game, pushing barricades around, making spaces and pathways for himself.

As he leaves the space, Ruark Lewis recites again text from the wall bars, phrases you might have heard already, fragmented. The voiceover and live sound together create a kind of song pattern. The vivid imagery of phrases like “Excited like an animal” hangs, suspended in space.

Banalities for the Perfect House, Ruark Lewis and Rainer Linz, Part 4 of Who’s Afraid of the Avant Garde?, curator Blair French, Performance Space, Sydney, Sept 8, 9, 10

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 56

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

Interesting times…seditious times

As we go to print the Anti-Terrorist Bill, Sedition clause and all, is about to be passed by the Senate of the Federal Parliament. Even with a few limiting provisos and promises of re-evaluation in 2006, its implementation is a fearsome prospect. We all know that once legislation is passed it’s incredibly difficult to reverse. Paired with the draconian Industrial Relations legislation, the world looks set to pass from conservative fantasy to appalling reality. Our cover, courtesy of activist artist Deborah Kelly, responds to one dimension of this new reality; the incursion of literalist religious beliefs and values into many areas of our political, cultural and social life.

The festival selection: Adelaide, Sydney

There’s not a lot to celebrate at the moment, but the arts festivals are coming on with their inexorable marketing and cultural goodwill. If you could gather the most interesting works from Adelaide and Sydney, you could put together a very fine arts festival, but neither is exceptional in itself. The feeling is distinctly mid 90s. That said, there are more than a handful of works of the moment in each that will draw audiences eager, ever desperate to be challenged.

The Adelaide Festival, for example, has 3 works that comprise a mini-robotics event. The photograph to your right is of Inflatable Bodies by American artist Chico MacMurtrie and the Amorphic Robot Works. Showing at the Experimental Art Foundation, its inflated, mobile arterial trunks will reach and squirm across the floor and up to the ceiling. In dance, ADT will collaborate with Montreal roboticist Louis-Philippe Demers and UK video artist Gina Czarnecki, while Wayne McGregors’ Random Dance (UK) are working with with Jim Henson’s animatronics workshop, lighting architect Lucy Carter and video artist Ravid Deepres. For details about these works see RealTime 71 (Feb-March 2006).

Other works on the Adelaide program that attract are Video Venice (6 of the best from the 2005 Venice Biennale); Callum Morton & David Pledger’s Walk-in, Drive-in theatre/sculpture/cinema/installation hybrid; Lisa Lim’s As Night Softly Falls, a rich program of musics from around the world, but not World Music; parallelo’s long anticipated collaboration with Argentinian artists in Lontano Blu; David Byrne in several manifestations including a collaboration with Fatboy Slim with Imelda Marcos as their subject; Mick Gruchy’s visual response to a concert performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.8, the ‘Leningrad’; the always inspiring William Forsythe and his company; and the up-very-close and dynamic Stau from Netherlands choroeographer Anouk Van Dijk.

The Sydney Festival has just enough offerings to keep us on our toes: Sylvie Guillem; Robert Lepage’s one-man multimedia The Andersen Project; the superb Tony Oursler’s spooky “psycho landscape”, Blue Invasion (NY, free in Sydney’s Hyde Park); Antony (the star of last year’s Leonard Cohen celebration) and the Johnsons; Urban Theatre Projects’ backyard performance, Back Home; big hART’s Stickybricks, with the inhabitants of Surry Hills; surreal physical-cum-dance theatre from Australia’s Splinter Group in Lawn; Shirin Neshrat, the wonderful Iranian-American photographer and video artist; and eccentric sculptor Erwin Wurm in Glue Your Brain at the MCA.

Best wishes for 2006

2006 could be a challenging year as the new laws of the land begin to impinge on people’s lives. Artists will, as ever, strive to speak freely, through their art and in public discussion. So will RealTime.

Thanks for support go to our contributing editors and writers, advertisers, funding bodies, subscribers and, above all, our many readers right across Australia. We’ve really enjoyed reaching out to an increasing number of regional centres in 2004-05 (Townsville and Newcastle in this edition) as well as growing our international coverage (South Africa on these pages). In February 2006, we’ll be in Bristol as guests of the the Arnolfini artspace’s InBetween Time festival. While there we’ll run a workshop on writing about hybrid practices and report to you online about the remarkable works we’ll be witnessing.

We wish you well for 2006 in whatever you do, especially in the making and enjoyment of art.

Keith, Virginia, Gail

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 1

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

Ian Bowie was a drummer, a sound engineer, a lighting designer, a production manager, a constructionist, a mentor to many and a wonderful man. He worked with Performance Space and our peer companies over many years contributing enormously to contemporary practice in Sydney. He was an avid recycler with a creative, practical solution to almost anything. He always offered a hand, a piece of equipment or some time to a colleague trying to get a work up on the smell of an oily rag or to a fellow techie in a tight spot. He liked shows with politics, people with guts and great music. Sadly, Ian died on Thursday October 13. We will miss his generosity, his smokey laugh, his can-do attitude, his snake lights and his rock’n’roll stories.

Fiona Winning

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 1

Sharna Vrhowec has a powerful sense of the surreal, and the determination to make it happen. Clearly influenced by her former teacher and mentor, Margaret Cameron, Vrhowec is focused on the ways in which her performance is able to stage something out of the ordinary. She doesn't mind making her audience wait, perhaps too long, perhaps not, in order to create a moment of intensity. Unlike Cameron, Vrhowec's work is not text-based. She uses her body and its trappings.

Traces of Splendour and Decay begins with an installation and concludes with a series of performative snapshots in a strange space in the back of Gasworks Theatre, a cordoned off and converted section of rehearsal space. Not perfect but it will do. A dozen or so people are taken into the space, firstly to file past a naked woman lying face down on the floor. Although inert, this is an after-image of drama, as if the tidal wave has just passed. She lies clutching a tablecloth which is half on/half off a dinner table. Crockery and cutlery is strewn around her, looking like a failed version of that magic trick where the magician whips off the cloth leaving the tableware intact. Because she is naked, the scene is not quite domestic. Furthermore, her body is covered by a long scroll of text. The audience pauses, then moves on.

We sit for some time, not sure if this is time or timing. Lights flash, then we hear the clip-clop of heels. Darkness again. A woman in a revealing black dress is perched on a stool beside a doll's tea service sipping tea. It's all a little bit too precious. She darts an aggressive look at us. Whilst her body is on display, her look challenges ours, disrupts normality. There is almost the sense of a split between face and body. Is the body unable to look back? Not always, though it is coded here as a to-be-looked-at being. The woman challenges us: “Did you hear that?” Was someone crying? Vrhowec retreats to a dark corner to remove her clothes. Having wrapped herself almost entirely in Glad Wrap, she does the most fabulous skitter along a back wall.

It is refreshing to see a young performer who's prepared to manipulate the perceptions of her audience. Nothing was laid out for the casual observer. We had to strain, with time to think about what we had seen and what might happen next. If Vrhowec intends to use movement and not much text, perhaps we might see a more finely nuanced physical expression in future works. It's nice to know that, whatever the content, it promises to be thoroughly outside the logic of the everyday.

Traces of Splendour and Decay, solo performance, Sharna Vrhowec, technical assistance Noel Lloyd, Kristy Ross; Gasworks Theatre, Melbourne, September 14-15

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg.

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

Earlier this year I was approached by Currency House, the performing arts think tank and publisher, to write an essay about the ramifications of the recent restructure of the Australia Council, particularly for the Council itself. Currency House publishes its Platform Papers quarterly, contributing to much needed debate on the arts in Australia. To date the series of 6 essays has included Martin Harrison on the ABC and the arts, Julian Meyrick on the crisis in the theatre and Robyn Archer on mainstream dominance in thinking about the arts. In my essay, I wanted to look at the evolution of the Australia Council’s engagement with innovation over the decades and also to attempt to go beyond the prevalent managerial model of dealing with the arts, and much of the rest of our lives, by playfully employing a notion of cultural ecology. What follows is compiled from excerpts from Platform Papers No 6, Art in a Cold Climate, Rethinking the Australia Council. I hope you’ll read the whole essay and contribute to the rethinking of Australian attitudes to the arts.

On December 8, 2004 the Australia Council announced an internal restructure in the terms proposed by its Future Planning Task Force. Given that the restructure was internal no consultation with clients, stakeholders or the public was offered. Recognising that the proposed internal changes, including the dissolution of the New Media Arts and Community Cultural Development Boards, would have serious external ramifications, artists and arts organisations met across Australia. Protests ensued and new lobby groups formed. Council conceded to consult, but only about how to best effect the restructure which was formally accepted on April 8, 2005.

The formation of the New Media Arts Board in 1996, although not without controversy, was widely seen as enlightened. Here at last was an Australia Council Board that could formally address experimentation and innovation in the form of the hybrid and new media practices that had been steadily developing over two decades, work that had been difficult to categorise and, consequently, was often neglected or under-funded. But in 2005 the board has been dissolved, its ‘clients’ dispersed to the traditional artform category boards, Visual Arts and Music.

At a time of great cultural diversity and burgeoning new arts practices which connect unprecedentedly with our everyday lives, it is astonishing that the Australia Council has reversed its own evolution. The authoritarian manner in which it effected this change, the further diminution of the role of artists as peers within Council and the silencing of new media arts—no longer represented on Council—sadly parallel the deliberalising of democracies the world over. While there might be enormous diversity on the ground, the ideological push to centralise and to control threatens to yield a monoculture, a condition to which the Australian arts has institutionally been too long inclined.

A significant manager in the arts system, the Australia Council is not only attempting to wind back the clock of artistic evolution but also to usurp its partners, leaving ‘clients’ and ‘stakeholders’ out in the cold. Declaring itself ‘leader’ of and ‘catalyst’ for the arts, the danger is that the manager will lock into autocatalysis and use up available resources to keep itself alive. The restructured Australia Council positions itself above the arts ecosystem of which it has long been a part, albeit in an increasingly difficult relationship, its funding levels essentially frozen, its roles and functions multiplying, its structure rigidly top-down, and less and less responsive to the bottom-up emergence of new ideas and forms that regenerate the arts.

Hybrid and new media arts are part of an internationally admired Australian inventiveness, but if the Australia Council’s absorbing them into traditional artform categories dilutes their standing and their funding, as well it may do, we stand to lose a great deal. We are culturally poor if we cannot live with the paradoxes inherent in new forms. Our cultural ecology includes long-lived species (heritage arts), some of them protected (the major performing arts organisations), but there are others, like new media and hybrid practices, in the throes of emergence. The Council’s Future Planning Task Force declared that new media arts do not constitute an artform. However, they comprise a field of broadly aligned practices that require artistic sensibility, skills and often considerable technical or scientific knowledge. As John Smithies, former head of ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne) has eloquently argued, like any emerging artform these practices already involve a developing ecology of new tools, new channels of distribution and broadcast, extensive new networks, new audiences and new patterns of remuneration.

The Australia Council has always set great store by innovation. As a consequence, it has supported a great deal of remarkable work over its lifetime. However, its decision to dissolve the New Media Arts Board represents the destruction of a vital part of the new media and hybrid arts habitat. This at a time when the field is still emerging, when important loops between its discrete organisms are still being formed, when its international reputation is high—overseas institutions and artists were astonished at its demotion—and its potential is strong in the long term for developing markets and audiences where the digital is pervasive. The restructure was an anachronistic adaptation, an act of regression and, like previous restructures, an admission of the Council’s failure to secure adequate funds for its clients, but a failure for which its constituency will pay.

But this is more than the story of Australia Council maladaptation, it comes at the end of a decade of cooling climate for the arts, in which artists have been portrayed as a backstabbing, self-serving elite who have been outed and the Council wrested away from them. More than that, they have been cut adrift. An ecosystem functions via the many loops formed between its organisms. The loops that link the arts with the universities, the ABC, the Australia Council and the federal government have been steadily cut over the decade. At the same time the funding for basic arts resources, for survival, has seriously diminished in real terms despite state governments attempting to make up the difference. New loops forming with the corporate sector (eg through the Australian Business and Arts Foundation) and private philanthropy are slow to form, less systematic and come with conditions that will not necessarily favour innovation, let alone provocation.

Diversifying resources and manufacturing has not been an Australian trait: the result, agricultural and mineral monocultures. It’s not dissimilar in the arts, where large omnivores consume most of the resources. The difference, however, is that they are rarely exportable; they are stay-at-homes. Even the national companies, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, move about very little. Meanwhile individual artists and small companies disperse to find new niches here and overseas, embodying work that is idiosyncratically Australian and widely applauded. But they are kept poor, so that the cultural ecosystem remains predominantly a monoculture.

Could it be that the Major Performing Arts Organisations Board skews the functioning of the Australia Council? Within the ecology of the Council, the Board is self-contained, operating on quite different criteria from the artform boards, where peer assessment is critical, where quality, purpose and, often, originality are paramount. The major performing arts organisations are treated as if they are not part of the greater ecologies of dance, music and theatre. They are assessed as businesses. Meanwhile, the gap between these large companies and the rest of the performing arts field simply grows and grows.

What if Council were to be relieved of the administrative and financial burden of servicing these organisations, who could be funded directly by government? Would that allow Council to focus its energies on the majority of its clients?

However, the Australia Council intends to introduce another species, ‘large-scale projects’, into the system to prove to government ‘that art can make a difference’ and therefore warrant a funding increase that will flow on to the artform boards. The budget of $9 million for the projects represents the takeover of the artform boards’ intiative funds. In a radical departure from the model of Council as responsive to the arts ecology, the new artform board directors will seek out projects rather than respond to grant applications, and then compete for funds from the full Council. If these big projects do not have their roots in the existing arts ecology, if their goals are functional, they will become an invasive species, throwing the system out of kilter. And the Council will have assumed another role, that of producer with its Councillors as peer assessors. More mutations introduced into the system.

At each stage of the Council’s history over the last 2 decades, the impression is of an organisation in adaptive mode—negative, because it has to downsize to make do with less, maladaptive, because it makes wrong moves, or anachronistic—it regresses to an earlier form. It’s time to re-think the Australia Council. Increasingly, artists have had to adapt to the Council’s limitations rather than Council responding to an evolving Australian arts ecology and to the cultural transformations Australians are living through.

The organisation has become unwieldy, proliferating roles, losing its independence as it it becomes more and more an agent of government, drifting, like the ABC, away from the cultural ecology in which it should play a responsive as well as a creative role. I’m asking here what the Australia Council could do for the arts if its attention and energies were focused on what is commonly called the small-to-medium arts sector, which in my estimation is central to the well-being and future of the arts in Australia and their standing internationally.

My vision of is of unencumbered, empowered contemporary arts practitioners emboldened by hybridity and new media and fostered by a pared-back, purposeful Australia Council. Is this nothing but the green dream of an arts fantasist, or can we begin to imagine once again what might be possible?

Excerpted from Art in a Cold Climate: Re-thinking the Australia Council, Platform Papers No 6, Currency House, Sydney, October 2005. A shorter version of this excerpt appeared in the Australian, Sept 28.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 2

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

Richard Maxwell

Richard Maxwell

Richard Maxwell

Richard Maxwell has been making theatre in New York with his company, the New York City Players, for nearly a decade. He writes and directs all of his shows (except for a notable experiment with Shakespeare) as well as composing and recording the music. The productions share a stripped back, deliberately non-mimetic acting style (often labelled “deadpan” or “declamatory”) and explore the minutiae of social relations between everyday people, often in moments of personal crisis. There are shades of Raymond Carver and James Joyce in his writing—his worlds are populated by the unfulfilled and lost; ordinary types who seem powerless against the greater forces which rule their lives. The work is always tinged with loss, but is also optimistic.

I interviewed Maxwell in his office in Midtown. He had a small tent set up, taking up much of the small room, as he was about to head to Italy for a camping holiday. After giving some pretty useless wilderness tips, I asked him some questions about the shows he’s bringing to the Melbourne Festival (Good Samaritans, Showcase) and his thoughts on theatre making.

Your plays are often grounded in discussions about community, people in moments of crisis, the relationships between people and the world outside. Where do these characters and worlds emerge from?

I’ve noticed lately how influenced and susceptible I am to environments. If I pass by an environment on my bike, riding home at night, I see, I dunno, just the way something is lit, and it’s kind of something about peering into an interior from the outside. It really sets something off…maybe triggering some memory or something.

In the case of Good Samaritans, the setting of a rehab centre and the title conjure up notions of community service and altruism. What was the spark for this show? Did you want to explore particular themes or environments?

I saw some sort of rehabilitation centre, driving in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in rural Minnesota, and I started imagining what it was like and that leads to this exploration of helping; helping being a good thing, not helping being a bad thing. So you start thinking about good and bad, right and wrong, and start thinking about how they rely on each other, in order to exist; you sort of can’t have one without the other. And also I was thinking about an older couple and what a love story would look like between a couple of that age, because our culture is so…its influences are so mediated. Stories of love, particularly passionate Romeo and Juliet kind of stories, they are relegated to the teens.

You are well known for working with performers who have vastly different levels of expertise. In your new show, Good Samaritans, you have one actor who is trained and another who is not. How did that come about? Was it a deliberate choice?

It wasn’t deliberate. I saw plenty of people, both trained and not trained, it wasn’t designed to split it down the middle, that’s just how it came about. Although I think that it’s no surprise that it ended up that way, because I guess my feeling about it is it doesn’t matter to me how much experience you’ve had; if you’re right for the part, y’know, you’re right for the part.

What was the casting process? I imagine it may be different than if you are working with a cast of more equivalent experience.

We put an ad in this industrial rag, Backstage, which we’ve done in the past. Everyone I worked with in the building of the show I had worked with before, except for Rosemary [Allen]. She hadn’t had any real stage experience I guess, before this, but she’s a girlfriend of a friend of mine who’s in Showcase now. I knew Rosemary socially and the friend told me that she was taking acting classes. It’s a big part, so he was a little sceptical, you know, she’s a full time nurse, but I talked to her about it and she seemed, you know, really interested. My feeling is if people are into it, if they’re willing to commit what it takes to do something like that, that’s half the battle. I have a lot of patience for people if I know they are there with me, so the experience thing becomes kinda negligible.

When working with actors of different levels of experience, do you have to approach direction in different ways?

I work with people who don’t have any experience, I work with kids, I work with older people, and so it does have to change based on who the person is, and some people are more thoughtful, methodical, confrontational, people who need you to explain things, which I don’t mind at all. So it’s just a matter of finding out who and what these people are. I imagine it’s like teaching, you have to base your methods and your templates to every personality that you encounter.

As a director of your own writing, I imagine there must be a kind of internal artistic dialogue going on inside you. How does that manifest itself in the creation of a new work. Do you always bring a complete script to the process?

No, that’s the thing, when you start to know the people you are working with I start to think about the writing and whether it fits them or not. I tend to write for them, based on what I perceive in them, and sometimes I write against them, which is not to say that I am trying to sabotage them. Writing for someone can mean writing against them, sort of playing in the script with what would be expected.

Was Showcase written for Jim Fletcher?

Yeah. It was written with Jim in mind, but I didn’t know for sure that he’d be able to do it exactly. When I say I’m writing for people, I don’t think that I’ve ever looked at an actor I’ve worked with a number of times and said “wow, do I have a show for you.” It’s more like I see them in the part and whatever discrepancies might exist between what I am seeing the character to be and the actor to be I’ll change in the writing, rather than expect the actor to jump. It’s a really nice amalgam actually, in this realm of writing where it’s hard to separate where the person ends and where the character begins. I guess that can be very uncomfortable for people—I find that true with actors actually a lot.

You have created many shows in New York in the last 10 years and have developed a very distinctive aesthetic as a writer and director and as an important innovator in the Downtown theatre scene. In the last few years, touring internationally more, do you find different audiences come with different expectations or offer different responses?

I suppose. It’s hard to ignore or to not think about the fact that this inevitably will culminate in a live performance and, being an audience member myself, going to see other people’s stuff, I think a lot about the expectations that one brings to the theatre. But I imagine that most people coming to see something have seen something already and that if they haven’t then they’ve heard about what it is—“Oh he does that deadpan thing.” I can only imagine! (Laughs). Those thoughts, you can’t deny them, they go in there, I guess they influence things like everything else.

If you look at the title of my next show (The End of Reality), it’s evidence there of what people say, or what people have said and yet I struggle with that because I really try not to make something that is based on the audience being a block of one thing, a monolithic thing that comes and occupies the seats. And that’s kind of the basis for a lot of the fundamental ideas that I hold about performance—that it’s not a block, it’s many individuals and I’m happiest when there are a multitude of opinions and feelings happening at once based on who’s in the seats—it just feels more democratic that way. The less I determine what something means emotionally or psychologically for a character, the more the person in the audience is going to be able to project their own experience onto what they see.

Is that where some of your aesthetic comes from? The “deadpan thing” you refer to? Is it about allowing a more open range of readings?

To a lot of people my beliefs about character seem perverse, because I don’t want to talk about the pretend psychology of what the character is experiencing at all in rehearsal. I mean I have my own ideas, I have to write these characters, so I have my own ideas about them, but I don’t think it’s necessary to; sometimes it can interfere with the work of telling a story or putting on a play, when you have these conversations about what might this character be feeling. I’m much more interested in what, well, what you’re gonna be feeling in a situation where you’re up on stage with an audience or with someone else and an audience, y’know, and what that live environment will yield with everyone present. That’s the situation at hand and so let’s deal with that situation and not try to invent another one.

NYC Players, Showcase, Langham Hotel, Oct 12-16, Good Samaritans, CUB Malthouse, Oct 19-22, Melbourne International Arts Festival, www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 4

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

Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back

Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back

Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre is a performance company with a formidable international reputation founded on the successes of Soft and Cow in Europe. The company comprises an ensemble of performers (Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sonia Teuben, Simon Laherty) “perceived to have a disability”, and “creates work with a view of the world not constrained by convention, logic or the imperative to be normal.” Directed by Bruce Gladwin, the company is joined in production by guest designers, composers, multimedia artists and other actors—Jim Russell and Genevieve Picot in the company’s 2005 Melbourne International Festival show, Small Metal Objects.

Back to Back produces exemplary hybrid performance, placing the performer in multimedia amalgams of physical, aural and virtual space with an architectural sensibility, and bringing together a range of talents and intelligences that challenge the able/disabled binary. Back to Back tackles dark subjects, blending serious contemporary material about mind, body, morality and technology with a droll sense of humour in works that are non-patronising, either for performers and audiences, and sometimes downright lateral.


When he first saw Back to Back, Gladwin recalls he was struck by just how intelligent the work was: “I’d really had very little to do with people with disabilities. Just the label ‘intellectual disability’ implies something not very intelligent. For a director it requires a different approach, which is hard to articulate, for each of the actors. There is an intellectual rigour in the work, but it’s not an academic rigour.”

As a group the company is interdisciplinary says Gladwin: “Some of the actors work with text, some are physically comic, some are classical in their movement, so I start with a diverse palette. There’s a particular pleasure in working with a regular ensemble of the same 5 members. Finding something each year which is for them and which will challenge them is a large part of the approach to creating the work.” Gladwin has been with the company for 7 years and some of the performers 15 years.


Gladwin speaks about the focus in Back to Back’s work being on the performer in space. He addresses the new relationships between theatrical space and the performer, and the audience, that have opened up in contemporary performance as it escapes theatrical convention. But he is also increasingly aware of the advantages of these developments for a company such as Back to Back.

“Traditionally”, he says, “theatre spaces require a certain performance style, for example throwing the voice to the back of the auditorium. Working with performers who are not classically trained and with the technology that’s available now, thinking about a new space that could empower these actors—these led us down the path of the inflatable design for Soft.” Audience and performers shared the giant inflatable space, the actors were headmiked and every audience member had headphones, resulting in aural intimacy in a huge space.

“The use of headphones”, explains Gladwin, “came out of doing Soft in a huge dockshed in September and October, in Melbourne with high winds, and wanting to get the speakers as close to the audience’s ears as possible. Then we discovered that there was something very liberating in this. We were liberated from having any particular form of space.

“If you think of a theatre as a physical shelter, an emotional, psychological shelter from the chaos of everything outside, we created a shelter inside an inflatable, like a symbiotic building inside a dockland shed. But with our new show, we thought we could create a shelter with the sound, leaving it open for us as to where we place the show.”

In a bold exercise in site specificity, Small Metal Objects is set in the main concourse of the Flinders Street Railway Station. “Based on some of the thematic ideas we’d developed, we wanted to place the show amidst chaos, so we decided for the Melbourne showing to put it among thousands of commuters at around peak hour, 4pm, 5pm, 7pm and 8.30 in the morning. There’s no set, no lighting, just actors, a bank of seats for the audience and a sound score.”

“The performance isn’t overt”, says Gladwin, “the actors blend in with the public on the main thoroughfare where all the platforms come onto the concourse. The public coming from the trains will see a seating bank holding 100 people, looking in a specific direction but not knowing what that audience is looking at.

“There’ll be 2 narratives going on, one in the written text and the other which comes from the positioning of this seating bank in a public space, and the interplay between the general public and the audience. Both are observer and observed. We did a showing of this work last year and it’s fascinating, the power shifts between them. One person with a limp and 3 poodles on a lead passed by and the audience laughed, just at the visual image. I was suddenly aware of my responsibility—I’d created a monster. Three youths emerged from Platform 4, eyed the audience and chested the air, as if to say, what are you looking at? And you could feel the audience shrink back into their seats. So just as there’s a kind of power interplay between the characters in the story, there’s one between the public and the audience.”

Small Metal Objects is playing throughout the festival: “It’s an experiment for us. We could have gone for a week’s season but we’re taking the length of the festival to give ourselves as many shows as possible. I think the show might be totally different at the end of the season…it’s open to that. The idea partly came from (Melbourne Festival Director) Kristy Edmund’s suggestion when we were talking about tourability. With Soft we’d wanted to tour it more but finding venues large enough was a problem…we found 2 venues in Europe but, talking to other festivals, it was too difficult and expensive for them. So we thought let’s keep developing the ideas but not feel that we had to create a set as grand as Soft’s.”


Gladwin feels that the setting for Small Metal Objects will further the principles explored in Soft: “It really does create a performance style, opening up the actors to working in a more filmic way, and with a greater awareness of where their focus needs to be. What we’re interested in is hyperrealism, for the performers to blend in with the images. I’ve been looking at some visual art in terms of that in painting and sculpture, the work of Ron Mueck, which I saw a great exhibition of in Hamburg. In the first 10 minutes of Small Metal Objects the audience doesn’t know which are the actors in the crowd, so it first functions like a radio play with them trying to spot the performers among, say 150 people. It introduces ambiguity—what is real and what is not.”

Moving from a controlled theatrical space to a public setting has required some re-thinking of the sound score. Gladwin says of working with composer Hugh Covill that “usually each moment is scored with a specific piece of music, but we’re doing something quite different this time. We’re running one track of music that underscores the whole piece. There’s a kind of rough synchronisation with movement, but we’re open to the fluidity of the piece, performing it in the chaos of the station, with the actors responding, say, to people coming up and asking them for directions. So there’s an element of improvisation in matching the score with the performance.”

Improvisation is a key element in the creation of Back to Back works, but in Small Metal Objects it will play a role in performance as chance enters into the picture when crowds move from trains onto the concourse. This will be a challenge for the performers. Although, as Gladwin explains, “the script has been generated from improvisation, the characters have been created by the performers and they know the characters intrinsically”, the actors will need cueing and some security. The solution is, says Gladwin, “is to have foldback through their own earphones with me as director offering them direction and suggestions in performance—to encourage and support them in working with the material that’s around them. This will be part of the extended season, for me to develop that role and to see how far I can take it. Is it an aesthetic or am I a control freak? [Laughs] It’s important in that environment for the performers, because the area is over 40 metres long and 20 metres wide, so for them to be able to hear and cue each other, we needed some sort of device and that’s the foldback.”


The catalyst for the story came from issues raised in Soft where a couple terminate a pregnancy because the foetus shows signs of Down Syndrome, the rationale being that the child would never get proper support from or work in or love from society. Gladwin thought that “a kind of economic rationalism was attached to the decision. That’s the starting point for Small Metal Objects, looking at productivity, how someone’s perceived productivity equates with their value in society.” In the development of the work, says Gladwin, “I’ll read a lot, for example economic theory, and then I have to offer something to the actors, and they go through their own process of intellectualisation. Sonia [Teuben] created a character who she saw as a success, but it was in terms of the ability to make friendships, as opposed to capital growth and earning an income. From discussions and improvisations we thought we’d set the story in a financial transaction and the simplest one is goods sold in the street, primarily a drug deal, and one that goes wrong between 2 characters who value friendship over the accumulation of wealth.

“It’s a really simple narrative: we’re at the point of putting it on and I’m thinking, is it too simple? But dealing with the space that we’re presenting it in I feel we’ve made the right decision. The narrative in the script is only half the story, the other is the experience of the audience in that space: they’re creating multiple narratives by looking at people in the space and also placing themselves in the story, so we need the space for that to happen.”


Solo opportunities are looming for the 5 ensemble members in Back to Back’s next work, a gallery-based performance-cum-installation extension of the themes of Small Metal Objects featuring 5 discrete performances. This further exploration of productivity and notions of well-being will involve the company working with an economist to create an economic model. The audience will choose from the performances, paying a fee for each with the actors in competition in creating a market.

Back to Back Theatre, Small Metal Objects, Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 7-8, 11-15, 18-22; www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 6

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

Bonemap, Brink

Bonemap, Brink

Walking by tropical ferns and flowering ginger, we enter a massive circular tank through a curtain of X-Rays—close ups of of the body, of bones, of flesh disappeared. The sound is muffled as if we’re inside skin. We amble through this vast space, surrounded by projected grids of numbers and ghostly images of bodies moving across the oily, curving walls. We circle a rock suspended from the roof, a block of ice drip dripping into the night. There’s a car reclaimed from an era long gone, now a museum of fragile violins, snakeskins, bones, dried leaves, a tombstone angel.

There’s a gap in the circumference of the space, an outside we can feel but can’t see. The sound shifts and external lights reveal undulating, brilliantly green grass rising upwards. Five strange figures teeter downhill, lurch into the space.

We’re at Brink, a Bonemap performance—dance, installation, projection and sound mesh to create an environment of potent imagery and atmospheric experience. Rebecca Youdell and Russell Milledge of the Bonemap intermedia art collective have collaborated with DJ Olive and an eclectic team of performers: Brian Fuata, Su Hayes, Jess Jones, Amanda Le Bon and David Williams.

A shaft of light appears in the distance and we follow. A naked woman sits mutely, a globe of the world for a head. Her globe inclines, begins to bleed from the top axis. Blood runs onto her hands, onto the floor. Her image is projected onto the dark oily walls, a bleeding world/woman in multiple. One long note reverberates around the space.

Another shift in attention: to a woman frocked up in tourist tea towels and turban, her oven mitts outstretched. Balancing atop high heels, she walks unsteadily along a huge industrial chain…a retro cocktail party hostess walking a tightrope that could fell forests. A man in camouflage gear moves erratically, erotically across the space. Switching between languid and jolting vocabularies of movement, he’s simultaneously a tortured contemporary figure and an echo of another era when this site was military infrastructure for another war.

A bizarre messiah, pursued by his followers, climbs over a car, balancing with a long staff as though traversing a river. Is he crossing the River of Lethe? The followers have shed their clothes as though useless memories of a past long gone. A man in a dinner suit lies down in the headlights of the car, he speaks from his prone position, surrounded by the detritus of performance. He keeps on, keeps on talking as the performers move toward him, walk over him, leave him behind talking, talking on.

Two men in a tug-of-war over a shirt are suddenly dwarfed by an extended mirror image outside—2 women in a tug-of-war over a long line of fire in the distance. Spectacular and strangely moving.

These and many other images cross-fade one into another across the space. The audience follows, and becomes part of the action in a joyous pack. Movements repeat, motifs recur. Delicate, vulnerable bodies in landscapes of our making. The permeability twixt inside and out, present and past, fragile and forceful creates a series of powerful currents flowing through the work.

The relationship between the body and the environment is at the heart of Bonemap’s practice. In Brink, they revive a number of images from previous performances made for this and other spaces. While each of the components is strong, the success of this piece lies in the dynamic relationships between the large and small-scale choreographies across space—the movements of performers, audience members, objects, light and image. And the sense of being held by the big sound—stretching time, interrupting action and driving pace.

The performers are a mix of North Queensland dancers, fire artists and theatre-makers and Sydney-based performance makers. Their vocabularies are diverse, but Milledge and Youdell as director and choreographer have capitalised on those differences to build a sense of ensemble that’s both idiosyncratic and impressive. Sometimes I had the overwhelming sense that the punch had been spiked—simultaneously pleasurable and terrifying. The teetering, about-to-fall feeling evoking that physical sensation of being on the brink. Of darkness. Of profound change. Of returning to dust.

Bonemap, Brink, director Russell Milledge, choreographer Rebecca Youdell, sound DJ Olive, Tanks Art Centre, July 15, www.bonemap.com

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 8

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

All around The Tanks Arts Centre, a tropically camouflaged World War 2 naval fuel depot in Cairns, there are advertisements for edges. The well-to-do suburb nearby is even named Edge Hill, with the inevitable Edge Cafe. In The Tanks, On Edge is the inaugural contemporary media and performance week, the brainchild of Cairns’ own axis of edges: Bonemap, KickArts and The Tanks. In his opening speech Nick Mills, director of The Tanks, declares that On Edge intends to “push out to the rest of the country that Cairns is culturally mature”. On Edge does much more than this.

I follow the crowd down the overgrown path to the scent of citronella and the sound of water dripping for Derryn Knuckey’s endemic enigma, billed as a development showing of a Spark mentorship but actually a sprawling, ambitiously conceived and occasionally exquisitely realised evening of performance featuring over fifty performers. The overall structure was elemental: Earth (strange tree monks with a barely comprehensible narrative of ecological destruction), Fire (an aerial sex scene, pyromaniacs, and fiery percussion), Water and Air (video projections over swaying performers in flowing white costumes). For me the work never became more than the sum of its parts, but there was certainly something for everyone. The highlight was the Water section—a beautiful installation of rain falling down from the dangling roots of a huge fig tree over a white lounge setting, a bushie sitting comfortably watching the downpour dripping off his Akubra. The lighting was perfect, producing a magically suspended moment, unfortunately broken by an extended meandering monologue from the bushie. “How ‘bout this rain then? Doesn’t rain like this in Cobar.” A bit tangential, even for me.

The second big night kicked off with The Impurist, candlelit electronic music under the fig tree. After blessedly cool beers we move into the concrete vastness of Tank Five for time motion studies (3 ball) by Brisbane’s Circa. Juggler David Sampford, all in black, including balaclava, stands on a platform, a grid of juggling balls arranged about his feet. All but one of the balls is white, the odd one red. Sound artists Laurence English and Robin Fox use Sampford’s movement of the red ball to control audio samples, its height and motion captured on video and processed to output shifts in pitch, tone and rhythm. Technically, it’s an extraordinary feat, and surprisingly gripping. After virtuosic displays from all concerned we’re left with just the sound of one ball falling and being caught in the dark. A mesmerising and thrilling ride.

Back under the fig tree we get low tech with local Indigenous artists Zane Saunders and Ian Connelly. Connelly enters wearing only a loincloth and body paint, banging clap sticks. Similarly dressed, Saunders responds to the same rhythm using a cigarette lighter. This simple substitution playfully undermines the cliched costumes, sets the tone—they’re having fun, and so should we. They explore the space, intermittently illuminating people and objects, constantly adjusting their improvised loincloths, which threaten to fall off. After a low key physical comedy duet of competing sonic rhythms, they untie and unravel an orange cloth draped elegantly in the fig tree, dispersing small leaves with great ceremony to gracefully conclude a compact and witty performance.

With these, as well as Bonemap’s Brink in Tank Three, additional programs of sound and digital arts (liquid architecture and d>Art.04), and Tina Gonsalves’ video installation, Somewhere in between, not to mention the stimulating Intermedia Symposium, On Edge is an impressive beginning to an important initiative. Expect more surprises next year out on the wild edge.

See Jennifer Teo’s review of Liquid Architecture at On Edge.

On Edge, organisers Rebecca Youdell, Russell Milledge, Nicholas Mills; endemic enigma, produced and directed by Derryn Knuckey; time motion studies (3 ball) by Circa, David Sampford in collaboration with Lawrence English and Robin Fox; Spark sound and performance interventions by Zane Saunders, Ian Connelly and The Impurist; Venues: Tank Arts Centre, Kickarts Gallery, CoCA, Cairns July 12-16; www.bonemap.com

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 8

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

Tracks, Michele Dott, film dancer Liam Birch

Tracks, Michele Dott, film dancer Liam Birch

Darwin Festival

The new format Darwin Festival has settled into wide public acceptance with rare mumblings about the lack of a grand parade and the loss of the floats—instead the Botanic Gardens festival precinct has established itself as a fully realized concept, a proper festive hub. With winking paper lanterns strung in the large spreading trees and bright fairy lights everywhere, the atmosphere is a Kandyan Perhera, only lacking the elephants. The Star Shell is the scene for nightly performances beginning as the sun sets over nearby Mindil beach and going through till midnight—Indigenous dance and music is the mainstay with concerts and music theatre. The Shell is ringed by foodstalls and bars and the catering has gone up a notch with local icons the Roma Bar serving espresso coffees and Hanuman, the renowned Thai Nonya restaurant, serving a street smart version of their fare with even Jimmy Shu behind the very stylish hotpots. The Galku (or palm tree gallery) direct from the Garma festival in North Eastern Arnhemland segues directly into the Darwin one presenting framed prints from the Buku Langapuy Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. The gallery is firmly ensconced—each tree skirted with white ochre and individually spotlit. Even after the prints come down each night the trees form a ghostly glade of dancing dervishes.



This year the festival program was strong in Indigenous work both in dance, including local Larrakia dancer-choreographer Gary Lang’s first large scale piece, Entrapment, and in a number of solo autobiographical performances—David Page’s Page 8, George Rrurrambu’s Nerrpu, Christine Anu’s Intimate and Deadly, comedian Sean Choolburra’s show and the premiere of Tommy Lewis’ story on film, Yella Fella. Of the shows I was able to see, Nerrpu was by far the most powerful and interesting. George Rrurrambu is a legend, an extraordinarily talented and grounded performer—imagine the danger of Gulpilil crossed with the captivating appeal of Ernie Dingo and throw in some Chuck Berry to mix it up. He sings, he plays guitar and didge, he dances and he’s a mean actor telling his story. Although the show had been polished since its first version in 2003, it lost focus in the second half and could still benefit from further dramaturgy—the material is there and the performer can bring it all alive. His story is amazing, living in the desert and missing the saltwater life of Elcho Island where he grew up on the Methodist Mission. George is the subject of Neil Murray’s anthem My Island Home written in Papunya where Murray and Rrurrambu formed the Warumpi Band in 1981, and I could have done with more of his story.


Cultural exchange

Cultural exchanges from the region also featured in the festival with a large contingent from Indonesia, including a group of dancers and musicians from Makassar, Takbing Siwaliya, who collaborated with the Gupapuyngu Dancers to present an abbreviated version of Trepang, retelling the first meetings on the shores of North-Eastern Arnhemland between Makassarese and the Yolgnu to trade trepang (sea slug). Meanwhile Trepang director Andrish Saint Claire was busy rehearsing a bold new play DiburuaWaktu (Time is a Hunter) by Sandra Thibodeaux and Mas Ruscitadewi which explores the contemporary exchange between tourists and locals in Bali and is set in the Sari Club on the night of the bombing.


Angels of Gravity

The Tracks Dance production, Angels of Gravity, saw the company invited in from the warmth of their customary outdoor festival performance to the mainstage at Darwin Entertainment Centre. But typically lateral, they took the audience on a journey outside first. While waiting to get in , we watched winged abseilers make their balletic way down the nearby high rise Holiday Inn; then we saw things backstage only to have the curtain part and realize we were on stage looking at an empty theatre and, finally, we took our seats and looked back at where we’d been. The show was a quasi swansong—complete with feathers—for dancer David McMicken who once memorably created the role of a beautiful angel many moons ago when we were all young and lithe. Angels of Gravity is about many things, including the dancer’s body and what it can and cannot do as age and gravity bring it down to earth. Tracks’ work is notable for its fearless pursuit in eclectically assembling the different cultures, values, ages, talents, let alone movement conventions and capacities of its performers and always manages to pull off a deeply moving and aesthetic unity. Nonetheless, amongst local professional dancers, The Grey Panthers, NT Fire and Rescue Squad, ballet school kids and the Lajamanu Yawalyu women dancers, Melbourne dancer Trevor Patrick stole the show.


Aboriginal Art Award

The twenty second NATSIAA Aboriginal Art Art award was marked by the retirement of its founding curator, Margie West who began it with the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 1984. Now it is the preeminent national and international event celebrating Indigenous art and attracts curators, collectors and dealers, artists and art centre managers from every remote community throughout the NT and the Kimberley, as well as loyal local art lovers and newcomers to Darwin who have heard of its big night party on the museum lawns. And every one of them has a view on how it is run—from how the work is selected from the vast number of entries to how the entries are then judged by a panel of two. Over the years the criteria for the choice of judges has settled on one man, one woman, one Indigenous, one non-indigenous, one practising artist, one curator. With these attributes distributed amongst only two individuals it can be a big ask. This year the onerous task fell to Victorian artist Destiny Deacon and Queensland Art Gallery Director, Doug Hall. Last year it was Palawa artist Julie Gough and Edmund Capon from the Art Gallery of NSW—all good choices on the face of it but lacking one ingredient. None of these has experience or knowledge in classical Aboriginal art (both an oxymoron and a meaningful term in the context.)

In North-Eastern Arnhemland large painted poles, or Lorrkon, have recently reemerged as a trend, sliding apparently unremarked into the Category of 3D works when it is more than arguable that they are bark paintings in the round. So last year Galumbu Yunupingu’s startling installation of 3 poles won the major prize, which was fitting and appropriate. But this year the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award was won by another pole, remarkably similar, by Naminapu Maymuru-White. Other work in that category was more exciting and culturally significant such as the wall piece of exquisite, finely carved and ochred pearl shells, Riji, by Aubrey Tigan from the Kimberley.

The judges’ task is patently to reward the best, however there has been an unacknowledged but obvious subtext to reward both innovation within tradition and to laud revivals of traditional art practices. But that relies on a depth of knowledge to recognise them in the first place. Against a very shallow field of bark paintings, the winning work by accomplished Yirrkala artist Banduk Marika stood out and signaled a new direction for her. The winner in the works on paper was a weak choice compared to the depth and technical complexity of Denis Nona’s linocut, Sesserae, and the winning work for General Painting, Yam Dreaming by Evelyn Pultara, was easily trumped by a dozen finer, stronger paintings. The overall prize winner, the grass car dubbed a Toyota, was also controversial, raising arguments over craft versus art; but it was a show stopper and the prize money could not have gone to 17 more deserving women.

Dissatisfaction with the judging process was high this year and there was a lot of muttering for reform. Some are calling for the judges to be drawn from the many long standing collectors of Indigenous art who, it is argued, have always been ready to seek out and invest in excellence; this camp is also arguing for the award to be based in Canberra or Sydney and taken out of local hands. There is also a widespread feeling that the pre-selection process, which culls 150 entries from near to 500, is intrinsically flawed because it relies entirely on slides submitted rather than visceral contact with the work. There is also a growing argument that the number of entries warrants a Salon Des Réfuses so that everyone can get a sense of the whole picture.

Alongside the NATSIAA there is now a vibrant and busy program of exhibitions in the local commercial and institutional galleries with more than a dozen exhibition openings in the 48-hour window of opportunity just prior to and immediately after the NATSSIA opening, before all the curators and collectors have gone home or out to the communities. A well organized bus tour is organised to ensure you can see them all in one day!

Darwin Festival, Aug 11-28, www.darwinfestival.org.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 10

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

Alice Springs, at the geographical and psychological heart of this country, captures the imagination of artists, residents and perennial visitors: the harsh grandeur of the desert lands, vast spaces surrounding the town, and a unique social layering that gives a platform to relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The very name, Alice Desert Festival, reveals the land’s integral significance to the arts community here. It is no surprise then, that 3 major shows were inspired by the nature of the desert and promised to explore a deeper understanding of our experience of it.


Red Shoes

a place, the latest work from Alice Springs performance group Red Shoes, is a series of arrangements using text, movement, sound and visual imagery. Animateur Dani Powell says, “questions about place reach deep into the psyche of Australians. The show is about reflecting on this land we love and the history that lives beneath our feet”. The performance is grounded self-consciously here. It is richly coloured with desert gestures, phrases and concepts that have been stylised for the performance: physical motions like kicking up red dust and swatting flies; collaged recordings featuring voices from town commenting on the uses of urban space; lighting and projections that describe horizons and rooftops.

The performance begins with Emily Cox and Nic Hempel walking through the crowd, Hempel extracting stretched notes from a violin, pulling the audience from the street and, like a herd of cattle, through an open gate into a tight space behind the Watch This Space gallery and theatre. a place is revealed in a fenced quadrangle of concrete and red earth, surrounded by industrial corrugated walls and domed by a starry night sky.

In one sequence, Anna Maclean offers a disturbing study of urbanisation and the meeting of the town and the desert through the careful placement of miniature houses and cars on grass squares. The concept of ownership is introduced quite literally by the presentation of a tiny “for sale” sign. Maclean plays out responses to the idea of property through increasingly reckless movements upon the mini suburban streets that she has created. The sequence ends with a very deliberate acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession and the greed of Western land values.

During Macleans’ urban scene, Sylvia Neale sits quietly by the back fence until the building frenzy sweeps right over her—houses also appear on her knees. It is her agonising wail that punctuates the end of this opening sequence, a raw view of Indigenous dispossession. Neale also contributed to researching and writing the show. This involvement in a place of a local Arrernte artist deepens the relevance of the show. Red Shoes attempts a genuine engagement with complex contemporary history, producing a work that springs perceptibly from the confines and opportunities of the town’s community and landscape.


De Quincey Co

Unconstrained by the limits of a theatre, Dictionary of Atmospheres sprawled along the dry riverbed in the centre of Alice Springs. The Todd River—Mparntwe in Arrernte—forms a spectacular natural stage, its sandy expanses fringed with shady gums. The river is a significant spiritual and geographical icon for the town, a space for Indigenous gatherings and the site of often aggressive move-on tactics of local police. It is into this disputed territory that Dictionary of Atmospheres quite literally steps.

Emerging from the distance into the rich gold light of late afternoon, 3 strange forms shrouded in plastic drift towards the gathering audience. A monologue is delivered by a man up a nearby tree while a fifth figure tears maniacally through the crowd. Following this dynamic opening, the performers settle into a series of collective movements. Their movements dig deep into the sand, responding to the drones and staccatos of live saxophone and recorded soundscape. These are haunting sounds in a powerful space, directing the variously edgy and frenetic, jostling and static improvisations that shape the next hour and form the basis of the show.

Dictionary of Atmospheres is a multimedia production presented by Sydney’s dance-performance group De Quincey Co and based in the Body Weather performance methodology, a contemporary practice “aspiring to generate a reflective performance environment.” For director Tess De Quincey the show is a culmination of 3 years of art-labs (the Triple Alice project) in the central desert “focusing on the nature of the land.”

Reading unfamiliar movement can be difficult for an audience searching for recognisable forms. However, each night a committed group of locals prepared to engage with and experience their environment as translated by the performance. The final stage of the show was by far the most engaging—a fascinating multimedia spectacle. Huge oil-drums housing TVs, intense lighting beneath grand trees and 3 huge video screens gave more stage to the performers in the deepening darkness. A lasting image from Dictionary of Atmospheres is of silhouetted figures moving through illuminated dust surrounded by digital distractions.

The hunt for logic in the performance is encouraged by its title, which implies a catalogue of desert themes and moods. Dictionary of Atmospheres was not forthcoming (though it is an evocative phrase); rather what dominated the piece was the experience of the desert dusk and the ancient presence of the riverbed.


Bek Mifsud

Traces: desires and presentiments is the richly textural exhibition of latest work by visual artist Bek Mifsud. Elegantly occupying the minimalist gallery at Watch this Space, Traces is a collection of black and white imagery of landscape in a variety of mediums. Enormous graphite rubbings and digitally modified photographs, sculpted forms, drawings and texts “pay homage to the legacy of the Great Inland Sea which once submerged the Central Australian region”, says Mifsud.

Recognisable forms abound in Mifsud’s work. The graphite renderings carefully capture the ripples that have been etched into the rocks of the Macdonnell Ranges of Central Australia. But the depictions shimmer: one minute solid rock, the next a pool of water. In Mifsud’s photographs these ripple formations and other watermarks emerge at first as minute studies of geological detail, then distant aerial views of the land. The compositions, though small in scale, sustain long and meditative observation.

The gallery space is commanded by a large central multiform installation. Mifsud’s mass of miniature paper boats, scattered across a glass-covered expanse of rock rubbings evokes the masses of water so absent now—a perfectly dry inland sea. Constructed simply from photocopied pages of text and diary drawings, the boats have an iconic presence, yet they are very fragile.

There is a strong autobiographical thread in Mifsud’s work. The pieces describe her own journey and compulsion to travel to the centre, most obvious in the featured text from her diary entries. Significantly, her investigation of the landscape of the Central Desert is rooted in science and history. The artist’s study of geology was motivated by a desire to inform her art and her journeys into the desert to find striking geological formations is reminiscent of explorers driven by scientific concerns. Her fascination with the allure of an inland sea—and its traces to be found in the desert—finds parallels in the diaries of others before her. The ruminations of explorers, artists and thinkers are sampled in her work, combined with her own words.

Traces is a careful, almost reverent translation of the artist’s landscape. It invokes the absolute proportions of the desert, the residual nature of water, the sheer age of this weathered land and the tenuousness of human interaction with the environment.

Alice Desert Festival, artistic director Craig Mathewson, Sept 2-11; Red Shoes, a place, Watch This Space, Sept 3-4, 9; Bek Mifsud, Traces: desires and presentiments; Watch This Space, Sept 3-4; De Quincey Co Dictionary of Atmospheres; Sept 4-7

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 11

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

Antje Pfundtner, eigenSinn

Antje Pfundtner, eigenSinn

Antje Pfundtner, eigenSinn

Choreographer Antje Pfundtner has spent the last 18 months touring her highly acclaimed solo eigenSinn throughout Europe and South America, and presenting her first ensemble work, selbstinschuld, in 3 German cities. Previously she worked in Europe and the United States with artists such as Michele Anne de Mey, Stephen Koplowitz, Felix Ruckert, Tony Vezich and David Hernandez and studied in New York with David Dorfman and company and Edith Meeks. She has received many scholarships including a prestigious 12 month award from Kunststiftung NRW. Pfundtner was in Sydney in August to run a workshop for Critical Path. From Sydney she goes on to a research project in Poland and then a tour of China and Tokyo.

As this is the end of your first day at the Critical Path workshop, can you talk about how you are running the workshop, your approach to choreography there and in general.

In my work I use a lot of text and movement together, so that’s what I have started to introduce. I think that it’s important to know that my work comes from an autobiographical background, so I get the participants to pick a subject or a story and ask what their personal relationship is to that story. Not that it’s therapy—‘this is what I need to talk about’—but finding a subject that you can talk about and finding a distance from it that can be interesting. It’s perfectly legitimate to pick something abstract and external to yourself, but for me if you want to talk about or present something on stage I think it’s best if you have a personal connection to it. So if you were going to make a piece about accidents I would immediately ask if you have had one or seen one, what they mean to you—even if it does shift onto an abstract level. And then I will introduce some movement material into the workshop, but I am mostly interested in how they personally move.

What are the obsessions and interests of yours that are obviously clicking with audiences? Or is it how you present them?

I think it’s a combination…because I don’t think what I’m saying is particularly new! The solo eigenSinn is a play on words. The title translates as ‘your own sense or meaning’, but it can also be meant in a negative way, that you are very stubborn [‘have it your own way’, Eds]. I tell tall stories in the performance and there is a fairytale of the Brothers Grimm that leads the piece to one particular theme. It’s about a child who wants to develop his own sense of things, and will never do what his mother wishes. God punishes it, it dies and is buried. Then one arm comes out of the grave and they try to put the arm down again, and in the end the mother has to hit the arm with a rock until, finally, the child drags his arm in and has peace. It’s such a brutal fairytale to tell to kids. Of course, in the ‘old school’ it wasn’t wished that a child would think for itself. Whereas now, it’s all about developing your own thoughts, questioning things and positioning yourself. And I connect this to personal stories.

When I was born I couldn’t move at all and people gave up on me and told my mother to buy a wheelchair, that I would never be able to move. But my mother wouldn’t listen and found a physiotherapist who was willing to work with me and 5 times a day for a year she exercised with me so that I could crawl. And then I had another session to teach me to stop crawling!

So the work is about creating your own world. And then there are other stories that are about failure and success, and fake heroism…and it’s not clear if the stories are true or not. So I think they are very human subjects that everybody can connect to. And it works on many levels, on the personal side as well as how artists see themselves, because they really have to find their own position in the world. I demonstrate this in different ways, for example wearing a disco ball on my head—how you want to be the centre of the world and glitter for everyone and in the end you’re just reflecting yourself. I think if you can talk about something without preaching about it then people have the chance to connect with it—or not—it’s still a matter of taste. I think that’s the goal of theatre—that the audience wants to find a part of themselves in the work.

So how does the movement quality illustrate or elaborate on these themes you’ve described?

Well, I like to work with my mistakes and to promote them. The new ensemble piece, selbstinschuld, had a working title which was, ‘If you can’t fix it, feature it.’ I think it’s what you have to do when you are a dancer. If you do a lot of ballet, for instance, you are always confronted with things that are wrong: you’re not turned out enough etc. You are limited in some way, and I think that those limitations are your strongest points often connected to private things. I develop a lot of what some people call “ugly movement”—it has a very distinct aesthetic. And I mix a lot and ‘break’ a lot of movements. I always tell dancers not to deny where they come from. They would say, “Oh, I used to do ballet and then I did karate but now I only do contemporary.” I always tell them in their improvisations, “Well, let me see that you used to do those things because it would make the contemporary really interesting for me, a way that only you could do it.” So I don’t think you should deny the roots that are in your body and the connections and information they have for you.

So what are the special things about your history that inform your way of moving?

I’ve been lucky that I worked with choreographers who encouraged me to find my own way of moving, to use what I had. Some parts of my body are over-extended and I was encouraged to show that rather than correct it. You can develop a new style from this—you might have arms that are too long but you can do amazing things with those arms, create a new aesthetic. I didn’t limit myself because I didn’t have a certain aesthetic in my mind.

Is there something about popular culture or entertainment that informs your work?

I see a lot of movies and I always try to go and see a lot of other art forms. I have a big friendship circle and a lot of them aren’t artists, and I was always a very normal teenager even when I was training hard. I do what 99% of the population do—I watch every TV show that is on and I think I get a lot of information out of that. That’s why you might get that popular culture connection with my work, because I’m in touch with these things.

So how does it feel now being supported by the Goethe Institut and touring your work around the world?

The international touring really started at the beginning of last year. I had been working freelance for various people and companies, travelling around a lot with them, and since 2001 I also started to do my own work. Then eigenSinn in February 2003 was a success—Ballet Tanz reviewed it and there were other articles written on the work. But I wasn’t really pushing or trying to sell my work. And then exactly a year later, someone saw it and put it in the German dance platform. The international producers who come don’t care if you are well known at home or not. And there was such a reaction—one producer takes it and then others do and it’s out there. It was really funny because it was a year old and a lot of people had it on their desk already. So of course you feel like something comes back but at the same time, you realise how absurd it is

.Sydney dancer-choreographer Martin del Amo describes his experience of the Antje Pfundtner workshop for Critical Path on Artshub, www.artshub.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 12

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

The invitation extended by the 3D series at Dancehouse was a brave one: Artistic Director Dianne Reid opened up the venue to a sizeable number of independent choreographers and allowed them to utilise the space in unusual ways. In so doing, she asked audiences to “move through the different spaces in the building [and] notice that you are moving your own physical architecture. Consider your body as you watch other bodies…” One of the challenges raised by such a brief stems from the 3-week series’ generosity towards its participants creative freedom: rather than offering a tightly curated collection of thematically linked performances, choreographers were given great license in their interpretation of this mission statement. The result was mixed, with some works adhering to fairly conventional formal presentation. A number, however, took the opportunity to really engage with the dynamics of audience/performer relations, working with the three ‘D’s of the season’s title (dance, dramaturgy and design) in intriguing new ways.

Phoebe and Julia Robinson’s Quiet Listening Exercises was first shown at last year’s Next Wave Festival, and is a perfect fit here. Audience members are seated individually around the playing space, each provided with a separate set of headphones through which a glittering, crisp electronic score is piped. The 2 dancers play out a series of minimalist interactions and disengagements, occasionally gesturing towards tiny dramas while at other times refusing the viewer access into their private worlds. It certainly helps that the 2 are sisters, as the familiarity between them adds an extra layer to the work which oftens hints at childhood imagination and past stories. Moreover, I couldn’t help but remove my headset at one point and was startled to find the sisters dancing in silence, in an aural space entirely distinct from that provided the audience. This is a daring work, incorporating long moments of stillness, darkness, and quiet, an “exercise” in which the audience is given the chance to practice the skill of active contemplation.

3D dance dramaturgy and design, curator Dianne Reid, Dancehouse, July 6-7

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 14

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

Paul Schembri, Ellipsis

Paul Schembri, Ellipsis

Revealed through a ceremonious parting of the curtains, Trudy Radburn’s The Petal Waltz, part of the Rouge Room program, is a comic, quirky depiction of a certain kind and quality of performance. We imagine we are witness to a formal event, perhaps a concert requiring evening dress on the part of the 3 performers. Their status as performers can only be a matter of inference for we never exactly see what it is that they do, where their expertise lies. But we imagine they have done something, for we hear sustained applause, a standing ovation perhaps. Our interest lies in examining the reactions of these imagined performers to the appreciation of an imagined audience. The fine visibility of their feelings is made manifest in the contortions of their faces, their mien, their controlled gratification. They face us, each savouring their emotions.

The moment is over. Reactions progress to an exhibition of movements, interactions and responses. Lopsided leg extensions, half-arsed encounters and comic juxtapositions occur between the performers. Small gestures are offered, the animation of a hand having a life of its own. It snakes across and hovers over a pair of breasts, aspiring towards genital gratification—receiving short shrift. Sally Smith has a terrific ability to utilise one part of her body whilst the rest stands by, laconically watching. She can also contort her facial features with an innocent earnestness. Monica Tesselaar has a more Butoh-like approach, holding and sustaining an emotional intensity in full frontal proximity. Phillip Gleeson was different again, working extremely well in duet, maintaining his own energy in the face of extremely different movement qualities. I have a sense that The Petal Waltz is an experiment which will, in the future, leave no possibility unexploited and abandon restraint.

Rochelle Carmichael’s Ellipsis is an ambitious work. Structurally it contrasts a trio of dancers with 2 singular performers. It begins with a highly charged intensity of movement between 3 dancers. Another performer, Paul Schembri, cuts across the space rolling through a hollow metal cube. The cube provided the basis of further interactions, perhaps playing a symbolic part in the unfolding interactions of the dance. The trio of dancers worked like a chorus. One of the most effective moments of the work visually was in the trio’s dance along the back wall, flattening their movements, like some kind of frieze. Ellipsis appears to concern the psychical realm. Its tenor was troubled, frenzied, unresolved. Although the work finished with the trio settling on seats, this seemed to be more of an armistice than a resolution. Perhaps dystopic, perhaps pessimistic or perhaps just about the unconscious, Ellipsis concerns the underside of the human realm as expressed in dance.

The Rouge Room: The Petal Waltz, choreographer Trudy Radburn, performers Phillip Gleeson, Sally Smith, Monica Tesselaar; Ellipsis, choreographer Rochelle Carmichael, performers Jessica Lee, Devereux, Rikki Mace, Rebecca Ann Maguzzi, Paul Schembri, Kelly Way; lighting Stephen Weir; Theatreworks, Melbourne, Aug 26-Sep 11

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 14

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

Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Love Me

Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Love Me

Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Love Me

With On, Lucy Guerin has produced another major work in telling counterpoint to her other great achievement, Melt, also on the same program (collectively titled Love Me) as part of Malthouse’s Spring Season. Where Melt celebrates a fusion of souls in a seamless flow of entwining bodies and digital images, the temperature ever rising, but gloriously stress free and transcendant, On, is a vivid portrayal of a relationship coming apart in a series of emotional cold snaps.

Where Melt grows ever more vividly coloured and open, On is tightly framed in 2 discrete spaces surrounded by darkness. A man and a woman occupy these spaces together and apart, in a state of nerve buzzing tension. They reach out trembling fingers to touch, but can’t make it; they try to kiss but can’t go the small distance. He feels her arm, her face, as if to confirm that she’s there. She dances, he won’t. He can turn her on, but he’s not really there. She can’t move him, she’s frustrated, bored, he’s detached. They’re out of kilter. An argument—we can’t hear the words—bodies thrusting but rooted to the spot. On is about a relationship on the verge of off, in which intimacy is fading and every permutation of the couple’s touching is faltering. She freezes, he cradles her to the warble of a sweet accordion, perhaps the last image of affection, perhaps merely sentimentality, in a soundscape otherwise full of the rush and scraping of the world.

None of this is performed as literal narrative, rather as semi-abstracted but suggestive vignettes, potent images of the knots of love and their dissolution, or cutting. One scene is of the couple tangling in a dance of hands in a small square of light. They live out solo moments, he with a constant turning, self-contained, fluent against the melancholy fall of rain and rasping metal. She gets caught up in projected grids that roll down her body and across her face, as if under other forms of control than just his.

There are moments when you think they’re reconnecting, the tips of tongues actually touch, but he pulls away. Arms and hands tangle again. There’s a similar dance between feet, her foot hooking onto his. Finally, she rocks to and fro before him, he goes to leave, she falls, he catches her, her head lolls, she crumples, he puts her to rest. It’s is if there’s been a death. Adjusting her curled body, he moves a foot to her head, connecting her no longer to him, but to herself, foetally, closed, left.

On is absorbing and disturbing, its miniatures of touch and separation claustrophobically framed in small pockets of light and in the taut choreography enacted by dancers Kirstie McCracken and Byron Perry, their energies compressed and explosive. The sound design (an awkwardly placed reading of a German poem, in German, aside) evocatively parallels the tensions in the relationship but also suggests a bigger world beyond, just as dangerous in its own way.

It was a thrill to see Melt (dancers Kirstie McCracken, Stephanie Lake) on the same program, seeming more sublime then ever and joyously effusive, an immaculate multimedia creation and perfect for a double bill with its dark side, On. Guerin’s other ‘couple’ piece, Reservoir of Giving, began the evening, and its second episode appeared immediately after interval, an unfortunate separation given that the scenes need to be immediately juxtaposed for maximum effect of a pretty minimal idea. While the naivety and pathos of its young protaganists in and out of love is vaguely funny, especially when framed by David Rosetzky’s video cool, there’s not enough substance to take the work beyond a video-clippish conceit. The bringing together of Melt and On, however, yielded a memorable dance experience.

Malthouse: Lucy Guerin Inc, Love Me, choreography Lucy Guerin, performers Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Stephanie Lake, Kyle Kremerskothen, motion graphic design Michaela French, lighting design Keith Tucker, video David Rosetzky, music/sound Franz Tetac, Paul Healy, Darrin Verhagen, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Sept 6-11

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 15

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

“One can say that we perceive the things themselves, that we are the world that thinks itself—or that the world is at the heart of our flesh.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible

As in most of her works, the movement in Sandy Parker’s The View from Here comprises a series of gestural moments. I was getting a bit tired of seeing gesture after gesture a few years ago, but now I’m quite glad she’s stuck at it. Expecting Parker to give up on gesture would be a bit like asking Seurat to drop the dots. If one accepts this kinaesthetic preference, The View from Here could be regarded as an extremely successful collaboration of sight, sound, movement and text.

Its serial chain of staccato actions (move-stop-move-stop-move) inaugurated and sustained a certain atmosphere throughout the work; at once human and impersonal. Being neither natural nor fluid, it would be easy to imagine this suturing of small movements as a stream of consciousness. Many of the short pathways of movement were distal in their execution—arm, leg, hand, face—peripheral sketches of a body (not so much a person) following a script. There is thus an ambiguous quality in the tenor of this dancing. It is not expressive because we do not see the person giving form to a (psychic) interiority. But neither is it pure abstraction: the costuming and the arrangement of bodies in space suggests some form of human sociality. This can also be seen in the timbre of the dancers’ performance, in their eyes which look but don’t necessarily register.

Steven Heather’s musical composition supports the sense that these people are performing something of a non-narrative nature. I don’t know how the collaboration was organized, but I experienced his music as a very harmonious complement/compliment to Parker’s work. It also made space for Seigmar Zacharias’ spoken meditation on the interpretive nature of observation. The ambiguity of Parker’s domain (human, impersonal, non-narrative) is ripe for a series of cool questions about the relation between watching and seeing, requiring us to, as Zacharias put it, “Tilt your brain, inventing connections.” He also posed the question of distance, a form of proximity palpable in Parker’s work.

I loved Margie Medlin’s lighting of the space which subtly turned its rough shod features into something beautiful to contemplate. There was a moment when a digital image of the unused proscenium arch was projected onto a neighbouring wall and dissolved into an abstracted half-sister of the original, mimicking but also softening its pastel hues. A warp and weft of displaced patches of colour.

Mostly, the dancers performed a singular series of movements but there were sections in which 2 or more would do the same thing or work with, rather than alongside, each other. Sometimes one person was designated to watch, like us. Just as the movement vocabulary was basically peripheral, the contact between the dancers did not develop a great deal beyond touch. One question which arose for me as I watched the various dancers was: what happens in a body when the detail is in the distal regions? Phoebe Robinson’s limbs happily rotated and twisted in their sockets. Her manner of movement works well with Parker’s style. But again, one could ask: where is the rest of the body/self in the performance of small things? Or do these small things add up to something else, something greater than the sum of their parts? If they do, then that would be a contribution made by the observer to the work. For me, the journey itself was all there was.

I was impressed by the sustained nature of the piece and its rich interdisciplinarity. There were moments of great beauty especially in the visual enhancement of the site. The collaborative effect of sound and music on the work added complexity and interest. But ultimately, it’s a matter of the flesh, that in virtue of which we have a perspective. Even if Stelarc is right that the body is obsolete, the motions of corporeality remain palpable and pleasurable sites of observation.

Dance Works, The View from Here, choreography Sandra Parker, dancers Deanne Butterworth, Tim Harvey, Carlee Mellow, Daina Pjekne, music Steven Heather, text and performance Siegmar Zacharias, design Margie Medlin, costumes Anna Tregloan; St Kilda Memorial Hall, Aug 25-Sept 4

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 15

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

Dana Nance, Andrew Pandos, Unspoken Outloud

Dana Nance, Andrew Pandos, Unspoken Outloud

A combination of dance company aims, cultures and choreographic processes cross fertilized with mixed casts, makes for a thought-provoking double bill from Restless Dance Company and the Australian Dance Theatre in the Adelaide Festival Centre’s innovative InSpace program.The 2 companies merged and broke into 2 groups, one working with Garry Stewart, the other with Kat Worth. Taking the use of words as a starting point, each choreographer explores the way in which words furnish identity and signify or cloud meaning. The juxtaposition of the 2 works draws attention to their distinctive lexicons and different approaches to dance making.

Kat Worth explores how abstract the experience of communication can be in a play with the dualistic presence and absence of words. Garry Stewart’s work resides in the conceptual, linguistic interplay between the signs and symbols of the written word and movement, toying with words as carriers of our cultural values. Both works are richly complemented by music composed by Darrin Verhagen and the perceptive designs of Gaelle Mellis and Geoff Cobham.

Present Tense furthers Stewart’s investigation of written language placed side by side with dance, first posed in Birdbrain. Unlike the witty fashion accessory T-shirts in that work, the words here are inanimate, 3-dimensional props, sculpturally filling the space within which the dancers pose figuratively and are humorously book-ended, filling in the blanks to suggest meaning. This is a wordplay game where strangely the actions of the dancers bring character and life to the words. The ever changing juxtapositions between dancers and words form various meanings, relationships, or act as descriptors for previous actions. Short vignettes play out the word script through literal representation or physical and theatrical interpretations.

Birdbrain was high voltage, Present Tense is stripped back, reduced and austere. The costuming and neutral staging provide a blank page upon which letters, words, phrases and individual personalities are writ, sometimes small, sometimes large in the open, white wingless space.

Primarily an existential endeavour, the poignant solo moments of aloneness danced by Gemma Coley (‘lovely’, ‘love’, ‘evolve’), and the reflexivity of being an outsider danced by James Bull (‘us’, ‘them’, ‘other’), brought an emotive quality to this cerebral gameplay.

The second half of the work picks up pace as the descriptors fail: human relationships appear to transcend the need for meaning, rapid-fire moments of pure dance inserted between the graveyard of words, intricate manipulating trios and entwined duets. The placing of words onto sleeping bodies concludes the work, suggesting both are media; conveyors of meaning through signals and signs.

In this work Stewart shares French choreographer Jerome Bel’s attraction to semantic gameplay between objects and bodies, and identity construction via acculturation. Stewart’s richly conceptual and humorous work departs from the purely minimalist propositions of Bel through the inclusion of pure unadulterated dancing and expressive theatrical moments, emphasizing dance over performance art.

Unspoken Outloud focuses on the act of communication itself, suggesting that language, spoken or written, is a complex social construct that will inevitably fail us some of the time. Misunderstandings create multiple meanings. Kat Worth’s work therefore offers resistance to literal narrative, to the prosaic and the abstract, rather inviting the audience to engage with a visceral, physical vocabulary of presence in which meaning is ambiguous.

The work opens with dancers entering one by one, picking their way tentatively over 3,000 books covering the floor, to sit in silent repose and contemplation. Each dancer is slowly revealed through individual actions and short duets. Flowing, intricate phrases unfold over time as each dancer is coupled in turn. Silent empathetic falling, catching and guiding to the floor are ongoing motifs, actions speaking louder than words. Unspoken Outloud focuses on a vocabulary of human relationships beneath words, providing alternative ways to communicate when words get in the way of what we really mean. The work suggests that the meaning of some experiences is wordless but heard, felt, real and understood nonetheless.

The experience of Unspoken Outloud is like watching a painting being revealed gradually, a landscape of human relationships slowly bleeding into view—part animated still life, part visceral obstacle path—as the dancers navigate the sea of books that are swept aside by bodies, momentarily read, stolen and stacked. The evenly paced temporality of this work creates a sense of the ennui that can come with words, although greater variation in dynamic range might have been more suggestive. But the primary strength of Unspoken… comes from a creative process which has allowed each performer to have their own voice. When homogeneity and hierarchy are resisted, labels of difference lose their power. Each dancer possesses their own unique vocabulary and expressive style complementing and synthesizing into a fluid ensemble.

To view this double bill from the single indicator of comparison between the very different abilities of these companies would miss the point. The works encourage us to extend our own vocabularies, to test their dualisms.

InSpace, Restless Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre, Vocabulary: Present Tense, choreographer Garry Stewart, Unspoken Outloud, choreographer Kat Worth; composer Darrin Verhagen, designer Gaelle Mellis, lighting Geoff Cobham; Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, July 28-Aug 6; inspace.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 16

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

Approaching Omeo, the artist-run studio/rehearsal/performance space in Newtown, feels like walking to a downtown New York loft in the 1970s. It’s not just the converted industrial grunge and barbed wire festooned entrance, which looks like the studios of The Judson Group, The Wooster Group, and the Grand Union, great innovators in postmodern dance and performance who were named for the places where they worked. It’s that there are artists inside working. They are not waiting for permission from the funding bodies to create work. They are developing a practice in a place—a culture of creative endeavour, a community with a shared aesthetic sensibility.

The Un-coordinated show I saw in August featured works by 7 of the 20 to 30 artists in dance, performance and video who call Omeo home. Martin del Amo and Sam James screened one of their early collaborations, Potsdammer (2000), a short witty video exploration of the clash between space and sensibility; a synthesis of del Amo’s movement improvisation and the camera that allows him to inhabit and re-frame an all too concrete rectangle—a subway passage. The ephemerality of dance and its spaces is briefly overcome, allowing time/space/movement artists to work across multiple moments.

By contrast, Sound Found Movement, devised and performed by Emma Saunders, was only ever in one space and moment and never will be exactly the same again. Saunders shuffles, stomps, swaggers and limps to a strange internal music that she lets us access through her movement. Fascinated, we watch the shifts of her ‘inner voice’—insistent, anxious, calculating, mocking, mundane, trapped, and even the moments she blanks out, the sort of movement equivalent of, “um, what was I saying?” Six minutes into the improvisation a country and western CD starts up, which, for me, muffles the inner symphony a bit, re-shaping it into confrontation with sticky sentiment, and forcing it into an ironic stance. I want to turn it down so I can hear her story better.

In Popular, Brian Fuata verbalised the voices he was hearing while sitting on a stool, unassuming, as himself and someone else. Or maybe twice himself, but assuming none of the intimacies one might expect to have with one’s own mind and body. He asks himself for a smoke. His assent—ungenerous but not begrudging—is a subtextual landmine, strangely potent, tense and suggestive beneath the opaque surface. When music comes it feels as though the bar has become noisy and we can’t listen in to the ongoing conversation. I resent it at first, because I am alarmingly keen to know the outcome: will the 2 men make it or not? But then they merge into one dancer’s body. The outrageously compelling moment of their ordinary conversation is replaced by a parallel sort of magic trick: articulate, generous, and expressive movement pours forth from below the placid surface, replacing the unsaid and the spaces of hesitation with direct and juicy ways of ‘speaking.’

Nalina Wait and Jane McKernan start out articulate in movement and stay that way in Workplace Agreement, a tightly structured duet in which the 2 exchange movement phrases. The fascination is in watching the subtle changes as a movement passes between them. The movement appears to be happening to Wait, dripping off her fingertips, taking over the curve of her compliant and willowy spine. When the same phrase passes to McKernan it becomes intentional, directed, slicing the space, causing currents rather than receiving them. The 2 working together is the subject and the object of the piece. Its title may be a reference to the current AWA debacle, but that aspect is obscured by something more urgent. The title and the dance seem to point to the real possibilities of a work/place agreement, which, in a sense, Omeo embodies. The dancers, like the other artists who work there, agree to come together to work in a direct and creative way on the development of an articulate culture.

So, articulate culture, blossoming of its own accord. Where’s the hitch? The Omeo space has been sold. There will be 3 or 4 more Un-coordinated evenings (curated by Rosie Dennis) before they have to move out next year. Maybe, like the weeds that grow up between the cracks in the footpath, splitting the cement to force life through, the artists will keep carving out spaces. The question is, at what cost to them and to their fragile, ephemeral culture?

Un-coordinated, curator Rosie Dennis; artists Emma Saunders, Brian Fuata, Nalina Wait & Jane McKernan, Martin del Amo & Sam James, Omeo, Aug 12-13; Next Un-coordinated Nov 4-5

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 16

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




Recently it has been hard to avoid thinking about Chinese cinema. I’m in Adelaide, listening to the Premier of South Australia and no less than 2 federal ministers trumpeting the first feature co-production between Australia and the Shanghai Film Group. I’m in Melbourne, watching a season entitled Horizons: New Chinese Cinema at the film festival. Then I’m in Brisbane watching another Chinese season, Lost in Time, Lost in Space.

Not only is it the hundredth year of Chinese cinema, but every day it seems we read of the ways in which the massive changes underway in China are impacting on us. As Australia becomes a major supplier of commodities to fuel Chinese production, there is a growing sense that we need to broaden our engagement with Chinese culture, and embrace a nation from which we have, for too long, tried to maintain a distance.

Given this plethora of film events, it seems useful to draw breath and assess the types of filmmaking going on in China, and the possibilities they might represent for Australian cinema industries.

Global impact

It was instructive to read the recent comments of the deputy head of the Film Bureau, the government body which regulates cinema in China. He celebrated the fact that China now had the third largest national cinema in the world, while going on to express regret that last year the industry produced only 3 good films, by which he meant 3 big commercial hits.

The Melbourne Film Festival gave us a chance to sample 2 of these hits—though the fact that 2 of the films had already screened at the nearby Chinatown cinema for several weeks points to the continuing invisibility of ethnic exhibition for middle-class festival audiences. Feng Xiaogang’s A World Without Thieves shows us what our grandchildren will all be doing on Saturday night if the grandiose claims about this being the Chinese century come true. Montage action sequences, a fat soundtrack, and a regionally recognised Hong Kong star (Andy Lau) speaking Mandarin provide a good sense of the current state of the emerging Chinese blockbuster.

Stephen Chiau’s Kung Fu Hustle and Lu Chuan’s Kekexili: Mountain Patrol take the package a further step by incorporating financing and distribution from Sony Pictures, indicating the ambitions of Chinese filmmakers to tap into global markets by using the Hollywood distribution system.

Art cinema

The next level beneath the commercial behemoths is the art cinema release. Shot on 35mm film on a scale which necessitates official government approval, these more cautious, handsome films are easily incorporated into film festivals and pay TV services such as World Movies.

Foremost here is Gu Changwei’s Peacock which screened at both Melbourne and Brisbane festivals. While it is an officially sanctioned production, the film has a history of censorship problems in China. It has a 3-part narrative structure built around a family in the late 1970s, with each part dealing with an adolescent sibling. The period is significant as the end of the Cultural Revolution opened up space for private lives and personal ambitions (a theme also explored in Shanghai Dreams, shown at Melbourne). Sister’s tragedy is that she wants to stand out in the crowd; older brother’s tragedy is that he wants to fit in. The final story of younger brother, who also acts as narrator, ends with the embrace of mediocrity and cynicism. The world may be full of wonders, of brightly colored peacocks—but not for this generation.

Peacock and Letter from an Unknown Woman, which was shown at Brisbane, have the striking production values which stem from the involvement of prominent creative personalities. Gu Changwei is making his directing debut after establishing himself as one of China’s leading cinematographers on famous Fifth Generation films Red Sorghum and Farewell My Concubine. Xu Jingwei, director, writer and star of Letter from an Unknown Woman is a celebrity television actress and enjoys sufficient clout to merit the involvement of a star like Jiang Wen and cinematographer Li Pingbin (of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai repute).


In recent years, a divide has developed in Chinese production between these officially sanctioned films and the underground production economy of the Sixth Generation, where films are shot on digital video without government script approval, and the thematic emphasis is on the spiritual and cultural vacuum opened up by the embrace of market values. The most important event in Chinese cinema over the past year has been the attempt by the Film Bureau to heal the breach between above-ground cinema and the unauthorized, low-budgeted, and often foreign financed filmmaking for which Jia Zhangke has been an emblematic figure.

Jia’s The World was the headline Chinese film at all of Australia’s festivals this year. Melbourne went one better, contextualizing it with a retrospective of Jia’s films and his cinematographer-collaborator, Yu Lik-wai.

The World is set in a theme park full of replicas of international landmarks, and will undoubtedly be the subject of much commentary dealing with its savage ironies around China’s position in a globalised world. Jia continues to see the main issue for contemporary China as the relation of urban and village cultures, rather than any more outward looking version of globalization. World culture, like the break dance music of his earlier Platform, is a series of garish, disconnected facades, failing to cover the cultural emptiness which underlies it. The World is a film about the paradoxical smallness of the world for many people whose long-term prospects for happiness are reliant on tenuous personal relationships.

Brisbane and Melbourne both contained outstanding examples of this low budget digital production which has emerged with so much strength in China in the last decade. Brisbane’s best shot was Tang Poetry, a film which inspired strongly divided opinions. It is a deeply minimalist film dealing with a couple of criminals living wordlessly, yet passionately, in a sparsely furnished apartment. A rough approximation might be to suggest Tsai Ming-liang watching a Jean-Pierre Melville film. The title and the interspersed poems alert us to the tactic of saying little in order to suggest much, while there is also a tasty irony to the way urgent descriptions of nature have been reduced to the angular claustrophobia of a cramped apartment whose spaces we slowly explore. The film appears bleak and difficult only to those with no eye for sly wit and minimalist tactics of a rich sparseness.

Melbourne’s low budget triumph was Li Shaohong’s Stolen Life, the story of a young woman’s disastrous liaison with a man who uses and abandons her. It is significant that Li, a Fifth Generation director, who last year made the big budget digital effects film, Baober in Love, has gone on to this cheaper video feature, which looks like it was shot for TV. The smaller scale of the production, with its tight, bold compositions, suits it well—a moving parable of the way that a generation was separated from its children, and the ways that a new generation is unwittingly replicating the sins of the past.

Australian connections

So, what’s all this got to do with the Australian cinema? Why should it rouse our filmmakers from the stupefaction of nationalism which has been a central tenet of our film policies?

Certainly, many sections of the Australian film industry have begun to position themselves as suppliers of post-production services to the Chinese film industry. Melbourne-based Soundfirm has led the way here, setting up joint venture facilities in China. Other companies such as Animal Logic and Cinevex have chased work in the areas of digital post-production and laboratory services on the basis that they can deliver quality results at cheaper prices than their Japanese competitors. The end-titles of Kung Fu Hustle make interesting reading for the list of Australian names and companies which feature in lab work, digital post-production and Dolby sound mixing.

The South Australian Film Corporation, which famously led the nationalist film renaissance in the 1970s, is attempting to get in on the ground floor of post-nationalist regionalism by organizing a co-production, Long, Long is the Road and Far, Far is the Journey, to be shot in Adelaide and Shanghai at the end of the year. The film will be written and directed by Chinese filmmakers with an Australian cinematographer. Director Gu Yi’an, a well-known theatre director in Shanghai, explained to me that he wanted to capture China as seen by a foreign eye. The shoot will move from the Australian summer to the Chinese winter in order to maximize the contrast between landscapes.

The emergence of Chinese cinema, in a rapidly changing set of industrial and aesthetic formulations, is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in contemporary cinema. From commercial blockbusters aimed at a world market, through to the underground movements which are starting to come up for air, we can only hope that Australian film festivals maintain their attention to seasons such as these, in order to build interest in both China and Chinese cinema. These films not only raise issues about Australia’s familiarity with the country which is fast becoming its main regional partner, but they also confront the struggling Australian film industry with potential opportunities which it needs to explore with all the energy at its disposal.

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 20-Aug 7; Brisbane International Film Festival July 27-Aug 8

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 17

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

Against the terrifying morass of homogenous ‘fun’ and ‘family entertainment’, there is a necessity for cultural choice and wider possibilities. Yet for cinema audiences in Sydney the options are quickly running out.

The press has made much of the fact that cinema audiences in Australia were down 14% in the first half of the year, a decrease that was blamed variously on the popularity of DVDs and home entertainment systems, disappointing releases coming from Hollywood, and ticket prices. But multiplex cinemas are national and multinational chains, the movies don’t matter as much as the food and drink sales. You want to know why so many mainstream movies are simplistic combinations of explosions and dumb humour? The audience is suffering one big sugar rush and can’t face anything more complex.

Now Sydney’s cinema culture is mourning the loss of Glebe’s Valhalla, one of the city’s handful of independent cinemas, and currently up for auction (and it may be sold to a consortium who will develop it into a cinematheque, or it may be converted into apartments). Paddington’s art-house Chauvel cinema has also been closed.

The death of one cinema, and possible demise of another, leaves a scar on the city’s artistic and cultural landscape that may never heal. There are the Dendy and the Palace chains, but these show well publicised first run ‘big’ indie and foreign language movies, not the retrospectives and classics that play in a cinematheque, and rarely the often under publicised documentaries that once played at the Valhalla.

In John Waters’ low-budget comedy Cecil B. Demented, the filmmaking anarchist of the title attacks multiplex audiences as they watch Patch Adams and sabotages the shooting of the thankfully mythical Forest Gump sequel, all in the name of independent cinema. Desperate times lead to desperate measures. What, then, is to be done to save cinema in Sydney?

Screen culture

Sydney has a culture of film, not just in the presence of the industry and the studios, but also manifested through film festivals and special events. These range from numerous culturally specific festivals to the wannabe indulgence of Tropfest. Not only do these events promote the city to both industry and tourists, presumably areas of importance to the government at city, state and national level, but more importantly they function as a crucial element of aesthetic and socio-political culture. These events serve as a conduit between filmmakers, communities, audiences, and emergent talents, acting as zones from which new visual cultures can emerge.

Film cultures need to be continually nurtured. Hence the importance of independent art-house cinemas screening unusual movies. And these are not merely cinemas that will show the latest in avant-garde Asian cinema or the new wave of radical documentary, but all manner of films that reflect the vagaries of cinematic culture: local, national, and international.

An art-house cinema serves many purposes. It should be the place to see a foreign language film that has limited distribution, such as Noe’s Irreversible, or where an audience can see a new print of an old favourite on the big screen, likeTati’s Playtime. It should screen underground movies and retrospectives. The art-house cinema should be a zone where all censorship is suspended, where a movie like Passolini’s Salo or Clarke’s Ken Park can be screened to an audience free of the contrived moral outrage of fundamentalist tongue clickers.

To lose an art-house cinema is to lose choice. The art-house screens films that are rarely, if ever, screened at the multiplex. While the independent chains have to screen the better known indie movies, they have little screen space for retrospectives or true obscurities. Without the art-house cinema the more eclectic, avant-garde and radical films on celluloid are lost, becoming mere DVD ghosts in the machine. Filmmakers and audiences need film as material. The projected image is superior to the digital image. Watching art-house films on home entertainment systems presupposes availability and removes the pleasure of stumbling accidentally into a classic.

In an ideal world there would be extensive government funding for art-house cinemas, but that is not the only answer. Yes, Sydney should have its own ACMI-variant (as should all state capitals) but this is possibly wishful thinking. The situation is critical; audiences and cinemas need to work together.


Cinemas like the Chauvel cannot compete with the bigger independent chains. As one person put it: “Where would you rather see a movie, somewhere that has saggy seats, or the nice cinema down the road?” It is pointless for the Chauvel to screen the same movies at the same time as the cinemas 5 minutes away. Instead it needs to focus on the neglected, the obscure, and on cult audiences. The cinematheque at the Chauvel screens retrospective seasons and the Valhalla screened all manner of obscurities. The Chauvel should devote itself entirely to this kind of film programming.

Programmers need to adapt and challenge audiences. The midnight movie has helped finance many an art-house cinema, and audiences are out there. The success of the Cult Sinema Mondays at the Annandale Hotel, which has now been running for 3 years, suggests that a loyal local audience who want to see cult movies does exist. The Scala in London survived in part on its legendary Blue Mondays, screening art-house-sex-staples, Thundercrack and Café Flesh weekly to an enthusiastic audience of punks, stoners, leather boys, students and film buffs.

The Chauvel could work together with local universities to run seasons based on academic courses. They could work with film festivals. Absurdly, given the relatively small audiences, the Tibetan, Russian and Greek film festivals are running simultaneously in Sydney throughout early September, effectively working against each other, and against any audience who may actually want to see films in all the festivals.


A further problem is that audiences are aging. The demographic for art-house cinema audiences is increasingly middle aged. Young hipsters may want to see more films, but their disposable income is too low and the demands on it too high; a ticket for a rock concert may exceed $50, that’s potentially 3 cinema trips missed.

For people in the industry, or hoping to get into the industry, there needs to be a radical rethinking of what film is. If you are interested in cinema you should demand to see films beyond the multiplex. If you value cinema, explore it, engage with it, don’t merely expect to be entertained by it. For those who claim to be interested in the industry remember that film culture demands real commitment.

Audiences could also contribute to the running of the Chauvel. Why not start a scheme where members ‘sponsor’ a seat for a year? Five hundred people each sponsoring a seat (or a brick, or a fixture, or even a member of staff) for $2000 could raise a million dollars overnight. Is $2000 too much? People spend hundreds of thousands more on buying inner city apartments in order to be ‘where the action is.’ What will these places be worth if in a year’s time the only inner city activity left is shopping?

There are other modes of operation. Could a cinema be run as a cooperative? The Valhalla currently lies vacant, but it is still a cinema. Could it be resurrected through a combination of sponsors and donations? Is there a way in which such donations could be written off against tax? Or should it just be allowed to rot, or handed over to developers?


Following a public meeting on August 11 a group of concerned citizens formed Film Lovers For Independent Cinema (FLICs, Chauvel.blogspot.com ), led by filmmaker Tom Zubrycki, ASDA director Richard Harris, filmmaker Amy Tovey and Jonathan Wald. The group has formed with the twin aims of assessing the need for, and strategic planning towards, creating a publicly funded cinema culture centre, and secondly to keep the Chauvel open. Backed by local film critics and with possible support from within the industry, the campaign is an acknowledgement of the desperate need for good and varied forms of cinema in Sydney.

Currently advocating letter writing, website creation, and campaigning, FLICs emerges from the recognition that something has to be done to save Sydney’s visual culture. Whether or not FLICs will succeed depends on the people of Sydney and the film culture. Now is the time to become involved.

[FLICs has met with Sydney City Council which has decreed that any lease agreement for the Chauvel has to go through Mayor Clover Moore and the Council’s Cultural Committee, which means that there must be public discussion of the agreement in case the cinema is leased to a commercial operator. In the meantime the Valhalla was passed in at auction at $3.15m. Eds]

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 18

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

Betelnut Bisnis

Betelnut Bisnis

Venturesome selections in a sprawling program characterised the 2005 Brisbane International Film Festival. Of particular note was the formidable lineup of documentaries, an original take on flavour-of-the-month Korean cinema and an intriguing program of experimental and avant-garde films.

David Bradbury’s exposé of the horrors of depleted uranium weapons, Blowin’ in the Wind, is an imposing polemic. Intimate, investigative documentary-making is placed above production values in its address of a deeply verboten subject. Doing away with any pretense at objectivity, the film delivers outrage after outrage, from the handy convenience of depleted uranium weapons to the nuclear industry (why store it when you can offload it to arms companies?), to the unforgettable images of deformed Iraqi babies. Raw and angry films like this are a hugely necessary reminder of the weapons of mass destruction on ‘our’ side. Bradbury was awarded this year’s Chauvel Award (which has previously gone to Robin Anderson and Bob Connelly), underlining the significance of documentaries to the Brisbane festival. The continuing saga around the film’s distribution speaks volumes about its uncomfortable revelations.


Australia’s near neighbours also featured with the welcome focus of the Voices from the Pacific program. Vanua-Tai explores Vanuatuans’ combined efforts to preserve threatened turtle populations and the problems of co-ordination on an archipelago of over 80 islands where turtle consumption is culturally enshrined. Focusing on the efforts to recruit and inform turtle monitors, the documentary’s primary function is as an informational tool, travelling between communities and promoting indigenous action. Refreshingly, this wasn’t ‘white folks speaking for black folks’; producer Jan Cattoni explained at the screening, the islanders themselves were heavily involved in the direction. The resulting film is sensitive (especially in the handling of the inevitable turtle butchery scene) and vivid, threaded through with exuberant vignettes from the community theatre group One Smolbag’s take on the turtles’ fight for survival.

Chris Owen

Like Cattoni, Chris Owen is a highly regarded, award-winning, long-time ethnographic filmmaker working with indigenous communities. His latest film, Betelnut Bisnis continues his ‘participant observation’ of his adopted home, Papua New Guinea, showing the efforts of a small time operator to buy and sell the better, coastal form of betelnut in the highlands, where it fetches a good price. Most memorable are the lovingly photographed scenes of the careful ritual of the preparation process involving the nuts, lime from crushed seashell, and a mustard tree twig, all chewed together for maximum buzz. Owen’s imbrication in the culture is evident in his physical presence, as he talks to the friends and acquaintances who are the film’s subjects; his unflinching eye (some will blanch at the shots of toddlers stumbling around stoned as they learn the ways of proper ingestion) and in the touching scenes where he assists the hapless Lukas in his business endeavours. Owen was also present at the screening of his film to further explain aspects of his gentle, humane look at the world’s fourth most commonly consumed drug (after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine) to a large and fascinated audience.

James Benning

James Benning’s films have been labelled experimental documentaries, though this inadequate description neglects the intense sensory and perceptual exploration they induce. The screening of his 13 Lakes at BIFF delivered a sense of circularity and closure: it was the film we saw being shot in the brilliant Circling the Image documentary that introduced Benning to audiences at last year’s festival. The 13 10-minute fixed-camera shots of lakes are composed of equal parts sky and water, with recombined collected sounds. The experience is both soothing and menacing, tranquil and thought-provoking; as viewers see more and become attuned to the sound mix, we are drawn into the vista and see into it, rather than looking at it. Senses attuned to the slightest movement or sound, in a near-hypnotic state by the final lake of the film, the sound of gunfire comes as a genuine shock.


The Owen Land program heralded the return to Brisbane of the distinguished London avant-garde film curator Mark Webber and re-emphasises his commitment to ‘other’ cinema. Framed by Webber’s perceptive but restrained introductions, the 2 programs offered a comprehensive tour through the seminal 70s avant garde work of Land. Like Benning, Land resists categorisation; his commingling of structural-materialist inquiries into the film apparatus and spectatorship with parodic and surreal imagery, autiobiography, critique (of other avant-gardists, notably Hollis Frampton in Wide Angle Saxon) and found footage creates a unique avant-garde sub-genre.

Found footage film flourished with Peter Tcherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, Bill Morrison’s Light is Calling and The Mesmerist, and Gustav Deutsch’s World Mirror Cinema. All inquire into the phenomenology of film and cinema through montage experiments with old film. Where Morrison and Tcherkassky’s work tends to involve a violation of the image (through forced decay and saccadic editing), Deutsch is more meditative. World Mirror Cinema re-presents 3 lengthy pans (shot at various times between 1912 and 1930) taking in the streetscapes and their cinemas as a springboard to contemplation of life with cinema. Inviting us to reflect on our relation to cinema as a site in social space, the loving attention to the buildings is testament to Deutsch’s architectural background. Careful intercutting emphasises the choreography of everyday life, and the dominance of gestures of pause (slowed-down, the film’s pace is almost elegiac) invites contemplation of the chance participants and the operation of cinematic machinery as a window onto their interconnected lives.

South Korea

South Korea’s golden age of filmmaking includes a thriving experimental sector. The Tony Rayns curated program of independent Korean cinema comprised dynamic and inquiring films that defy cinematic codes and genre boundaries to memorable effect.

‘Edgy’ is often marketing speak for low-budget cinematic self-indulgence but only one of the films in this program fit this paradigm, the 55-minute featurette Anti-Dialectic. An unusually large audience, possibly lured by the promise of philosophical content in the title, endured interminable shots of a smug artist in his apartment, smoking and making languid attempts to sketch an apple. Curiously, the film was titled ‘Half-Dialectic’ in the opening credits, and the catalogue promise that it “skillfully demolishes all theories of dialectical materialism” went egregiously unfulfilled.

The collaborative The Camellia Project, which focused on the increasing visibility and embrace of identity politics by gay men in Korea, was much more interesting. Comprising 3 films by 3 directors, and linked by the setting, Bogil Island, the adventurous films of this omnibus poignantly reflect on notions of escape, disintegration and secrets. Narrative fracturing and a meticulous palette of red and blue mark out the exploration of memory, time and action in film-poem time consciousness.

Containment is the theme of the most stunning films of the New Korean Cinema Reloaded program, Shin Sung-il is Lost (also known as Shin Sung Il is Spirited Away). At a religious orphanage, eating is forbidden and chubby Shin-Sung-il is protected by a giant angel as he dreams of liberation. The ambiguous, experimental narrative, with supernatural elements, symbolism and psychological drama, delivers a sustained critique of organised religion’s hypocrisy and suffocating dogma. Formal innovations include unusual choices of shot, angle and lighting, and apparently random switches between black and white and colour. Any doubts about the degree to which the film’s representational subversion was a conscious authorial strategy were erased by director Shin Jane’s deft handling of questions at the screening, making more films from “shinjaneland, the smallest studio in Korea” a tantalising promise.

War and documentary

War is an ever present theme in contemporary art films and a number at the festival dealt directly with conflict, including Guerilla News Network’s Stephen Marshall’s eye-opening on the ground Iraq documentary Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, the brilliant documentary State of Fear (about government terrorism in Chile), and the sell-out hostage drama Paradise Now. Amidst these, Coca: The Dove from Chechnya, about the activities of human rights activists documenting the litany of murder, abduction and torture the Chechen population continues to suffer, has a special impact. The lengths to which the women go to protect the tapes (hiding, even burying them), the scale and bureaucratic nature of the systematic murder campaign, combined with the unwavering commitment of the dove of the title, lawyer-turned-activist Zainap Gashaeva, creates a truly moving document.

Highlighting the Western media’s indifference in the Chechen human rights tragedy, Coca, like many films in the program, helps us to contextualise and complicate our understanding of a faraway place, its oppressions, tragedies and brave activists. The project is momentous and the documentary a potent force for awareness, a reminder of the power of moving images and the film events that enable us to witness them.

Brisbane International Film Festival, July 27-Aug 8, www.biff.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 19

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

Archie Moore, :E

Archie Moore, :E

Queensland’s colonial history began in the 1820s, just prior to the invention of photography. Colonisation, like 19th century photographs, reduced the world to black and white, simplifying the complexity of reality. Decolonisation, then, could be seen as a gradual process of recolourising the cultural landscape, restoring it to its true condition.

Now in its fifth incarnation, the Colourised Festival is dedicated to reinvigorating the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities and forms of expression. Under the artistic direction of Christine Peacock over the last 3 years, this small, yet sophisticated cultural festival has become an established event, showcasing a range of recent local, national and international Indigenous visual and performing arts. More essentially, it provides a time and place for people to gather, watch and discuss works that both celebrate and confront reality from a multiplicity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives.

This year the festival spread out across the city to QUT Gardens Point Art Gallery and Theatre, the Queensland Museum Theatrette, the Jagera Arts Centre in Musgrave Park, Metro Arts Centre and in South Bank’s Piazza. Taking Indigenous films literally to the streets, some of Brisbane’s most popular bars and cafes in West End and South Brisbane participated in CINEMA alterNATIVE. Twice daily over 3 days during NAIDOC Week, unsuspecting diners were treated to an intimate viewing of 90 minutes of short documentaries and dramas by Ivan Sen, John Bell, Kyas Sheriff, Kelrick Martin, Steven McGregor and others.


Multiple media

Originally focussed on film as its primary medium of delivery, the emphasis this year was more broadly based, ranging across all the arts, from multimedia to visual art to music. Peacock explains:

We’re trying to take into account the broad base of screen culture now, in the sense that it has actually flowed over into most of the other arts. The reason we’ve taken the word ‘film’ out of the title of the festival is because essentially Indigenous cultures are holistic cultures, so we may be making film, but if you look at the actual discipline of filmmaking it involves a number of artists at various times. We wanted to get away from that idea of being producer and director driven and celebrate the idea that it is actually a collaboration of artists all coming together on celluloid or video tape… Filmmakers are not centre stage anymore, I think. Film is becoming a language that everybody is using to speak with.

An intimate mixed media exhibition explored the relationship between the static and the moving image. Still-Moving by Archie Moore, Leah King-Smith, Ivan Sen and the late Michael Riley exemplified the festival’s ability to cultivate aesthetic and cultural experiences for public consumption. A model of what could be a much larger exhibition of contemporary Australian Indigenous art, the single-room, multi-screen installation brought together 4 sophisticated image makers to question the concept of post-colonialism. Understated, yet confident in its subversive use of technology, multimedia is only rarely as concise and relevant as this.

Peacock comments that, “We’ve used the work of what I would consider probably the most avant-garde of our filmmakers, Ivan Sen and the late Michael Riley. They’ve dealt more specifically in film language than a lot of the other filmmakers. This is only my own opinion, but I feel we’ve actually been caught within a sort of ‘ethnographic’ framework. A lot of Australian film has come out of a tradition of documentary, a great deal of which was about the relationship between the coloniser and colonised. And we were often the subject of those documentaries in the early days, like Pearls and Savages, and of course, that meant that the image of ourselves was defined by somebody else and we became ‘other’ within the society. If you are going to address that as (an Indigenous) film maker, I think that you have to have a very good grasp of film language and you probably have to depart from the traditions of documentary filmmaking that have an ethnographical approach.”


Multimedia message stick

An interesting discussion circle convened in the large, open foyer of the Gardens Theatre located on QUT’s Gardens Point Campus. Facilitated by Zane Trow, the forum featured Indigenous speakers filmmaker, David Wilson from Adelaide and Debra Bennet McLean, from Queensland Community Arts Network who were joined by Gary Ellis, Managing Director of Brisbane International Film Festival, Clare Carmody, organiser of the annual Anne Street Party and Kylie Murphy, Director of the biennial Ideas Festival.

Goori woman, Debra McLean eloquently summarised the need for festivals as a tool of social transformation: “For us the concept of festival is an imperative. Traditionally, we had festival. That’s what corroboree was. We did that from the beginning of time. We came together; we were multi-disciplined, we sang, we talked, we told stories, we made art, we created craft, we designed, we acted, and, hey, we didn’t have film camera but if we had it we would have been using it. [Laughter.] That’s why we embraced the concept of multimedia so easily because it’s our message stick and we will use it powerfully. So when we look at accessing what is currently a plethora of technology, we look at how we can do it our way. We want to use that technology because we are a very embracing culture, we embrace things.”

David Wilson provided a brief overview of Indigenous filmmaking in Australia and looked towards the establishment of a National Indigenous Television Network. Wilson described a developing Aboriginal film industry but queried the idea of a unique Indigenous film culture. Comparing film with other artforms, Wilson delcared, “I would say that in the film industry we still haven’t got there yet in terms of Indigenous filmmaking. And that’s not to say that what’s been done already is not good—you know, there are a lot of good filmmakers out there doing good things.”

An installation by Karren Batton and Eddie Nona simulated a segregated movie theatre while slides of kitsch ‘Aboriginal’ tourist souvenirs illustrated the talk given by Olivia Robinson. An archival government documentary film, The Aboriginal Problem in Queensland, was screened as part of the talk on the paternalistic portrayals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities in the past. This was contrasted with the work of Murriimage/Uniikup Productions as an example of how stereotypical misrepresentations of Indigenous people are being eroded by a new generation of Indigenous film-makers, performers, musicians and visual artists.


Next wave

Cross My Country at the Metro Arts Theatrette included the public premieres of 2 writer-animator projects, this time addressed to younger audiences: Boy and Moth by John Graham and Rebecca Pitt, and Murri Girl by Ross Watson and Shane Togo.

Also screened were 6 films by emerging Indigenous filmmakers, ranging from personal studies of the impact of systemic racism on the individual (Grant Saunders’ True Justice, and Too Little Justice directed by Dean Francis based on a script by Marcus Waters) to short documentaries (Endangered, written and directed by Tracey Rigney for the National Indigenous Documentary Fund, and The Ration Shed, by Robyn Hofmeyr, Lesley Williams and Sandra Morgan as part of the QUT Cherbourg Digital Project) and first person narratives with an experimental edge (Feel My Absence by Kyas Sheriff and Listen by Paula Maling, both part of the Lester Bostock Screen Project 2004). The diversity of style and content of this 70-minute program bodes well for the future of Australian Aboriginal screen culture.


Understanding respect

The festival culminated at the end of NAIDOC Week with a picnic, live music jamboree and film screening. The fine weather brought many hundreds of people—a cross section of residents and visitors to the city—to the South Bank Piazza over the course of the 6-hour event. In between live music performances by Black Star DJ, the Glenala School Band, the Hot Sisters, Dizzi and Dubbs, a program of short films produced for the AFTRS Indigenous Program and the AFC’s Dreaming in Motion and Dramatically Black screen initiatives, as well as music clips by Indigenous filmmaker Doug Watkin, was shown on the large daylight screen.

The purpose and validity of public festivals is keenly debated in arts administration circles. One side maintains that festivals are a form of artificial culture induced by governing bodies. The other side sees authentic local art arising spontaneously from within the community and the need for festivals to revitalise the relationship between the arts and local community on a regular basis. The Colourised Festival sits between these 2 camps, balancing the unavoidable task of ‘framing’ Indigenous culture for public consumption, with an open-ended, experimental approach to engaging with the wider community. This allows a renegotiation of common values and beliefs to take place without fear of accusation or blame. Respect for another culture is not a given but has to be earned through participation, unless, of course, it is a form of superficial politeness. Perhaps one of the most positive things an Indigenous cultural festival can do is to help change social values in real and enduring ways. Christine Peacock is cautiously optimistic about the future of the festival, which is inseparable from the changing relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: “(You have to) understand what (respect) actually means, to understand what part it plays within society, amongst human beings. It’s an essential value and if it’s missing, then…”

Colourised Festival, June 28-July 9, Brisbane, www.colourisedfestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 20

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

The Take

The Take

The Take

Towards the end of The Take, one of the filmmakers, the writer Naomi Klein, tells the story of a stranger who approached her at a railway station shortly after her arrival in Buenos Aires. He handed her a letter warning: “Don’t be what we have become. We are the mistake that is your future.” The Take is the story of a group of Argentinians striving to reclaim their work, their lives and their future from the ‘mistake’ that in 2001 laid waste their economy.

Argentina enjoyed a burst of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity under the ultra-liberal economic policies of the Menem government of the 1990s, which saw the privatisation of everything from public utilities to street signs. But in 2001 the bubble burst, the currency collapsed, and with no market regulations left the foreign capital that had flooded the country for a decade was withdrawn overnight. As we see in an extraordinary sequence of The Take, the banks’ reserves of capital were literally trucked out of Buenos Aires in the dead of night in armoured vehicles under the protection of police escorts. Argentinians awoke to find the banks bolted and their life savings gone. The country was declared bankrupt in the biggest debt default in history.

In the aftermath of the economic collapse, Argentinian workers began taking matters into their own hands, occupying abandoned factories and setting the production lines in motion, running the enterprises on a co-operative basis. The first of these co-operatives was the Zanón Ceramics Factory, expropriated in October 2001, followed by the Brukman Garments Factory 2 months later. Intrigued by the stories emerging from Argentina, Canadians Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein set out to document the formation of one of these worker-controlled businesses. Inspired by the Zanón model, former employees of the Forja Auto Parts Factory occupied their plant and embarked on a long struggle to transform the moribund factory into a working concern.

As The Take progresses, we come to identify strongly with the workers’ cause, embodied by Freddy who leads the attempt to form the Forja Factory co-operative. We see Freddy with his cute children, his attractive wife and his sympathetic, hard-working colleagues. In contrast, the Forja Factory owner and Argentina’s politicians are construed as duplicitous, self-serving and untrustworthy. The Take’s politics are hardly subtle, but the film is saved from being straightforward agit-prop by the filmmakers’ reflective positioning in the story. They make no bones about their sympathy for the co-operative movement, and Klein explains in voice-over that she and Lewis were drawn to Argentina in the hope of finding a functioning social and economic model that might serve as an inspiration for the movement against corporate-driven globalisation. Once in Buenos Aires, video cameras in hand, they join the front line of the workers’ fight, sitting in on meetings, visiting workers’ homes and at one point getting tear-gassed by police. The filmmakers are participating witnesses in these events and we see Freddy and his colleagues forge a relationship with Lewis and Klein as the story progresses.

Irrespective of the filmmakers’ politics, the Argentinian experience is a stark illustration of just how anti-human and fundamentally irrational unfettered laissez-faire capitalism can be. It’s no news to anyone that police are frequently employed to suppress labour movements and keep workers working, but in The Take we see the opposite scenario unfolding. During the struggle to get the Forja Factory going, the Brukman Garment Factory is surrounded by police mobilised to keep the factory idle and the workers unemployed. It’s a bizarre moment, given the co-operative has been running the abandoned factory as a profitable enterprise, but the action makes clear what is at stake here; Argentina is in the midst of a battle over the kind of capitalism that will be tolerated in today’s world. The co-operatives are based on local trading, grassroots democratic decision making and localised collective ownership. This is a mode of participatory capitalism that places capital at the service of our psychological and material needs, in contrast to the model endorsed by the IMF which allows economic elites to flit capital around the world at will while being completely insulated from the consequences.

The Take is a stirring and emotionally engrossing work, and a confronting portrayal of the misery ultra-liberal economic policies can generate. The film’s major weakness is a lack of historical perspective, particularly evident in the potted history of Argentina offered early in the piece. But where other recent leftist political documentaries like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed offer critiques of our media saturated, corporate-controlled world, The Take provides a refreshingly positive portrait of ordinary people attempting to forge an alternative form of social organisation. It remains to be seen how far the cooperative movement can be taken, but in the meantime The Take is an inspiring testament to people’s preparedness to lay their future on the line in the struggle for a more equitable and genuinely democratic world.

The Take, producers Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, director Avi Lewis, writer Naomi Klein, www.nfb.ca/webextension/thetake

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 21

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

The recent closures of the Valhalla and Chauvel Cinemas in Sydney and the Lumiere in Melbourne are signs of dire times for independent film makers and distributors in Australia. But Hatchling Productions, an innovative documentary company based in northern NSW, has ripped a page out of the rock’n’roll survival manual in taking their latest project on the road and, hopefully, to a new audience.

Filmmakers Cathy Henkel and Jeff Canin have packed a Tarago van full of equipment and booked a 5-week tour to screen their latest film in unconventional venues such as Yamba Bowling Club, Rooty Hill RSL and Goulbourn Workers Club.

The film, a documentary about Spike Milligan called I Told You I Was Ill, premiered at the 2005 Adelaide Film Festival and subsequently had sold out screenings at the Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. It has also been sold to television in the UK, Ireland and Canada and will screen on the ABC later in the year. But according to director Cathy Henkel, “the reason (that) you make a film is to engage with an audience, to share it with an audience. Making a one hour TV program is probably the most unsatisfying experience for a filmmaker because you sit at home and you know it’s being beamed out to the world, but you don’t know who [the audience] are or what they thought of it.”

However, Henkel says that since the film screened on the BBC last week they have had thousands of people visiting the website and giving feedback. “We’ve got an email list which has got 1000 subscribers just from the BBC broadcast the other night, so we’re talking back to them by sending a newsletter with little quotes from Spike…[T]hat’s part of what we’re trying to do, to engage with our audience.”

By taking their film on the road and bypassing the normal distribution channels, Hatchling Productions are reconnecting with a Do It Yourself ethos that was pioneered by filmmakers like Alby Mangels whose adventure films screened in community centres around Australia in the 1970s. Henkel says DVD technology and data beam projectors allow a new generation of filmmakers to find new ways of reaching an audience.

As well as screening the film, they’ve also invited Spike’s daughter Laura on the tour. She tells stories about Milligan as a father, and also reads some of his letters and poems. Then there’s musician Glen Cardier who toured with Spike in the early 80s as part of a show called An Alarmingly Funny Evening With Spike Milligan. According to Henkel, “A lot of our audience saw that show and they’re coming back and meeting Glen 20 years later and buying his CDs and listening to his stories, saying ‘I remember that!’”

“People come to the show because they want to have a more intimate personal experience of this (film) with Spike and with his family. So they come with their Spike books and they want Laura to sign them. At Yamba Bowling Club the audience hung around for 45 minutes because they wanted to chat. Eventually the manager had to shoo us out. One particular guy just really wanted to tell me how much Spike had meant to him, and I think it was a kind of a yearning for his teenage years that he really needed to talk about. So there’s a very personal, engaged experience happening.”

Cathy Henkel says she wasn’t really a Spike Milligan fan until a couple of years ago when she was visiting a friend in Woy Woy on the NSW Central Coast, the town where Spike’s parents retired to, soon followed by his brother Desmond. Although Spike called it “the biggest above ground cemetery in the world’, he would often stay for extended visits and wrote some of his most famous works there, including Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.

Henkel was in Woy Woy during Spikefest, a festival dedicated to Milligan’s memory and comedy legacy. She said the more she found out about him, the more she became fascinated by him as a character. “I fell in love with him as a person who suffered manic depression (and) was still able to write 83 books, and as a person who was very articulate and outspoken about mental illness. He was a creative genius and struggled so much with this illness and touched so many people. And then there was his activism, his conservationism way back in the 60s. He inspired Bob Geldoff. So I started to realise there was a lot more to this guy than I’d ever known. That was 2 years ago, now I’m an absolutely devoted fan. When people see the film, I think they fall in love with him too.”

For more information, visit www.spikemilliganlegacy.com

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 21

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

According to its recently replaced board of directors, the 52nd Sydney Film Festival was a financial improvement with more sold-out sessions than last year. And the festival did well in procuring new public funding at a time when NSW Government investment in screen culture is conspicuously lacking in preserving Sydney’s arthouse cinemas. Nevertheless, it is clear that of Australia’s major film festivals, Sydney’s is now completely dwarfed not only by Melbourne but also Brisbane and even the new Adelaide event. Its reduced menu (170 films) this year of largely unadventurous fare made clear the festival’s efforts to both cut costs and reduce ‘risky’ selections. Such conservatism not only undermines the cultural capital and historical prestige of the event, it also gives patrons the impression they are seeing the latest in cutting edge world cinema while in fact exponentially lowering both the expectation and the ability of audiences to deal with challenging films. (Audible disapproval greeted some of the more unconventional work this year, mindlessly echoed in the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, with the French film Innocence being jeered for having all its credits at the start—how pretentious!)

A telling sign this year was the lack of a substantial retrospective, which many people saw as a surprise for Lyndon Barber’s first festival as artistic director. I had hoped that the buzz of the extensive Michelangelo Antonioni package last year (most screenings were sold out, and there was a very well attended and lengthy panel session) finally put paid to the theory that Sydney audiences are not interested in large retrospectives of historically influential and demanding filmmakers. Instead, this year we had the latest desperate attempt to pull in a new audience with a series of mainly ‘cult’ music films at the newly sequestered George Street multiplex. This was partially offset by a program of CAAMA (Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association) films at the Dendy Opera Quays featuring substantial follow-up Q&A sessions with key CAAMA figures, making for a fine addition to the festival (see RT 67, p19). Irrespective of merit, such sessions as these should occur in addition to, not as replacements for, big historical retrospectives of key world cinema practitioners.

There were naturally some real gems in the program. The Vietnamese film Bride of Silence (Doan Minh Phuong & Doan Thanh Nghia) was probably my pick of the festival, starting with Rashomon-style multiple accounts of a young woman’s fate after refusing to name the father of her illegitimate child, this before an extraordinary opening out of time and space in the film’s richly symbolic second half. The first-time German feature The Forest for the Trees (Maren Ade) was a compelling low-budget DV-shot film about a young school teacher who tries too hard to fit into a small town (ending up spying on another woman whom she desperately wants to befriend), before a remarkable ending that casts the drama in much starker philosophical terms of responsibility and freedom.

In the Battlefields (Danielle Arbid) was a fascinating account of the effect of Lebanon’s civil war from inside a dysfunctional family, the camera relentlessly but poetically charting social and material decay. While Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) was derided as much for its openly mysterious set up—a series of country mansions in a large, walled park in which young girls are benignly kept prisoner—as for its credits, I greatly enjoyed the film’s formal bravura and thematic meditation on power, complicity, cultural indoctrination and ‘safe’ enclosure. Even worse treatment was handed out to another French film, almost a third of the audience loudly tramping out of Half-Price (Isild Le Besco) which, despite its untutored DV aesthetic, is really an anti-realist piece about identity and consciousness, relaying the escapades of 3 children left home alone in Paris. A highlight of the documentaries on offer for me was Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond for its light-yet-profound Germanic meditations on sublime nature and colonial Europe as we follow the travails of an English scientist-inventor determined to use his re-designed airship to float through the last earthly frontier, the canopies of Central America.

While enjoying these and other films, I was far from alone in my general disappointment with the festival, even taking into account the myriad pressures involved in keeping the event afloat. There has never been a bleaker time for the screening of non-Hollywood cinema in Sydney, with the Valhalla in Glebe and the Chauvel in Paddington (which housed Sydney’s cinematheque) now closed; and for once, Melbourne cannot be smug, with the demise of the Astor and Lumiere cinemas. While the new cinematheque venue in Brisbane and ACMI in Melbourne couldn’t survive without guaranteed public funding, in cosmopolitan Sydney (where the traditional ‘high’ arts receive consistent government assistance) the exhibition side of film culture is left to sink or swim in the hostile waters of the market.

Considering this bleak climate, and its success in snaring rare additional government funding, the Sydney Film Festival now assumes even more responsibility for bringing local filmgoers the most important and celebrated international filmmaking. On any real account the festival is seriously reneging on this crucial role. For years now Sydney has been consistently denied internationally lauded cinema from Asia (this year again commercial Hong Kong action films dominated), or the most important work from Iran—according to substantial critical consensus the most important filmmaking nation of the last decade or more. If you asked the average subscriber relying on the festival to keep up to date with internationally celebrated ‘art cinema’ what they thought of Abbas Kiarostami, many patrons would understandably be unable to answer. To my knowledge, none of his films since Taste of Cherry in 1998 have been shown—something akin to a film festival in the 60s continually ignoring the work of Antonioni, Godard or Bergman. Judging by the festival over recent years, one would never know Kiarostami is critically regarded as the most important filmmaker working today (a 2000 poll of international critics voted him ‘best director’ of the 1990s). The comparison with Melbourne here is stark: when the festival had a mini-Kiarostami retrospective last year (the director himself was present, introducing screenings and participating in an excellent, packed forum) some audience members complained of over familiarity!

In addition to alienating serious film viewers (who are increasingly resorting to other festivals and DVDs to keep up to date), and giving regular subscribers a skewed sense of cutting-edge world cinema, the Sydney festival seems to presume that a perennially sought ‘new audience’ is incapable of engaging with challenging films. Having participated in screenings of very challenging cinema beyond the official film culture circuit which are extremely well attended by an under-35 audience, as well as teaching undergraduate film studies for 10 years, it seems to me that the festival’s conservativism reflects the populist and middlebrow assumptions and/or mellowing tastes of the demographic that makes up its management, rather than any insight into what appeals to younger film lovers. Its misguided efforts to lure a new generation notwithstanding, the Sydney Film Festival remains a middle-aged and middle-of-the-road event indeed.

See www.sensesofcinema.com for Ford’s detailed response to SIFF.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 22

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

Charlie Murphy

Charlie Murphy

The opening days of the Venice Biennale were marked by the monster crowds and queues of the global arts elite, a whirlwind of parties and pavilion openings all overseen by massive yachts jostling for prominence on the waterfront. Money and power rule in Venice, and the selection of weary one-trick ponies Gilbert and George for the British pavilion seemed to exemplify this jaded commercialism. But deep within the Venice alleyways sat the New Forest Pavilion, a group show from regional gallery ArtSway that offered a far more confident depiction of contemporary practice in the UK. The crumbling grandeur of the Palazzo Zenobio provided an unlikely but ultimately fitting stage for the work of 11 artists who had previously undertaken production residencies at ArtSway.

Simon Hollington and Kyp Kyprianou’s Invisible Force Field Experiments (IFFE), recently shown at MOP Projects in Sydney, extends their long-term exploration of the relationship between technology and the uncanny. During their 2003 residency, a performative attempt to create an impenetrable IFFE around the ArtSway building resulted in the inexplicable disappearance of the 2 researchers. In this darkly comical parody of empirical scientific methodology, the Venice installation recreates a recently deserted office of the Scientific Accident Investigation Group (“Making Acccidents Safer”) sent in to examine the unexplained phenomenon. Dusty pinboards, archaic typewriters and outdated, blinking electronic equipment set an atmospheric scene in which to explore DVD documentation of the researchers’ experiments and the investigation findings. The DVD is hilarious and one becomes easily submerged in the layers of fictional proof and truth that inform the world of these mad scientists.

Vicky Isley and Paul Smith’s ‘Boredom Research’ collaboration provides another alternate view of reality in their Theatre of Restless Automata. Three ‘biomes’ are windows into an evolving microcosm of tiny digital creatures. The biomes themselves, sleek black plastic pods, are desirable domestic objects in which to gaze upon an anthropomorphised universe. Whilst the pods are physically located only metres apart in the installation, automata must travel a programmed ‘invisible mile’ to reach the next biome, creating a pleasurable rupture in spatial perception.

Another gratifying world is created in Charlie Murphy’s The Art of Tickling Trout and other Sensual Pleasures. Looking down onto a tabletop screen, one witnesses slightly risqué close-up frames of trout being gently stroked into hypnotic submission, fingers combing through the curling locks of a bull and the twitching muscles of sensitive horse-hide reacting to flies. Innocent and erotic at the same time, the work slyly exposes the secret sensuality inherent in our relationship with animals and their husbandry. The piece was extended through an ongoing series of artist multiples: Best in Show, luscious silk rosettes functioning as subversive awards for the competitive behaviour we display and applaud in society. This edition of rosettes created specifically for the Biennale features the Lion of Venice jumping through a circus hoop alongside subtly seditious gold-embossed phrases (‘Dark Horse’, ‘Unbridled’, ‘Master’). In the context of the Vernissage art market hoopla, similarities to the competitive awards of country horse shows are wittily acknowledged, with the eternally hopeful artist striving for ‘Best In Show.’

Emilia Telese’s striking performance, Life of A Star, also offered up a sizzling reflection on the overly present glamour and glitz of the Biennale. Obsession with celebrity has become a rather morbid characteristic of media in the modern world. Dressed in flaming red Alexander McQeen, hidden behind dark sunglasses and flanked by black-suited henchmen overseeing the crowd/audience and her every move, Emilia’s ‘star’ pranced and played to the paparazzi through the streets of Venice, not speaking and in actual fact doing very little—famous for being, well…famous. By contrast, Sleepwalking, Emilia’s video installation for the Pavilion is a moving and intimate portrait of the artist’s response to her father’s death. Telese retraces a journey her father made to the New Forest shortly before he died, both geographically and physically by recreating the disordered sleep patterns caused by his illness. Her attempt to share an experience that she was not a part of translates into a beautifully paced work that celebrates the relationship between father and daughter. Together the works highlight the disparity between the high-powered international art world and the very pragmatic and sometimes painful world of the practicing artist driven by a very personal creative imperative.

John Gillett’s companion works John Bull War and Peace and The Making of John Bull War and Peace are similarly inspired by the process of artistic creation, more specifically the time it takes to both make and to look at a work of art. In the first video we see looped, speeded-up images of Gillett’s heroic attempt to print out Tolstoy’s famously lengthy novel using only a toy printing set. In the second, the artist documents his performance in real time, and the illusion is revealed—12 minutes is the time it took to make the video. An adjacent glass cabinet displays a 2-foot high stack of A4 paper with (apparently) only the top page of the epic printed, extending the illusion and inviting the viewer to choose between belief and disbelief.

Three powerfully authored digital video pieces from Richard Billingham, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and Alistair Gentry share a preoccupation with the British landscape and the long shadow that history casts over the island and its inhabitants. Gentry’s Sea House in particular highlights the precarious nature of existence on a crumbling coastline under threat from rising sea levels. Filming himself from within a water-filled model glasshouse, the artist submerges the viewer in the creeping and ominous power of the sea to both provide and destroy.

Although predominately works using digital technologies (a choice dictated as much by the constraints of exhibiting in a historical building, as in the ArtSway residency parameters), the exhibition displayed a rich diversity of hybrid practice through performance, research, writing, filmmaking and sculpture. The final piece, a website documenting and archiving Anna Best’s extensive body of temporal, process-based work epitomised the collaborative and purposeful cross-disciplinary nature that characterised much of the exhibition. Perhaps the unique situation of ArtSway as a rurally based contemporary gallery offers artists a certain stillness, a place to retreat and consider their practice. In any case, the elegant marble halls of the Palazzo were stunningly inhabited by this powerful body of work from the regions.

New Forest Pavilion, curator ArtSway Director Mark Segal, Venice Biennale, June 8-12

ArtSway is a contemporary visual arts gallery based in the New Forest in South East England creating professional development opportunities for artists including production residencies. www.artsway.org.uk

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 24

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

Lynne Sanderson, Lucid Touch

Lynne Sanderson, Lucid Touch

Out of the Body Encounters brought the intermediary states of comas, dreams and nightmares into the waking world by way of 3 video and new media works. Curated by EAF director Melentie Pandilovski, the exhibition offered 3 distinct speculations on states of existence between life and death, the conscious and unconscious.

Lynne Sanderson, digital artist, VJ and lecturer in New Media at the South Australian School of Art presented an exciting proposition in her work, Lucid Touch. A bio-electrical interface registers the viewer’s sweat, heart-rate, and temperature and responds by triggering one of 17 pre-recorded dream sequences. In this way, Sanderson sets up a direct cause and effect relationship between the body’s quantifiable data and the ineffable, unpredictable nature of dreams. This gives viewers a notional out-of-body experience that is paradoxically tied intimately and rigorously to their own body. The viewer’s tangible physicality becomes a membrane between the dream world and the real one.

In creating the work, Sanderson collaborated with the Centre for Sleep Research to collect dreams from a group of volunteers. These laboratory-harvested dreams were then translated into film and have arguably suffered in translation. Performed by attractive young actors, with an electronic soundtrack and stylised pixilation, the sequences feel more like music video clips than filmic analogues of the dream state. For the most part, the sequences depict plausible situations and linear narratives; strangely, there is little of the eccentric logic of dreams, with their sudden shifts in time, space and subject matter.

Lucid Touch seems to be a propositional version of an ongoing project: a draft of a much more ambitious, dynamic and responsive future state. While the ‘experimental’ nature of much of the work shown at the Experimental Art Foundation might be questionable, Sanderson’s piece represents a genuinely speculative and exploratory work.

Dennis Del Favero’s Deep Sleep deals with a nightmarish chapter in Australian medical history: the strange case of Sydney’s Chelmsford psychiatric hospital and its practice of Insulin Coma Therapy. Between 1962 and 1979 at least 40 people died while undergoing this treatment, which involved putting patients into a 6-week long coma. Del Favero’s response to the incidents is an interactive DVD-ROM in which disembodied fragments of memory and nightmare are combined to recount these dreadful events.

Projected on the wall of a darkened space, the DVD is set in motion by clicking on a hovering cursor which in turn triggers various short vignettes. In highly theatrical style (ranging from film noir-like mode to A Current Affair-style re-enactments) they depict incidents in the hospital and in the aftermath, as well as speculating on the dreams of the comatose patients. On one hand, the interactive element of the work seems slightly arbitrary; potentially, the piece would have been just as successful as a conventional piece of film-making. However, the viewer’s part in causing the work to unfold implicates them in these events (in some small way) and also serves to fragment the experience. In this way perhaps, the work approaches an analogue of the patients’ experiences and of the non-linear nature of memory.

Based in Germay, artists Alexander R Titz and Maja Sokolova presented das Ich von Gestern (‘The I From Yesterday’ or ‘My Yesterday’s Self’). Sheets of glass housed in metal frameworks and hung with tiny speakers received dual projections of a male and female figure. A fuzzy, static-drenched beam of light relentlessly scanned the squirming, shifting figures, seemingly alluding to interrogation, searchlights and the scanning of bar codes. The sound element of the work comprised 2 sets of EEG signals—one from someone living and the other from a brain dead person—locating at least one of the projected figures in a grey netherworld between life and death. Like the other works in the exhibition, das Ich von Gestern seemed haunted by a ghost in its machinery; the sound and projection stalled and stuttered with poetic imperfection. The work was undeniably the most potent physical presence in the space; incredibly satisfying as a sculptural object.

The high profile of new media and video-based work has had the unfortunate side-effect of spawning countless video installations that seem to excuse themselves from the craft, conventions and critical criteria of both video and installation. Hence, at times, one feels inundated with sloppily made films installed with little regard for spatial/sculptural concerns. Not so with Out of the Body Encounters. Rather than validating themselves with their own newness or technical innovation these works thoroughly engage the craft and conventions of film-making, the poetics of objects and space and some rich, complex subject matter.

Out of the Body Encounters, curator Melentie Pandilovski, artists Lynne Sanderson, Alexander R Titz & Maja Sokolova, Dennis Del Favero, Experimental Art Foundation, July 14-Aug 3

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 24

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




In 2004, for the first time, dLux staged their annual d>Art exhibition of web and sound art at the Sydney Opera House Gallery. I reviewed that show (RT 62, p28), and was struck by how the use of such prime exhibition real estate brought these elusive artforms very visibly to new audiences. This year d>Art 05 was back in the Opera House and the web and sound art was joined by a similarly intangible set of works for 3G cell phones commissioned through Mobile Journeys, the initiative of a consortium of arts and industry organisations to develop creative content for mobile devices.

It’s a strange experience to walk into an exhibition and not, at first, be able to see most of the art. Instead the show appeared as a shrine to gadgetry with hints of the Telstra showroom; six iPods delivered the sound pieces, three PCs displayed the web-based works and nine Samsung 3G cell phones, each nestling on a red suede podium, housed the mobile art. The room was full of invisible little artworks trapped inside indistinguishable devices and the process of reaching them (“Step one: press the menu select key, Step two: choose the file icon….” etc.) was laborious.

But getting to the phone works was worth the persistence. Behind the identical interfaces lay an array of creative experiments with this new platform. The most effective pieces played with the qualities native to the technology; intimacy, communication, the projection of private worlds into public spaces, and the possibilities of the small-scale. All the works were tiny, but the best of them were great in their exploration of the miniature.

Tanya Vision’s provocative series of video pieces, Ache Me, engaged with the mobile phone’s illicit potential; its ability to whisper in your ear, to vibrate discretely in your pocket, to, as the Vodaphone ad suggests, get the flirting over before you get home. Her sugary pink movies worked through a series of suggestive transitions, from close-up see-through underwear to the hole of a gleaming iced donut, from the inference of a nipple to melting ice cream. These naughty little visual tricks worked beautifully on the mobile’s miniature screen where their tininess enhanced the ambiguity of the imagery and the effect of a whispered visual secret.

Tina Gonsalves’ one minute movie, Breaking Up, portrayed the disintegration of a relationship through the metaphor of an unreliable phone connection, with an economy of scale that perfectly fitted the mobile platform. Snatches of failed conversation (“I can’t hear you”, “You’re breaking up”, “What?” “We’re breaking up?”) were stuck discordantly together over the blips and fizzes of telecommunication. On the screen an animated figure collaged from random body parts, with oversized mouth and hands, alluded to the way technologies render our bodies as disproportionate versions of ourselves, in this case as talkers and texters.

Traces by Megan Heyward explored the potential of mobile phone art to be intimately site specific. A series of short monologues, in different voices, linked personal memories to particular places. Reminiscences of childhood days at Lunar Park, wild Mardi Gras nights on Oxford Street and adolescent adventures on Anzac Bridge were illustrated with atmospheric visuals that glimpsed Sydney landmarks through someone else’s eyes. The most interesting was the description, by Will Saunders, of the day he painted the famous “No War” protest on the roof of the Opera House in 2003. Saunders’ softly spoken account of the event and the sensational aerial TV footage reproduced on the tiny screen, juxtaposed the scale of the event’s public impact with the personal experience of the act.

Though its location within the Opera House Gallery gave Traces an extra layer of signification, the work was intended and, like many of the other Mobile Journeys commissions, could be enjoyed best by getting out and about with the art in your pocket. All of the phone works were available to ‘take away’ via Bluetooth, if your phone was suitably enabled. Not only was my Nokia from the 90s not enabled, but it was too embarrassed to come out of my handbag. And here’s the rub. Mobile phones make for a lousy gallery display and this is not really the way the artworks are meant to be seen. But, as yet, most people aren’t technologically ‘enabled’, and with 3G download prices continuing to be astronomical, it’ll be a while before many of us are consuming, let alone creating, this kind of content. There is also the lingering question; do people want 3G? If we could afford it, would we all be running around using our phones as video cameras and players?

Whether or not this technology becomes commonplace in the future, right now it’s clear that the possibilities of the form offer an imaginative catalyst for artists. Mobile Journeys gave a glimpse of the kinds of artwork that might fill up our handsets if and when we catch up with the technology. As with last year’s show, d>Art 05 willingly sacrificed the intended context of the artworks to bring them to public attention in a static exhibition. The show was an intriguing glimpse of where artists might go when, and if, the 3G cell phone’s tiny screen breaks out into the great big world.

Mobile Journeys, d>Art 05, Exhibition Hall, Sydney Opera House Gallery, Aug 10-Sept 4

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 25

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

With the expansion of its exhibition aspect, including the curatorial pursuit of mobile media, the ‘traditional’ screening component of d>Art.05 was a little more modest than usual, consisting of one program drawn from an open call for works and d>Art RE:Mixed, a compilation from 1998-2004. Screened back to back, the 2 programs provided a compact reality check as to how both video has and has not developed over the last 8 years.

The 2005 selection featured works by emerging and established Australian artists exploring some of the territories we have come to expect from video art—recontextualising the personal/domestic, impressionist manipulations of landscape, fetishes for textural detail, and computer generated virtualities.

A Little Confession (Jeanette Purkis) is a simple work made more powerful by the juxtaposition of image and audio. A series of blurry childhood photos play as a verité voiceover admits to misdemeanours. None of them are earth shattering—wishing people dead, ignoring girlfriends, hating siblings—but it is the accumulation and the tone of delivery, almost apologetic yet still defiant, which builds a clear picture of the narrator and the frailty of her ego. The quaint Quiff (James Hancock) explores a more body-based domestic perspective as an unruly shock of hair takes on a life of its. It is a well executed whimsical piece of stop-motion animation reminiscent of Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance: Time Piece (Taiwan, d>Art.03), without the hardcore conceptual restraints (Hsieh shaves his head and then has a photo taken on the hour, every hour for a year).

Removed (Hobart Hughes) also employs stop motion animation to depict a shadow which can affect solid objects, developing an increasingly malevolent personality. Technically strong, the obsession with the detail of dust and detritus of an abandoned plot of land allows the work to walk the fine line between abstraction and narrative, although narrative eventually wins. I Was Made For Loving You (Ian Haig) repurposes the creations from his Futurotica installation (2003-2005). Sex toy hybrid monsters pulsate and vibrate with animated motion lines and cartoon exclamations to the pumping cheesy dance track by Nat Bates. Cycling through the catalogue of novelties, the pace increases until the inevitable climax.

Fantasies are also explored in Oggymooton (Bradley Lovett)—a 3D tour of “a town just out of Dakota.” Oggymooton is into signage offering all the wonders of the modern city—Soda Bubble Sellers, The Jail for Evil Ponies, The Tunnel to Dog Heaven. Oggymooton almost makes a point, but doesn’t quite take it to the next level. No Man’s Land (Adam Costenoble) offers a more interesting use of 3D animation, using a game style panning background over which he has placed a figure—himself. Utilising the gestural language of gaming the fragmented figure jumps, leaps, lies down and squirms in jagged edits—a body not quite under its own control and eventually consumed as the pan across the landscape reverses and the screen is colonised by viral static. Though the reverse structure feels formulaic the recontextualising of the gaming style for existential exploration is bold and rewarding.
Somewhere In Between Version 2 (Tina Gonsalves; sound Takeko Akamutsu) develops subtly from recognisable landscape to impressionistic swathes of shifting texture. Eventually we see a hand on the edge of the screen caressing a piece of fabric overlaying the landscape implying an external manipulation of this dreamy territory. Also dealing with landscape was Who Falls…Was (Ryszard Dabek)—a slow pan shot from a train, a video art cliché difficult to transcend.

Retrocognition in Blue by Glen Stewart explores a classic painting viewed through a beaker of water, distorting and abstracting the image. There is an appealing simplicity about this very analogue way of creating filters and effects and the soundtrack, made from the ambient noise of a people in a gallery, also creates a lo-fi appeal. However the work doesn’t quite know where to go in its 6.40 minutes.

Ada Henskens’ Black Stream was the most intriguing work of this collection. Pulsing, writhing tendrils spew out from the centre of the screen with complete ambiguity. What is it? What is it made of? Is it real or computer generated? is there any pattern to the flux and flow? The texture is intense, and the extreme viscerality is utterly engaging—particularly considering there is no accompanying sound. Once again, however, the structural device of reversing the flow is shakey.

L.A. (Khaled Sabsabi) is predominantly sound. An obscure snippet of drawling and manipulated voiceover talks about conventionality—“it’s not their way, it’s our way…there is no in between”—accompanied by minimal video, a dull gloaming at the bottom of the screen. A cheeky way to enter a sound work in a video screening? Force of Horse (Video Diabolico) was equally brief—footage of a horse’s mouth and lolloping gallop are glitchily looped defying any attempt at meaning. A twisted exclamation mark to the end of the 2005 collection.
By its very nature, the ‘best of’ selection d>Art: Re-Mixed is going to have more hits than the 2005 selection: Rapt (Justine Cooper,1998), Cheap Blonde (Janet Merewether, 1998), Fall from Matavai (Denis Beaubois, 2004) and the breathtaking Belgian film Building (Anouk de Clerq, Joris Cool & Anton Aeki, 2003). This compilation confirmed my ambivalence about the d>Art.05 Screen collection—with few exceptions a lightness of content and structure prevailed, revelling in the quaint, whimsical and ironic. Just because linear narrative has been thrown out does not mean that conceptual underpinning, structural development and momentum should be expelled as well. dLux’s annual d>Art program is a good gauge of contemporary practice—hopefully d>Art 2006 will show us that some weight and seriousness has returned to the form.

D>art05 Screen and d.art RE.mixed, Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, Aug 31

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 25

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

Mike Stubbs

Mike Stubbs

Mike Stubbs

I interviewed Mike Stubbs the day before RMIT’s Vital Signs, a 2-day conference on new media art that brought together several hundred artists, theorists, curators and writers from around the country to discuss the standing of the field and the key issues of practice, distribution, reviewing and curation (see RT 70 for a detailed report). It’s appropriate for Vital Signs to be held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image; it’s one of the hubs of Australia’s new media art scene and, internationally, a unique, specialised home for the latest in art practice. Stubbs is Head of the Exhibitions Unit at ACMI.

Trained at Cardiff Art College and the Royal College of Art, Stubbs was the founding director of Hull Time Based Arts (1985-2000) and developed EMARE (European Media Arts Residency Exchange). He co-founded Metamedia, a Soho-based production company specializing in art and music. As a producer he commissioned the award-winning media performance POL by Granular Synthesis featured at the 2001 Venice Biennale, and curated new media programs for the Kiev International Media Art Festival in the Ukraine and the Microwave Festival in Hong Kong. He also established strong collaborative links with European art organisations through establishing the Hull Time Based Arts’ Root Festival.

Stubbs’ commissioned films Donut (2001) and Resistor (2001) were broadcast on BBC 2 and Channel 4 Television; many of his films have won awards; and a retrospective of his video work was shown at the Tate Gallery, London. In 2001, he completed Zero, a short film made in zero gravity on board a Russian military aircraft at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre. He has also created large scale outdoor projections and streamed works.

Curator and maker

After art school, Stubbs worked with film and then video. He recalls his first show, curated in a temporary cinema space in a supermarket in Cardiff city centre in 1980, was called Not just another art show. As for the difference between making work and curating, he says he has “never been able to separate the two. It’s the sense of working with materials, whether 16mm film or computer digits or expertly ironing shirts (my mother), or arranging the work of other artists; you take pleasure in the craft, the duty of curation, the ability to question, whether creating work or programming or curating. Of course they are different but the underlying principles are the same.”

Stubbs came to Melbourne from Hull via Scotland where he was a Senior Research Fellow at Dundee University. He refers to the experience as “a recovery period [from his 13 years at Hull Time Based Arts] when I actually got to make a body of new work which was, in a sense, critiquing agendas of social economic cultural regeneration which I’d become aware of through my work in Hull. My most significant collaborations have been with social scientists, health care, psychiatrists and scientists, not because they’re better than artists but they challenge your assumptions.”

Two cities

Stubbs describes Hull’s decline from being a highly industrial, masculine culture: “It lost its fishing industry which provided 80% of its employment and had the lowest education attendance figures and the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK. Talent drained to the south. Here was a city that wanted to be part of the information age. It was strategically important for Time Based Art to be in a dysfunctional part of East England in terms of government funding. I was young, I represented techno-music and clubs, and I was up against ageing male councillors, the city fathers. It led to a sense of independence—Time Based Arts became the primary promoter of live and new media art in Britain. I don’t think we really tried to meet their measures of social regeneration but they turned a big-enough of a blind eye to what we were doing to continue to fund us, because enough people in positions of power supported us because we were developing an international reputation, which gave Hull something like having a premier league football club. I was working through the network I’d got from my filmmaking, capitalising on trips to film festivals and then establishing good solid working relationships. We had very strong connections with Holland and Germany, Hong Kong, the Ukraine…”

For Stubbs, Melbourne was very attractive: “a liveable city, security good, good for raising children, images of a relaxed environment, sun etc, but, ironically, it turns out Australians work harder and longer than anyone else.” ACMI is “an amazing site, challenging expectations for people about what they see and where. It has one of the best screen galleries in the world. And there are some great artists working in Australia.” He’s also taken with Australian culture: “Australia has masses of potential, it’s highly distinctive in terms of its history, the mix of migration. It can connect internationally but also with its Indigenous population. Christian Thompson is an intern here, it’s a small thing, but it is important.”

Curating history

Curation and programming are historically significant. Stubbs describes his work as the Head of the Exhibitions Unit and that of his fellow curator, Alessio Cavallaro, as “taking snapshots of particular practices at particular times, and in a way that’s artistic. I’m not a cultural theorist but historically you can see who’s been able to dictate ‘history’, impart versions of the world, for various reasons.”

He is alert to how a curator has to read the signs: “people want to manufacture movements because it’s convenient, because it post-rationalises theory—and Australia is full of theorists. In the early 1990s, he says, the scratch video movement was “romanticised as underground, uneducated garage culture, which didn’t really exist; it was students.” Similarly, being alert to what’s happening around the world is vital: “You have to take on multiple sources of information. I’m always interested to know what great art artists are seeing, otherwise you end up with biennale shopping, which is justified in terms of Australia’s isolation, but risks it being subjugated to a homogenised culture.”

Stubbs describes the unit as “a small team doing 3 or 4 exhibitions a year, but they’re big exhibitions. ACMI is over its start-up period, there’s a new director, Tony Sweeney, with a sustainable model for the institution. Exhibitions had been pretty much specialised media shows, but recently have become more variable in texture and curatorial brief. From here on they’ll be intermixed with shows like the Stanley Kubrick exhibition; a collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria; something on the history of Australian television [in its 50th year]; and experimental film from Germany; and an emphasis on building audiences.”

White Noise

The current show, the Stubbs-curated White Noise, is a seriously entertaining exhibition of curated and commissioned abstract works in new media, a nice contrast to Experimenta’s equally engrossing Vanishing Point with its more representational animations and interactives. Both shows will be reviewed in RT 70 (December-January).

White Noise is not primarily interactive, but it can be intensely immersive, and that includes the exquisite installation design—a dark corridor with glowing blue frames receding into the distance, each the entrance to a visually and sonically discrete and often powerful work.

Stubbs recalls that as a young filmmaker, “I used to reject abstraction. I was always more interested in the representational than the non-representational. I had that need…but I came to know a lot about abstract filmmaking and loads about new media art. My tutors at the Royal College of Arts were eminent materialist and abstract film makers, Peter Gidal and Malcom le Grice.” Stubbs enjoys the beauty of much of the work in White Noise and is impressed by the artists each having a strong philosophical base.

The show also represents continuity for Stubbs: “There are artists in this exhibition I’ve worked with over a long period of time, more as a producer. I have confidence in them, a close working relationship, and I want to see where they’re going next. And I want to encourage that, provide the opportunity for them to make masterworks. I don’t know how many shots I’ll have to do this here, in a great gallery, with a great body of artists, with a show highly focused in terms of architecture and engineering, at every level. The balance in White Noise between having the right slate of artists, a significant thesis and a great audience offer is a dream scenario.”

White Noise, curator Mike Stubbs, ACMI, Aug 18-Oct 23, www.acmi.net.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 26

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

The OnScreen New Media Art Course Guide is available as a PDF (76kb)

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 27,

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

Wooster Group, House/Lights

Wooster Group, House/Lights

Wooster Group, House/Lights

In investigating fundamentals of performance, Peter Brook, Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte have maintained their reputations as theatre innovators over long careers.

Peter Brook, at 80 years old and with a 60-year career, is the oldest and most venerated of them all, the most influential director in the world. His The Empty Space is theatre gospel. Historic productions include Marat/Sade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Conference of the Birds and The Mahabharata. Though he has made a vast and varied contribution to the theatre, he is most frequently associated with a cross-cultural quest to discover universals in human performance. His interpretations of Shakespeare combine psychological insight, incandescent intelligence and a sublime imagination.

Richard Foreman has been making theatre for 37 of his 67 years. Early in the development of his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, founded in 1968, Foreman’s interest in phenomenology produced a theatre that isolated objects and moments, concentrating focus and stretching time. Performers emotionlessly going through movements to the sound of flat voices over the loudspeakers, buzzers sounding within and between speeches, and ludicrous intrusions into stage action were among devices promoting Brechtian distance. Over time, the interruptions and non sequiturs became increasingly strong aspects of his work as he focused on realising his own trains of thought on stage. Most recently, Foreman has used theatre to consider aspects of contemporary culture.

Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group came about in 1980, growing out of Richard Schechner’s Performing Group, founded in 1967. The associative construction of performances, the alienating devices, the director’s meticulous control of all action, light and sound on stage have much in common with Foreman’s work. The collisions of texts drawn from high and low culture, classic texts and material drawn from improvisation, and juxtapositions of live performance and technology characterise the Wooster Group’s more recent work. Director Peter Sellars has described the work as “high-energy, show-biz media-blitzed theatrical grandslam.”

Peter Brook

Peter Brook and his company presented Tierno Bokar at Columbia University where Brook was an artist-in-residence. (How difficult it is to imagine an Australian university having the resources or the will to pursue such a residency!) Set in 1930s Mali, the play tells the true story of an Islamic mystic who demonstrates the courage of his convictions when he refuses to change his religious practice to fit the dictates of a more powerful sect. As a result, he is rejected by his fellows and left to die alone.

Tierno Bokar recalls another portrait of steadfastness, Robert Bolt’s depiction of Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, but while Bolt’s More had more than a touch of ego, the holy man in Brook’s production is all gentleness and humility. He says on several occasions, ‘’There are three truths; my truth, your truth and the truth.”

The floor of Barnard College’s gym appears covered in dust for the show. There is an exquisite and characteristic minimalism to staging and gesture. Sticks suggest struggling trees. Two musicians at the side of the area provide wind and percussion for the action. Everything is essential and maximally expressive.

There is no rushing, either. Tierno Bokar is not so much the telling of a story as the staging of a quality; peaceful humility. The meditative pace takes at least some of the audience into a zone in which there are quite different relationships to time and space than the ones we are accustomed to in the West, especially in a city such as New York. At the end of the performance I saw, there was a very, very long silence before tumultuous applause began.

Richard Foreman

Richard Foreman’s The Gods Are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah) is an endgame in at least 2 senses. Before it opened, Foreman announced his retirement from the theatre he has been making for over 3 decades. The Gods is also an elegy for a culture slipping from sight, leaving the sort of wasteland described by Beckett and Eliot.

The set is vintage Foreman. A steam engine protrudes from a wall. Golden planets with Roman letters around their equators hover among medieval chandeliers with doves hanging from them. The stark utility of industrial chutes is balanced by a whimsical playground slide. Valve arteries protrude from a giant, heart-like planet. Biblical tablets are blank. There are the trademark crossed wires and transparent shields, in case we forget about the 4th wall and whose show this is. Inhabiting the set is a chorus in Ottoman pantaloons, German helmets (complete with cross) and 60s sunglasses. The Exodus, changes to the conception of the universe, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution and 60s youth culture are among the cultural disruptions thus evoked. Rationality/science and intuition/religion are also in the mix, as are ignorance, innocence and experience.

The director’s note in the programme reveals the reason for the myriad cultural associations. In it Foreman alleges the passing of “the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West” and “the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available’”, he describes this “new self” as needing “to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere press of a button.” He speculates whether this will “produce a new kind of enlightenment or ‘super-consciousness’”, professing himself sometimes optimistic and sometimes shrinking “back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.”

There is much here in common with Eliot’s regrets about modernity and, indeed, the 2 bewildered lumberjacks at the centre of the piece are hollow men for whom, ignorant of its cultural riches, their environment is a wasteland. Far from being destructive figures, they are incapable of using their axes. For them, “Between the conception/ And the creation/ Between the emotion/ And the response/ Falls the Shadow” of something like ennui or exhaustion.

At the end of the play, mushrooms sprout as characters drink a ‘magic elixir’ that might be a regenerative liquid, like the wine symbolising the blood of Christ or a suicidal potion. The clang of falling cups as the lights fade suggests the latter and confirms the aptness of Foreman’s description of The Gods as an “elegiac” product of “anguish.”

Elizabeth LeCompte & The Wooster Group

While Foreman’s piece is unusually dour for him, the Wooster Group’s House/Lights, first performed in 1998, is especially zany. The show juxtaposes two texts linked by their treatment of power and pursuit, “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights”, a 1938 libretto by Gertrude Stein, and Olga’s House of Shame, a 1964 B-grade lesbian crime thriller.

In its use of technology in performance, House/Lights has much in common with other recent Wooster work such as The Hairy Ape that came to the Melbourne Festival. Not only are there bells and whistles but clanging platforms, cameras, TVs, headsets, voice manipulations and interminglings of live and recorded action, pop culture and high culture. There is a joyous playfulness to House/Lights. It provides frenetic fun for the audience and its techno-business is impressive. But ultimately it is rather shallow along lines suggested by Foreman. With sufficient cultural background and a lot more motivation, his lumberjacks might have made this show.

* * *

Considered together, these 3 remarkable theatremakers present an array of pleasures missing from most theatre currently on offer. But it is sobering to recall that these productions have occurred during the drab and dangerous Bush era. Seen in this light, Brook’s poetics, Foreman’s erudite elegy and LeCompte’s wizzbangery may well amount to fiddling in the flames.

CICT,Tierno Bokar, director Peter Brook, Le Frak gymnasium, Barnard College, Columbia University, March-April 26; Ontological Hysteric Theater, The Gods Are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah), writer-director Richard Foreman, St Mark’s Church, Jan 18-April 17; Wooster Group, House/Lights, director Elizabeth LeCompte, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Feb 2-April 10

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 32

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

Chelsea McGuffin, Darcy Grant, David Carberry, The Space Between

Chelsea McGuffin, Darcy Grant, David Carberry, The Space Between

Chelsea McGuffin, Darcy Grant, David Carberry, The Space Between

From the moment of being directed to Circa’s studio rather than the main performance space at the Judith Wright Centre, The Space Between is something out of the ordinary. With the audience placed up against the 4 walls in a single row of seats facing a rectangular mat in the centre of the room, the space is bare, except for a single trapeze hanging in the centre. This sparse beginning is a kind of empty canvas that we will watch paint itself.

Lit only from above and sometimes assisted by projections, the mat becomes textured with shadows that create shapes, or inversely, spaces in which the performers place themselves. In the light and in between, the performers are confined and defined. This recurring attention to space is in keeping with the production’s exploration “into the things that keep us apart and our desire to be together”.

These lighting states also ensure that this is a piece about bodies rather than faces and when these bodies (performers Chelsea McGuffin, Darcy Grant and David Carberry) enter and take their place there is an impassive quality, an effortlessness that is neatly contradicted by the moment they engage and the performance begins. The passion and effort builds in an accumulation of moments, of stunning solo dexterity, beautiful duets and gorgeous ensemble work. This is a work of momentum and of images tumbling one after the other. The moving bodies, the riffing physical images and the constant, changing patterns of light on the floor create rich impressions.

The integrated soundtrack ranges from Jacques Brel songs to industrial sounds. When it describes “walking and falling at the same time” we seem to have lost track of which way is up and which way is down as the performers defy our logical understanding of what bodies can do. When McGuffin is lifted up to the trapeze, the vertical dimension of the space—right there in front of us the whole time—seems to open up. And that’s one of the many qualities of this work, what it creates out of thin air. McGuffin’s work on the trapeze is stunning, an exquisite, crash mat-free, heart-stopping duet, performer melding with apparatus.

The other two performers are equally compelling. Carberry has the flexibility of a rag doll coupled with amazing feats of strength, while Grant brings a mix of grace and danger. The only false note came in the stories told by McGuffin and Grant. Without the flair or seamlessness intrinsic in every other element of the production, the texts seemed oddly out of place.

This is a brave work, a simple performance that is strikingly complex, without tricks and yet full of them. Resting on the skills and presence of its 3 performers, The Space Between gives them no room to hide, nor do they need it.

Circa Rock’n’Roll Circus Ensemble, The Space Between, director Yaron Lifschitz, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, Aug 17-Sept 3

See more on Circa in An Axis of Edges, p8

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 34

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

Fiona Macleod, Todd MacDonald, Construction of the Human Heart

Fiona Macleod, Todd MacDonald, Construction of the Human Heart

Enter ‘Him’ and ‘Her.’ They sit in a nondescript, aqua green set, reading from scripts, actors playing roles in a show at The Storeroom, Melbourne. Yet each carries a pencil and uses it to make alterations. Actors yes, but actors playing writers who have written a play, joking and laughing about the vain silliness of the theatre. A self reflective dig at a scenario all too familiar…Yet ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, and the oceanic set they are immersed within also hint at an interior space—the masculine and feminine sides of playwright Ross Mueller. Two sides of one personality walking a line between melodramatic realism (a child has died), expressionism, and a self-reflective preoccupation with not just the writing process, but the process of creating a play. The passage from reading to rehearsal through to the public performance of private lives grieving over the loss of a child. Is it the playwright’s ‘baby’ that has gone to the grave? An intimate piece of writing Mueller has offered up for scrutiny to an arbitrary audience ? Or is it a ‘real’ child who has died? Does it really matter?

The human heart is a labyrinth of interconnecting chambers, at its most palpable when dissected in the theatre. Overlay the glib and distant recorded voice of a character who may be a representation of the surface mind of the playwright masquerading as a TV boothman, and Mueller’s play is complete. The omnipotent playwright, aware of his absurd situation, and the absurdity of his creation, delineates the contours of a ‘heart’ that can only be made apparent by a strange contradiction—a distant view of intimate space. One eye is on the story being told, another on the effect of the story as it unfolds on the writer’s emotions. Or perhaps this is just a play about the loss of a child and its effect upon 2 ordinary people? What is this dream we call the theatre and what of the theatremakers whom playwrights ask to interpret their dreams?

Director Brett Adam skilfully teases out the manifold concerns of a difficult script while Todd MacDonald and Fiona Macleod provide the emotional crunch that made Construction… a go-see show, one that entertains yet also challenges its audience by suggesting its melodrama is just another device within a play, within a play, within a play…Such is the oblique resonance of a work well constructed within Construction of the Human Heart.

Construction of the Human Heart, writer Ross Mueller, director Brett Adam, performers Todd MacDonald, Fiona Macleod, lighting design Rob Irwin, set design Luke Pither; The Storeroom, Melbourne, Aug 2-21

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 34

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

You know the set up. The party’s over and it’s time to leave. If you don’t, things may get ugly. Instead, you stay on, trying to recapture the spirit of an event as it diminishes. One too many pills, a bottle or 2 of vodka, and the party just gets uglier…

The End of Romance has something of this ugliness. A pudgy, bearded Jason Sweeney in white singlet and Y-fronts disco dances with balloons. Vampish Julie Vulcan repeatedly stabs a heart shaped chocolate cake with a knife, stuffs cake into her mouth, and later offers it to members of the audience (many choosing to eat the mess). The End of Romance might be muddled, self indulgent and excessive, but what of that moment when a relationship fails—that transitional space, that haemorrhaging of a fruitful, satisfying partnership in our capacity to abandon those we love? This is the space that The End of Romance inhabits, but it is not just a show about personal relationships. Sweeney runs around the space with a framed map of ‘Old Australia’, singing an ironic song that reinforces “Howard’s Way”—back to the 50s while charting a 21st century path. The political dialectic of the show is all too familiar, but Sweeney and Vulcan move beyond this mundanity.

The performance is conducted from a trestle table with 2 laptops. The computers appear to have no other function apart from receiving confessional emails from a collaborator supposedly situated in Brussels, who also appears on Sweeney’s screen singing a bastardised version of a popular song. The whole set up suggests a dubious dysfunction that may or may not be intentional: artists propelled back in time to 50s Australia, a surreal place in which metaphors of shit, blood and vomit prevail. Might this be symbolic of the end of the romance between the Australia Council and new media and hybrid artists brought about by the recent dismantling of the New Media Arts Board? Possibly, but you may not glean this from the performance if the allusion was not included in the publicity. Perhaps artists should have known that once the business world dispensed with its short lived fetish for new technology, it would only be a matter of time. In a sometimes shabby and often eccentric show, there is power in Sweeney and Vulcan’s suggestion that the party is over. Like dead meat, the characters are left hanging on a butcher’s hook. And the blood flow is slow and painful from a couple of wounded hearts drunk in the kitchen at a party now trapped in time.

The Rouge Room: Unreasonable Adults, The End of Romance, performers Jason Sweeney, Julie Vulcan, outside eye/collaborator Ingrid Voorendt, remote artists Caroline Daish, Jaye Hayes, Stephen Noonan, Kerrin Rowlands, Theatreworks, Melb, Aug 25-Sept 1

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 35

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

Zen Zen Zo, those with Lucifer

Zen Zen Zo, those with Lucifer

Zen Zen Zo, those with Lucifer

Zen Zen Zo’s latest work those with Lucifer is the first of what will be an annual In The Raw Studio Season providing a space where the company, now in its 13th year, “can return to its experimental roots, and develop new, challenging and edgy works.” It also marks the first time that Artistic Directors Lynne Bradley and Simon Woods have handed over the directing reins, in this case to their newly appointed Associate Director, Steven Mitchell Wright.

According to Wright, those with Lucifer was inspired by the myth of Lucifer’s fall from heaven as punishment for sin. Told from the perspective of contemporary humankind or “sinners”, using the Seven Deadly Sins as a framework and the fall of Lucifer as a starting point, the performance and its audience moves through the space of Sub-Station 4 (a disused power station). Along this journey, we and Lucifer (Katrina Cornwell) are introduced to sins written on the wall and performed by the ensemble or by various configurations of duets and trios. All the usual suspects appear: Sloth, Gluttony, Greed, Envy, Lust. Variously depicted through images of yuppies socialising (“Sloth”) or babies slopping up pasta (“Greed”), these episodes were engaging and entertainingly performed, but for the most part steered clear of exploring the consequences of sin. Those episodes that did left a lasting impression.

“Pride”, the final episode, began with what was a signature image for the work, one which opened and closed the show, each performer standing before the audience with arms and fingers extended straight up, faces tilted towards the sky, in an exquisite expression of abandon and endeavour. The race-like scenario that followed provided a compelling image for a physical theatre company, where training is all and ego is often one of the first hurdles. Here, as in “Envy”, which honed in on the consequences of body image, “sin” seemed to take a toll.

The shifting ground of what qualifies as divine, or moral or just plain good taste makes it difficult to know what constitutes sin nowadays. When bureaucrats and politicians lock up children in the desert and callous indifference to human life seems the norm, these old sins just don’t seem to cut it anymore. Or perhaps a redefinition of sin is in order. In those with Lucifer ‘sin’ was for the most part associated with things that seemed more fun than evil.

Zen Zen Zo has a knack for nurturing emerging talent whose passion for performance feeds and enriches their work. The abandon and joy exhibited by this young ensemble created a kind of ‘total performance.’ Particular mention should be made of Katrina Cornwell, her Lucifer acted as both observer and participant, providing the perfect conduit for the audience. This was a sold-out season, with extra shows added. To see young audiences and young performers clearly engaged by the potential of live performance demonstrates that this In the Raw season represents an exciting new step for Zen Zen Zo and for their work with emerging talent in Queensland.

Zen Zen Zo, those with Lucifer, director: Steven Mitchell Wright, performers Katrina Cornwell, Mary Findlay, Kat Henry, Mark Hill, Katie Hollins, Tora Hylands, Robbie O’Brien, Kat Scott, Helen Smith, Peta Ward, Annabelle Winkler, co-choreographer Lynne Bradley, composer: Colin Webber, sound artists Emma Dean, Lyndon Chester, lighting Simon Woods, designers: Steven Mitchell Wright, Suzie Russell, Annabelle Winkler, Sub-Station 4, Brisbane, July 20-30

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 35

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

Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of 
Mary Poppins

Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of
Mary Poppins

Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of
Mary Poppins

In a year in which Queensland celebrates the centenary of the women’s vote, theatrical testimonials to a renegade feminist history in the state have been surprisingly few and far between. Sue Rider’s The Matilda Women springs to mind as an earlier contribution. With such offerings to the national body politic over recent decades as Lady Flo, conservative socialite/mayoress Sally Ann Atkinson and a certain red-headed rightwing firebrand and ballroom dancer, turning to the world of letters by way of inspiration seems a much more edifying option for contemporary performance makers. Whatever the gender or political hue, Queensland undeniably does a fine line in radical individualism and it is fitting, then, that the determinedly eccentric P L Travers (creator of the character Mary Poppins) should have emerged from federation era rural Queensland. As theatreACTIV8’s production The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of Mary Poppins asserts, the home-grown cultural milieu certainly gave Travers something to run passionately away from in the long trajectory that was her gloriously idiosyncratic life.

Taking Valerie Lawson’s biography Out of the Sky She Came as a departure point, director Leah Mercer pooled a strong ensemble, including writer Marcel Dorney and actors Margi Brown Ash, Stace Callaghan and Carol Schmidt to create a unique performance experience in which theatreACTIV8’s bold physical sensibility combines effectively with Dorney’s dialogue driven text. The actors each inhabit an aspect of Travers’ female (if not always avowedly feminist) psyche: a triptych Travers herself describes as comprising nymph, mother and crone. The cast glide effortlessly between these constructions at various points of Travers’ cantankerous life, intruding upon and contradicting each other’s sketchy and subjective accounts of her narrative.

Particularly intriguing in this regard is Travers’ complicated relationship with men, who, if women are assigned 3 basic archetypes, might also be correspondingly described as either genius, father or fool. Certainly, her first major love interest, the Irish poet ‘A.E’ is nominated by Travers as the former; whilst mystic, Gurdjieff, might be considered any of the above; and studio chief, Walt Disney, absolutely the latter if not the former. Callaghan in particular does a fine job of animating Dorney’s amusing popinjays and patriarchs, creating the chilling sense of a fourth (male) actor in the ensemble (whom I was faintly disarmed not to find appearing in the curtain call).

The famous Poppins iconography—umbrella, starched blouse and long skirt (equally at home in the Kransky Sisters’ Esk Valley mise en scene) and crisp uber British consonants and nasal vowels—wend their way with marked constraint into the performance text. Poppins-esque gewgaws hang from Celtic wiccan-like totems in Conan Fitzpatrick’s initially intriguing (but ultimately under-utilised) scenic design. Schmidt’s Poppins only occasionally utters the iconic “spit spot!” and the overall effect is aptly one in which the complex personality that created Poppins, rather than Poppins herself, takes centre stage. Indeed, as Ash Brown’s wonderfully world weary crone suggests, it was never a matter of having ‘created’ her at all, but of allowing her to descend, enigmatically, from the ether. Robert D Clark’s evocative and jaunty sound design is worthy of special mention here by way of invocation.

There was much to like about The Great Exception. With an all too brief 4-day run, this rough gem, with a little further polishing, deserves a second appearance before a wider audience.

theatreACTIV8, The Great Exception: or, The Knowing of Mary Poppins, director Leah Mercer, writer Marcel Dorney; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, August 17-20

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 36

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

!Metro Arts’ Independents series began with a trial run in 2002 under Sue Benner’s pioneering artistic directorship. More an attempt to forge a hothouse environment for the city’s freelance performance practitioners than an effort to house any pre-existing overflow of activity, the series was an immediate success and has become a fixture in the Brisbane arts incubator’s annual programme. !Metro promotes itself as being “in the centre…on the edge”, and indeed it’s an edge the city desperately requires. Having championed physical theatre and circus longer than most Australian capitals, and having one of the nation’s most committed mainstage writers’ theatres in La Bôite, !Metro has stepped up to the plate and provided the forum for a genuine affordable fusion space for artists across the span of the city’s eclectic contemporary performance spectrum to collaborate, experiment and push parameters. It’s a space where artists—at various stages of their careers, and regardless of their area of performance specialisation—can try and fail, though in the case of the Restaged Histories Project’s latest offering, The Greater Plague, the signs of success are strong.

Set during a plague year—an iconic plague year, as it transpires—during the 17th century, writer-director Nic Dorward’s heterotopic exploration of disease takes place in a specialist London asylum in which denizens of the city unaffected by the epidemic are quarantined for 40 days of sustained physical deprivation and psychological abuse. The most immediately arresting image is Kieran Swann’s starkly ingenious design: !Metro’s inflexible black box is subverted by a white box within. The Plague House is represented as an antiseptic white puzzle box—a berko Rubik’s cube that shifts, slides and reveals slots that double as windows, doors, fire grilles, escape hatches, peepholes and gaudy picture frames.

Two sisters, Lettice (Morgan French) and Edith (Saskia Levy) stumble in through the floor, having broken in through the neighbour’s cellar. They are escaping a domestic abuse nightmare in Paris, and inadvertently find themselves trapped in an exponentially more ghoulish world within the asylum’s macabre confines. Theophilia (Emily Tomlins) is about to give birth, and faces an extended 40-day incarceration in the hellhole if the baby survives. The deranged Nurse (Louise Brehmer) and Bearer (Jonathan Brand) prey on the inmates in fiendish (and, in the latter’s case, necrophiliac) delight. All the cast are excellent.

Dorward’s idiosyncratic directing combines improvisation and extended physical scenes as well as robust adherence to immaculately researched and intellectually rigorous dialogue that makes no apologies for its historical fetishes and predilections. Indeed, the whole piece is refreshing for its refusal to kowtow to lowest common denominator audience expectations, without ever lapsing into prosaic self-indulgence or obscure self-referentiality. It is not a naturalistic narrative. The audience is required to work, to use its imagination to piece together the individual character back-stories (told in impro-styled comic flashback).

There is a feast of physical, visual and linguistic images woven together and driven along by an exceptional sound design by Luke Lickford. There is a renegade bonhomie in the ostensibly mordant study of incarceration that augurs extremely well here, not just for the careers of the team of emerging artists involved, but also perhaps for the future of independent contemporary performance in Brisbane.

The Greater Plague, writer-director Nic Dorward, designer Kieran Swann, sound Luke Lickford; producers Restaged Histories Project and !Metro Arts Independents!; Metro Arts, Brisbane, Sept 7-24

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 36

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

Steven Ajzenberg, Nick Papas, Not Dead Yet

Steven Ajzenberg, Nick Papas, Not Dead Yet

Steven Ajzenberg, Nick Papas, Not Dead Yet

Rawcus & Born in a Taxi

During an Australian tour last year, New York dancer/theorist Bill Shannon expanded upon his performances by incorporating discussions of a particular politics he saw as essential to the reception of work by those with bodies outside of the social category of ‘normal.’ Shannon, on crutches since the age of 5, articulated an aesthetics of “failure and heroics”—a kind of grass-roots discourse of performance as becoming, rather than being, of process over product. Every performance is an attempt, and ‘failure’ is not an aberration but a component of expression with its own significance. The majority of live performances seek to conceal the attempt in favour of the end result, but differently-abled bodies draw our attention to the normative politics of such an endeavour. The distinction between what could be termed the ‘try’ and the ‘act’ is something that separates sports, circus, comedy and some forms of dance such as breakdancing or tap from more traditional modes of performance which seek to pave over the effort that goes into delivery.

Viewing performers with disabilities can reveal some of the underlying assumptions we bring to our interpretation of all performances. Do we judge disabled performers differently? Probably. But works like the recent Not Dead Yet can help us to understand this as a productive way of seeing. Judging an actor’s ‘ability’ here takes on a new dimension: after all, we often praise or condemn a non-disabled actor’s ‘ability’ in a role without considering the kinds of politics which might surround such interpretation.

The cast of Not Dead Yet is made up of contemporary physical theatre ensemble Born in a Taxi and Rawcus, a company featuring performers with and without disabilities. Born in a Taxi’s Penny Baron devised the piece after a South American journey which introduced her to Aztec and Incan cultures’ worship of disabled individuals as guides into the afterlife. Not Dead Yet is a group-devised response to death and the hereafter, and though there is a loose narrative thread to the piece (a woman’s slow journey after death), the piece is largely composed of a series of disjointed responses to the overall précis. Part of the work’s enjoyment comes from realising the questions posed by each scene: how would you least like to die? What are you afraid of leaving behind? What would you most hope the afterlife to hold for you? This last question underscores one of the piece’s most moving sequences, an initially cryptic scene in which performers throw paper planes, play in a sandpit, or slow dance together. When blind and wheelchair-bound Ray Drew, who was himself pronounced technically dead after being electrocuted, begins to cry “I can see again! I can see again!” it becomes apparent what is being explored here. Moreover, the emotional affect of this scene is so powerful precisely because it acknowledges the embodied experiences of its participants, both disabled and otherwise.


Australian theatre has sometimes struggled to find a footing when dealing with urgent political issues. The tendency towards didacticism must be tempered with a realisation of the sophisticated theatrical vocabulary of audiences, many of whom are sensitive towards overtly polemical narratives. Theatre@Risk has already demonstrated an ability to address contemporary affairs with delicacy in mounting recent works from abroad (Terrorism; Arabian Night) and original productions (The Wall Project; 7 Days, 10 Years). Stalking Matilda engages with the politics of paranoia and the treatment of refugees, ostensibly exploring the mysterious death of its heroine as a means to uncover a society of trenchant racism, institutionalised xenophobia and ultimately explosive class tensions. An ensemble of uniformly strong performers creates the social environment in which the doomed Matilda and her immigrant husband move, and as we learn more about the 2 we begin to question our own complicity in such a perilous state of affairs.

While the politics of stalking itself offers fruitful ground for a theatrical work, the title of this piece initially appears somewhat misleading. A trenchcoated voyeur occasionally hovers at the fringes of proceedings but only rarely becomes a notable figure. As the story unfolds, however, it begins to appear as if the audience itself is the stalker, looking in on, at times, obscured views of the central character’s life, piecing together a distorted composite image of her complex existence. It is a testament to both Tee O’Neill’s writing and Chris Bendall’s direction that the idealised, glamour model portrait of Matilda is always rendered only partially, while remaining a distinctive and many-levelled characterisation. As Matilda herself, Jude Beaumont creates an entrancing intensity for a character who is in other ways composed only of surfaces. In this she is matched by Rob Jordan, whose charismatic portrayal of Matilda’s husband Suleyman is both sympathetic and bold. Staggering through a city street, clutching a rag to an open stomach wound, it is apparent that Jordan understands the importance of subtlety in what could otherwise have been an overplayed death scene. In this, as in most of Stalking Matilda, Theatre@Risk has once again produced a keen-edged and incisive investigation of local and international politics and the pressures which place both social and personal ties in crisis.

Stuart Orr

Stuart Orr, Telefunken

Stuart Orr, Telefunken

Stuart Orr, Telefunken

The recent remounting of Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Black Swan of Trespass and the commissioning of Telefünken are part of Malthouse Theatre’s new Tower Theatre program. Independent artists and companies are invited to stage existing or new works in the intimate venue and are given creative freedom to present their final product without interference from the company. At the same time, they are required to provide the kinds of progress reports and budgets which would be expected of a larger, professionally mounted production, thus schooling emerging artists in the kinds of practice which await them later in their careers. It’s a gamble, but one which has so far resulted in strong works which add a vital energy to the Malthouse calendar.

Telefünken is a solo show devised and performed by Stuart Orr and directed by Barry Laing. I’m not sure if Orr was inspired by author Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent opus Gravity’s Rainbow, but this was the text which most forcefully impressed itself upon my interpretation of the piece, and that’s a potent recommendation. Like Pynchon’s notoriously difficult work, Telefünken re-imagines the closing moments of World War II through a cacophony of voices and embedded narratives. Trapped within a Berlin moviehouse as Russian tanks roll into the city, the audience is confronted by an SS soldier eager to relate the story of his life, but the manic deserter does so by both describing and enacting his tale as a movie with storyboard, commentary and dialogue, amongst other framing devices. The plot unfolds through this series of competing mirrors, and Orr’s incarnation of Mann, the increasingly erratic storyteller, emphasises his position as the postmodern Unreliable Narrator, who may be mad, sick, duplicitous or forgetful. We are never provided a safe position from which to make sense of these events, instead attempting to navigate this explosive terrain in the same method as our guide.

Like many of the postmodern authors of the late 20th century, Orr also offers us Telefünken as an encyclopaedic narrative, one which matches densely textured detail with an impressive scope. The many streams which carry through the piece include Northern European mythology, reality television, the modern psychology of crowds and the mutability of history. Orr plays a multitude of characters, and though his accents are impressive there is room for development in the area of vocal delivery. This quibble aside, if the rest of Malthouse Theatre’s Tower season matches this level of brave innovation, few will argue with the direction the company has chosen to take.

Not Dead Yet, directors Penny Baron, Kate Sulan, designer Emily Barrie, lighting Richard Vabre, deviser-performers Steven Ajzenberg, Clem Baade, Kellyann Bentley, Ray Drew, Rachel Edward, Nilgun Guven, Carolyn Hanna, Valerie Hawkes, Nick Papas, Kerryn Poke, Louise Riisik, Jolan Tobias, John Tonso, presenters Born in a Taxi, Rawcus Theatre Company; Theatreworks, St Kilda, Sept 15-25;

Theatre@Risk, Stalking Matilda, writer Tee O’Neill, director Chris Bendall, performers Jude Beaumont, Irene Dios, Odette Joannidis, Rob Jordan, Toby Newton, Jeremy Stanford, designer Kelle Frith, sound Kelly Ryall, lighting Nick Merrylees; Theatreworks, St Kilda; Aug 5-21

Telefunken, writer-performer Stuart Orr, director Barry Laing, Tower Theatre, Malthouse. Melbourne, Sept 14-25

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 37

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

Ryk Goddard, UTE 4 Universal Theory of Everything

Ryk Goddard, UTE 4 Universal Theory of Everything

Ryk Goddard, UTE 4 Universal Theory of Everything

For the past 4 years Hobart’s innovative is theatre ltd has conducted the National All-Media Improvisation Laboratory under the umbrella of the Boiler Room Improvisation Festival, holding a series of workshops in sound, words and voice, movement, technology and physical comedy. At the end of each day a performance highlights the skills and techniques achieved. The final night—the performance I saw—was described as a “cross-artform slam.”

Artistic director Ryk Goddard explained, “Everything you see tonight will be improvised, from the lighting to the sound, movement and images.” Part 1 evolved as a wryly amusing, absurdist piece with kung-fu moves, a tentative love scene, an engrossing, rambling monologue from a ‘Chinese doctor’, a skit-like interlude with a female protagonist and a gnome, and lots of use of 2 chairs and a cupboard, the ‘characters’ almost generating a coherent narrative. There was plenty to entertain, provoke and amuse, much of it beyond rational explanation.

Part 2 of the presentation, UTE (the Universal Theory of Everything), was a process researching improvised performance as a site-specific collaborative practice. To quote the Boiler Room program, “the challenge [is] to lift impro beyond the interesting and make work that combines the power of theatre, the visual impact of installation and the physicality of dance.”

Titled The Room, this manifestation of UTE investigated the room or cell as a site for “interaction and performance, refuge and imprisonment.” The 3 performers navigate their way in and out of a flexible, multi-purpose, interactive space created from swathes of suspended translucent fabric. Music is integral to the piece, a minimal, repetitive guitar solo setting the tone. Performers dance, pose and make abstract movements. They interact with the white cube, moving in and around the space, pulling at and manipulating its fabric walls into a fascinating variety of shapes and configurations—after which, thanks to ingenious design, it all springs back into its original form. Digital projections onto the walls add to the ambience.

Without the safety net of script and rehearsal, Boiler Room was genuinely entertaining, frequently amusing, thought provoking and absorbing, a triumph of improvised theatre.

Another unconventional performance was Jeff Blake’s anarchically original one-man show Cancelled by Popular Demand. Its non sequitur comedy is reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Groucho Marx and the Theatre of the Absurd—to name but a few elements. Physical comedy features prominently—cricket balls are lobbed at speed against a side wall; Blake climbs into and over the audience, muttering grumpily all the while; shuttlecocks are randomly hit into the auditorium; and the performer’s neatly suited character intersperses the early parts of the performance with shuffling, deliberately self-conscious ‘cool’ dancing.

The comedic dialogue zanily dissects humanity’s woes and evils, astronomical phenomena, Shane Warne’s bowling, crooner-style cabaret…the list beggars belief but it all works outstandingly well. One of the most absorbing performances I have seen in Hobart for ages.

National All-Media Improvisation Laboratory, Boiler Room, performers scot d cotterell, Cam Deyell, Ryk Goddard, Bec Reid, Martyn Coutts, Greg Methe, Aaron Roberts, James Wilson, Caleb Doherty, is theatre ltd, Backspace Theatre, Hobart, Aug 25-28; Cancelled by Popular Demand, writer-performer Jeff Blake, Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, June 22-26

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 38

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

My memory of Romeo Castelluci’s Giulio Cesare at the 2000 Adelaide Festival (RT 36, p22) is frighteningly vivid. Although a substantial variation on the text and themes of Shakespeare’s play, it served nonetheless as a radical reading of the classic, the problems of the protagonists writ large and displaced into bodily distortions and the wasteland generated by civil war made devastating almost beyond imagining. Benedict Andrews’ production for the Sydney Theatre Company is, instructively, a very different creature, revealed in the portrayal of an altogether cooler, pragmatic culture as epitomised in Robert Cousin’s set—a bleak cut-away concrete amphitheatre, evoking both the senate house of ancient Rome and the brutalism of modern stadiums. Here there are gross entertainments straight out of Abu Ghraib prison, a fairy floss seller, thuggery and conspiratorial gatherings, but the mood is of restraint and paranoia. This is epitomised in the portrayal of the crowd, so pivotal in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Andrews has disappeared the crowd, but in very revealing ways.

First seen, the crowd comprises surreally masked, distracted and isolated individuals scattered across the amphitheatre. They hardly warrant the lecturing and hectoring by their betters in the opening scene. After Caesar’s death they become mere noises-off during the orations of Brutus and Anthony: none is physically present, their whisperings and calls transmitted through loudspeakers on stands placed about the Forum. It’s as if the crowd is mere background noise to the great political machinations taking place. So it is today, any politician invoking public opinion or a silent majority is bound to be wielding a fiction. The focus in this Julius Caesar is a very interior one, full of difficult choices and populated by the ghosts of the victims of political logic.

Brutus (Robert Menzies) looks like a harried home body, hair wildly tousled, dressed in a red woolly with white shirt sticking out, certainly a very interior, unfashionable man, marked by his anxieties at very first sighting and not someone who deals with the world, conspirators or Cassius face to face. Andrews choreographs the action so that this isolation, political and domestic, is unmissable. Cassius (Frank Whitten), dressed in a suit, is a watchful businessman, physically relaxed, mentally alert, another man who keeps his distance. Both actors speak with a quiet intensity in a delivery that is lucid, the poetry more conversational than sung, slow and considered, and true to the inexorable logic of the play as it moves towards Caesar’s death. And slow and intense the first half is, capped by a slo-mo murder in mime and Brutus’ washing of the body…in blood—as if he, like Lady Macbeth, has come face to face with the enormity of his crime and nothing will wash it away.
After Anthony’s speech (Ben Mendelsohn playing a truly blunt man, all the rhetoric in the shape of the argument rather than in flourish) many a production slips into decline—there are no heroics to be had in the bickering between Brutus and Cassius or in the nuances of loyalty tested by pragmatism, or in the pathos of Brutus’ suicide. Andrews now accelarates his production and wisely concertinas a number of scenes into one, set at a long table lit only by hundreds of candles. Brutus, Cassius, allies and the ghosts of the recently deceased sit on one side looking out over the audience. Forced to avoid eye contact throughout and driven by the staccato structure this scene yields from Brutus and Cassius an unprecedented emotional intensity that reverberates beyond private tragedy to the destruction of the very republic the pair were defending. It’s a nightmarish scene that builds to sudden release when Brutus and Cassius do finally face each other and Cassius accepts his friend’s strategy, although knowing it means defeat. Andrews’ approach here has a power that might have advantaged the production elsewhere; in this scene it gripplingly prepares us for demands of the play’s final bleak moments. This is a fine, engrossing, sometimes visionary Julius Caesar.

In progress

The Sydney performance scene appears to have been quiet in recent months, but there’s a lot of backroom activity. Showings of works in progress in Performance Space’s Headspace, its hybrid performance laboratory, revealed a number of pieces already far advanced in vision and realisation. Branch Nebula’s Project No 6 (shown with the support also of Performing Lines) seamlessly and erotically fuses skateboarding, BMX-biking, acrobatics and breakdancing in various partnerings—it sounds unlikely but it works beautifully with a hypnotic intensity and not a little physical virtuosity. Karen Therese showed Y. Smith, part 2 of the Sleeplessness trilogy, this time investigating and recreating the life of her mother in moments both delicately intimate and shocking, accompanied by magical images from Margie Medlin. Melbourne’s Neil Thomas and David Wells, as Two Bare Light Globes, gently humoured us with improvised tales and new songs about what it means to be a man in Man Talk. Jeff Stein and collaborators in Il Ya led their audience into one of the strangest experiences encountered in contemporary performance in recent years. Inspired by Emmanuel Levinas the work takes us into spaces that are both physically and philosophically dark, and hard to describe. Stein and company are off to Italy to develop the work further in Romeo Castelluci’s studio.

At Drill Hall, Critical Path presented German dancer and choreographer Antje Pfundtner (interview p12) in a remarkable solo performance for a small audience after the workshop she’d been running for local choreographers. Combining unusual shapings of the body and tales from her own and other’s lives, Pfundtner is charismatic, her performance fluid and idiosyncratic. It’s hoped that Pfundtner will soon return to Australia to perform her work publicly and conduct another workshop.

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, director Benedict Andrews, designer Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babdidge, lighting Damien Cooper, sound/composer Max Lyandvert, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, opened July 1; Headspace, Performance Space, July 18-Aug 28

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 38

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

For many individual artists and small companies working in performance, the time and energy they expend on self-producing is becoming increasingly exhausting, often threatening to drain their creativity. One solution, often raised but rarely discussed in depth, comes in the form of the ‘creative producer’, a kind of cultural angel of mercy.

On August 8 RealTime and Performance Space held the latest of our popular open forums for artists, this time to address the role of the producer in contemporary performance. Some 50 artists, curators, producers and venue managers listened to and talked with our guests. Rosemary Hinde is the director of Hirano, an agent and a producer of dance across Australia and Asia. Martin Thiele works as a producer in performance, film and new media. Harley Stumm, formerly with Urban Theatre Projects, is now working for Performing Lines. Amanda Card is the Executive Producer of One Extra Dance. Hinde and Thiele are based in Melbourne, Stumm and Card in Sydney. The session was hosted by RealTime’s Keith Gallasch and Performance Space Artistic Director Fiona Winning. What follows is drawn from the complete, transcript. See RealTime-Performance Space Forums on the left of our home page for other forums).


Agents, presenters, producers

You could say that all producers are creative, that they search out and nurture the creativity of others. But, of course, some producers are more creative than others, in particular those who don’t just pick up an already developed work but who are in there from the beginning, with the artists, helping to shape, fund and mount the work, sustaining the artists’ vision.

In the Australian performing arts, our image of the producer, let alone creative producer, is not very clear. There are agents: some look after artists and groups as individual entities, others harness a particular group of artists, like Strut ’n’ Fret (unfortunately unable to make it to the forum) in Brisbane who have effectively put together a stable of idiosyncratic, cutting-edge cabaret performers. Some double as agents and producers, alternating roles as the need arises. There are venues whose programming helps to shape a terrain for artists to work, ranging from the incubators, like Performance Space and PICA, to the Sydney Opera House where Philip Rolfe, Virginia Hyam at The Studio, and other staff will program seasons but also commission some work and follow its gestation and development through to the end. Then there’s Performing Lines. It picks up innovative work it thinks it can tour successfully and sometimes can be in there from the beginning as a producer with artists and projects it feels it can commit to. But its resources, and its brief, for this kind of activity are limited.

Is there something missing from the arts ecology at the moment—a group of independent producers who are not necessarily attached to venues and who are not agents but who work closely with a small group of artists and companies? The forum began to work towards establishing precisely what role the creative producer plays, who needs them and how funding models can accommodate them.

Amanda Card described the evolution of One Extra from an artistic director-driven company to a facilitator for choreographers and dancers to mount works with Card herself as executive producer. The move was in part responsive to local needs: “the bottom had fallen out of the company structure…It was also generational. A lot of people were coming out of companies and wanting to create their own work but there wasn’t a model [and] not enough time to spend in the studio creating the work [while being] administrators, marketers, financiers, whatever.” Card said that One Extra provides those services where possible and as early as possible in the development of new work.

Rosemary Hinde has run Hirano Productions for 15 years: “I do 3 things. I function as an agent. I represent companies with existing productions and tour them within the Asian regions on a tour-by-tour basis. I produce collaborations and co-productions with international partners from Asia—and that’s a big part of my work. Also, where it’s possible, I present Asian companies in Australia—mostly in the areas of dance and physical performance… Artists’ interests, it seems to me, have traditionally been represented and safeguarded by managements and agents. Their role is to represent the artists rather than that being part of the producer’s role.” Hinde thinks that the label “producer” has been widely adopted, but without addressing what the role entails: “Ten years ago when you dealt with Australian arts companies, they had general managers and artistic directors. Now they all have executive producers.”


Inhibiting structures

Both Hinde and Thiele spoke of the problems presented by traditional company structures. Thiele described company producers expending more energy on servicing boards of management than on their creative role, a condition he’s worked on overcoming in his own practice. Hinde put a case for reviewing company structures: “Traditionally, within a funded and not-for-profit context, funding has been driven through the core unit of the company with its general manager and artistic director or executive producer. Historically, that’s been the basic unit and model of arts funding in Australia. Now, I’m actually not sure that that is any more the most economically productive way of deploying funding because it seems to me—and I work with companies. I tour companies that have exactly those structures—that what you’re effectively doing when you fund things that way is to duplicate roles…A company that does 2 seasons a year, it seems to me, doesn’t need a marketing manager. But maybe 6 companies who are grouped together with a complementary set of skills, in the way a festival works with specialist managers who come together and work as a team that service each of those individual companies, might be a better way of looking at it. Performing Lines is definitely one model. Arts Admin in London is also a model that supports companies over time.”

There was further discussion about artists not needing to build their own stand-alone company structures or, certainly, elaborate ones. It was suggested that more than ever before there are various structures to tap into and make good use of—Performance Space, the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne City Council (which has its own Creative Producer in Stephen Richardson), Hirano, One Extra, Performing Lines, and agents who do also act as producers, like Marguerite Pepper and Strut’n’Fret. However some inhibiting factors were described. Rosemary Hinde pointed to the growth of arts centres “which lock up an enormous amount of resources…are hard to access and don’t work with potential national and state partners.”

Anne-Louise Rentell described the Illawara Performing Arts Centre as addressing the producing role for local artists. Rentell is Performing Arts Facilitator in Wollongong, a position created by the NSW Ministry for the Arts to facilitate professional performing arts in the Illawarra region. She describes her role as “a semi-producer.” The centre is well-resourced, programs big companies, has “2 great venues”, so, says Rentell, “we’re ripe to actually provide opportunities for development and to produce local work from the ground up.” In this model the centre provides staff and facilties, but the funding for artistic content is sought from the state and federal governments and, if touring, through Playing Australia. Perhaps then, as with Melbourne City Council, local government could focus on funding creative producers.


Creative status

However, some speakers thought that attitudes to producers would need to change as well as the organisational and funding structures already discussed. Both Martin Thiele and Harley Stumm spoke of the importance of the producer in areas superficially not part of the creative process. Thiele said, “I think a creative producer provides consensual, logistical compliance, financial and technical support to a project or at least oversees those particular elements of a project. I think in [performing] arts, film and television, which are the 3 mediums I’ve worked in over the last 12 months, the producing element is essential.” Stumm commented, “I think a lot of the things that are often seen as ‘dry’ management tasks (budgets, schedules and so on), they’re just a different discourse about the creative process. A budget is a plan for the distribution of resources. So, you can’t do all that work without having a really clear idea of the vision for making that work of art.”

Thiele’s concern is that the performing arts needs independent producers, but that they have no status: “Historically, artists have taken responsibility for self-producing and I think that within the arts support infrastructure there’s still an assumption that artists will take that responsibility. And I think that’s something we need to address because, generally speaking, independent creative producers have very little status within the arts. Within the film industry it’s acknowledged that such support is core and essential. So a producer is acknowledged alongside a writer and a director and, in terms of the budgeting structuring, is what you call “above the line.” So it’s acknowledged that the role the producer plays is a core part of actually creating an artwork, a film.


Another model

Fiona Winning introduced “another model—one of my fantasies—that might sit alongside a series of other models such as [the local government one]. This is of an independent producer with a very lean machine/office. They work with a cluster of artists in quite intense relationships over a number of years to create their vision, whether it be to develop a work, make a new work, to get that on somewhere, to get it toured either nationally or internationally.”

Sophie Travers, director of Critical Path (a NSW dance workshop and masterclass program at Drill Hall, Rushcutters Bay), who has had extensive experience working in the UK, was asked to describe the work of Arts Admin. She said it’s a successful, government subsidised team of producers each working long-term with a particular group of innovative artists on projects, programming time out for artists to do research or take sabbaticals, working across artforms, and offering artist bursaries. Travers described Arts Admin as “pretty much your dream model. I think it’s really interesting that the model is held up around the world and in the UK itself and yet it doesn’t exist anywhere else. So even in the UK everyone acknowledges that that is the model but nobody can replicate it.”

Travers added that, “Each producer has a range of companies that they’re responsible for. But they also have a different skill set. So every time they introduce somebody new, they bring in different cultural networks or different sponsorship. So they’ve evolved with the times, but they’ve kept that one-producer-for-one-group-of-artists. And they really range. Some of them are like an individual who makes one work every five years to companies like DV8. They work across performing arts, visual arts. They pick up projects and put them down again.”



Arts Admin, along with Performing Lines and the Mobile States group (a consortium which includes Performance Space, PICA and other spaces around Australia touring innovative performance), are examples of organisations managing devolved funds. The discussion focused on the advantages of this model where a network of independent producers could, with creative verve, lean management, on-the-ground know how, and direct contact with artists, choose the artists they want to work with and develop long term growth in the performing arts. Over post-forum drinks, participants felt that the time had come to research producer models like Arts Admin, to look at the particular needs of Australian artists and to reconsider current company structures and funding models. No small task, but worth the venture given the urgent needs of artists and the the presence of individuals in the arts community capable of becoming committed creative producers.

See also Wanted: Creative Producers – FULL TRANSCRIPT

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 40

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

Deborah Kayser

Deborah Kayser

Deborah Kayser

David Young is a composer and co-artistic director of Melbourne-based and world roaming Aphids. Around composer and company a world of collaborations constellate. The Libra Ensemble are premiering Young’s song cycle Thousands of Bundled Straw for the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival. Shortly after comes a showing of Origami, the working title of a new BalletLab work in collaboration with BURO Architects who are designing the huge folding set under instructions from the origami-inspired artist Matt Gardiner (whom Young worked with on Oribotics) and with graphics by 3deep design. Young is working with Jethro Woodward and Eugene Ughetti of Speak Percussion on the sound score, partly electronic and partly live and using graphic notation informed by Gardiner’s work.

When Young says ‘graphic’, he means that the instrumentalists respond to non-musical notation as in Skin Quartet where the instrumentalists follow instructions on how to musically interpret skin tones or tattoos in photographic images. This multimedia string quartet performance recently appeared in the Time Based Art festival (curated by Melbourne Festival’s Kristy Edmunds) in Portland, Oregon, before going on to Les Bains::Connective Festival in Brussels (where Aphids was in residence in 2004), and Johannesburg.

In November, Aphids, will present Gardiner’s new version of Oribotics as an installation at the Asialink Centre with Young again writing music with Jethro Woodward and Eugene Ughetti. Aphids co-artistic director Rosemary Joy is creating new percussion instruments for the show.

Young sees this set of shifting collaborations within and beyond Aphids as organic, “like a theatre or music ensemble, but not all musicians. The sense of an emerging ensemble is a new thing, an evolution of Aphids. It’s like a new species, but I don’t know what it is.”

In December, at the Big West Festival (in Melbourne’s western suburbs) Speak Percussion will present Ughetti solo in Raising the Rattle, a performance of works he’s commissioned from 4 Australian composers, along with elements of Oribotics.

At the end of the year, says Young, “we’re doing the creative development of our next work, which is Nasu [The Eggplant Project], a Belgian/Japanese/Australian collaboration with 3 composers and 3 musicians.” Beyond that, Young is thinking about a new work based on his “fascination with people being so obsessed with space and yet not knowing anything about deep sea life. It’s almost like psychological denial, a blind spot. I want to do a performance at the bottom of a diving pool with an audience in the water.”

Hybrid life

Unlike other new music ensembles, when I think of Aphids, it’s not music that springs to mind, but strange hybrids of installation, sculpture, video, puppetry, song and sound art. The key, says Young, is the artists: “It’s the people and it’s definitely the fact that we’re not bound by an artform or a format even. That completely opens up the possibility of plugging into different venues and presentation formats, adding different artists. It gives us the freedom. And this is something I discovered with the puppetry trilogy, A Quarrelling Pair, about myself (RT64, p38). While essentially most of the people involved were thinking about it as a theatre show, I was very committed to the fact that I didn’t know what it was going to be. It could have ended up being a radio play or a publication or an installation event, or cabaret. I was committed to suspending judgement. And that’s just because I’ve been allowed to do that through the body of work we’ve been creating.”

Process and duration

In that case, sufficient time for development appears to be critical to Aphids’ success. “Yes”, says Young, “it seems that everything we do takes years. And that’s not necessarily through choice. It’s partly pragmatic. These things take a long time to get together. There’s the underground stream that bubbles to the surface every now and again but it’s always running there underneath. Another metaphor is of plates spinning in a circus act. You give one plate a bit of a spin, run to another as it starts to wobble, and sometimes a plate crashes.” One image of nature, one of artifice and risk: “I can’t settle on one or the other. It is a bit of both. I often talk about nurturing and supporting and tilling the soil. And, of course, Aphids—it’s such an organic, garden-y kind of thing…Certainly that’s what appealed to me about being involved as artistic director of Next Wave. It wasn’t my work but I was collaborating through a nurturing, curatorial role. That happens in Aphids a lot.”

Life cycles

Growth is central to the Aphids vision: “You have an idea, you gradually develop it and collaborate, have some workshops, and maybe you make some experimental tests until eventually you create and present a work. Then it’s documented and kind of solidifies. And the intention has always been that it would then live on in some other form. And that might just be the documentation, a publication, the recording or whatever. But it also might be the tour or the re-mount. And that has happened with works in the past but in a much slower way. Ricefields (1998) was one of our first works that toured. But it took 18 months after its first presentation at La Mama before it went to France and Japan and around Australia. What’s happening now is that cycle is not just faster but a bit more robust and it’s gaining momentum. So that gives us a different kind of fuel. It just gives us different areas of activity, generates more work and more opportunities and more ideas.

Rosemary Joy and I are the kind of engine room. We share the administrative, management/production type things. But also in a way we pin down the activities and events that happen. A lot of the strategy of making these artistic processes unfold happens within that context. But then we also have our formal committee. There are 6 people on that. All of them have been involved from pretty much day one across the decade. They’re the sounding board and the foundation of Aphids. Then, of course, there’s Cynthia Troup who provides a critical perspective and research as well as literary and performing skills. There’s an intellectual rigour which she provides which pushes the work.

Thousands of Bundled Straw

The song cycle has had a long evolution: “I started writing it 10 years ago, just after Aphids started up. I was in Japan at the Temple of the Healing Eyes on Lake Shinji-ko in Far West Japan. There’s a myth about a fisherman who finds a statue of Buddha floating in the water. It appears to him in a dream and tells him if he throws himself off a cliff, his blind mother’s eyes will be opened. So he gets up the next day, wraps bundles of straw around himself, jumps off the cliff and he survives, his mother’s eyes are opened and he founds the temple. You can still visit it. The story goes that he put the statue of Buddha in a box within a box within a box in an altar in a temple. It’s revealed every one hundred years.

“In a way, the song cycle is like that, architecturally—boxes within boxes. But at the heart of it there’s the leap of faith. You’re never going to see the weight of meaning or significance that is within, but you have to believe in it, otherwise it can’t be there.

“I remember writing the first song, which is actually in the fifth part of the cycle. There are 7 parts. The fifth part has 7 songs for voice and guitar, which are written for soprano Deborah Kayser and guitarist Geoffrey Morris. And I remember writing the first one in this fishing village just near the temple and very clearly writing it for Deborah and Geoff. Both have performed in all sorts of projects that I’ve worked on and have been significant collaborators in my artistic career. Deborah was the first person to perform my music in public.”

Ten years on, it seemed to Young, “pretty amazing to be literally writing the last few notes—it’s a very tactile thing—and thinking, oh yes, that’ll be Deborah. The whole work will be performed with a major movement at the end which is completely new. There’s something about how the song cycle documents history, not just my own, and what I’ve been interested in, but actually all these other encounters, these influences I’ve had along the way. For example, the text comes in part from a tourist brochure, so there’s a bit of Japlish—hence the title which doesn’t quite make sense—although you don’t notice, which I quite like. There are also fragments of Calvino. When I was living in Italy that gave me cause to connect particularly with a lot of Calvino’s writing. And Georges Perec is another influence; the idea behind his book Life: A User’s Manual is pretty much what is going on in the third movement, the frozen moment that you then explore in time. So yes, geography and literature and, then, individuals. And there are different movements that have been performed in different parts of the world.

Thousands of Bundled Straw is a 54 minute, formally notated concert work, perhaps the last of this kind of work that Young will write: “what I’m interested in has moved. Traditional notation is so inadequate for what I’m trying to do.”

As a song cycle 10 years in evolution comes to fruition, and as Skin Quartet takes him around the world, David Young and Aphids move into new cycles, with Oribotics, Speak Percussion, and, soon, the creative development of Nasu [The Eggplant Project]. Young explains that it’s “a collaboration between 3 composers: Keiko Harada from Japan, George Van Dam from Belgium and myself, with 3 musicians—Natasha Anderson from Australia, Yasutaka Hemmi the violinist we continue to work with, and Yutaka Oya who’s a pianist based in Brussels. For this project, Rosemary Joy is making, especially for Yutaka, a toy piano but one that is preparable and re-tunable. So that happens in December. Then we’ll present it in the 3 countries sometime in the next 5 years.”

Libra Ensemble, Thousands of Bundled Straw, composer David Young, soprano Deborah Kayser, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Oct 18, www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 41

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

Elision, Glass House Mountains Project

Elision, Glass House Mountains Project

Elision, Glass House Mountains Project


The Queensland Music Festival opens early morning, out west with Riley Lee and others around the Winton Musical Fence. In Brisbane that night Credo the innocence of God is the big ticket blockbuster, marketed as a high tech multimedia extravaganza linking performers live across the world in a work of innovation, ferocity and spiritual depth. The production is big, filling the Concert Hall stage with percussive contraptions, an orchestra, singers, and 3 big projection screens high up back. The hook of Credo is for musicians from Belfast, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Brisbane to join together live through the miracle of technology—hands across the ocean, jam on the bread of life, smiles of religious tolerance and mutual appreciation. Unfortunately the tech hookup does not develop any sense of live interaction. Each screen is more or less assigned a specific set of musicians. They play, we watch. Might as well be prerecorded.

The general feel of Credo is episodic; bits of music, some singing, cut to live musicians in Istanbul or Belfast or Jerusalem, back to the orchestra, maybe some declamatory wisdom. Individual musicians are a standout, great percussionist on the local stage, fantastic reed player and percussionist from Turkey, plenty of the others as well, but the orchestra is weirdly powerless, at times too far down in the mix to hear. Good bits aside, Credo was disappointing overall, an ecumenical-Lite journey through the religions of the world (what, there’s only 3?). Singing nuns, strummed guitars, kumbaya.

Erik Griswold

More intimate and rewarding was pianist Erik Griswold at St Mary’s—a modest, fully functioning church in South Brisbane. Inside the church the setup is traditional worship, big altar up front, Jesus to the left next to the prepared piano, saints to the right next to the Steinway. Flower arrangement in the middle. Griswold is a rare performer of the rhythmic, prepares his piano honky-tonk style, paper and leather across the strings, a welcome extension to the Cageian tradition. The program is a mix of Griswold’s own compositions—rhythms from the Americas, a bit of Thelonius Monk, traditional Chinese folk songs.

Latin beats on the prepared piano start the show. Shimmering ostinato bass, chimes and tuned snare drums make for a seriously happy rhumba train to Cuba. The preparation of the piano is subtle and sophisticated, sounds are surprisingly diverse yet the pitch remains clear. Set number 2 is on the Steinway, gentle clustered arpeggios, a narrow pitch range, diffuse layers through the reverbing church. The switching between the pianos divides the program into rhythm (prepared piano) and ambient (Steinway). On the Steinway Griswold uses music boxes for inspiration, twirls them with a finger to get them going, then improvises a delicate response. He ties a bunch of seed pods to his hand as a shaker, uses windchimes for spiky notes and overlapping layers. He goes to the prepared piano again, speaks of the similarity between Chinese folk songs and blues guitar. Resonant, rubbery bass, papery sounds in the mid range, damped woodblocks in the upper register, grandeur builds up like a slow and epic pan across the desert mountains. Over to Thelonius Monk on prepared piano plus melodica. Strange nostalgia, half time on the Goon Show, flyboys around the piano for a singalong and a pint.


Japan’s Leni-Basso has been around for about 10 years. Finks starts with large screen projections behind a sparse stage, bared light on canvas. Dress is neat casuals, greys, subtle blocks of colour. The dancers enter to the corners, bang into mic stands, shove their faces into cameras to leave traces on the screen that decay into bleached out solarised glitch video. The sound design follows the same techno-glitch as the lighting and video—refined minimal, speaking the tech to itself, tightly integrated with the performers.

People get on and off chairs, walk on and off stage, move together and apart. Movements are from martial arts, the scenes are ugly, social aggro with the bruises ritualised out. There is a piggy in the middle torment of the chairs, ganging up on the little guy, holding out the promise of rest but never letting him sit down. In the end the tormentors use the chairs themselves. We get to observe an uncaring anthropology of workplace politics, approach and rejection, what was your name again? Text instructions project onto the screen, dancers become values, filling the variables in a generative dance function. Passionless conflict is the go, carving out a place others will call your own. Maybe this section goes on too long as it systematically works its way through the instructions. Maybe that’s just life as work.

The cameras have been picking up the dancers’ actions, playing them back on the huge screen, looped, distorted, time delayed. We get used to that echo, but gradually the echo goes unbalanced, the video comes first, the live action later. We see the dancers up on the screen, working in pairs, moving in slo-mo, getting somewhere then getting dragged back. Time breaks down, slips about. Space breaks as well, as dancers start to work with their shadows, the shadows of their partners, and the shadows of dancers who are no longer there or not there yet.

Glass House Mountains

Into the 3 largest rooms of the IMA for Elision’s Glass House Mountains Project (Judy Watson visuals, Liza Lim sounds). The Glass House Mountains are a set of eroded volcanic plugs rising out of the coastal plains on the drive north from Brisbane. They’re always referred to as a family, traces of tradition in iconic south-east Queensland. Nearest the IMA entrance, Watson has rows of mounded dirt, classic red, pineapples sticking out—a little farm like you first notice planted around the mountains themselves. Above the dirt hang striped spears, menacing, in flight. But they aren’t spears, they’re boning rods—marker poles once used by surveyors to carve up and quantify the land—ready for sale, ready for the pineapples. Lim’s soundtrack sits low in the room, ominous rumblings, rapid fire scratching, burying the faint unaltered traces of the original kookaburra calls.

The second space is sparse, a projected video pool of water running across axe grinding grooves, the natural sounds of stream and insect. Alongside, Watson has spun Beerwah, the mountain as mother, a translucent fabric veil abstracting the mountain into a container of light. In the corner, cellist Rosanne Hunt interprets Lim’s score where cartography maps the gradient of the mountain onto a musical timeline. Measured, evocative, the cello crackles, breathes and scrapes, paced to the slow drones and pulses of the field recordings that are transformed and embedded throughout the space. My favourite performance of the festival.

The final space has a large end-wall video projection. Shots of approaching the Glass House Mountains from the sea, rowing low down, Captain Cook-like. Satellite imaging, surveillance shots from space, checking the place out from above. On the floor and in front of the projection, are stained canvasses, topographic maps of the whole family of mountains. Sound is unobtrusive, slow, the occasional bird calls clear above the breathing drones.

Sound, image and object evoke the mountains and the history of their representation. Underlying the spaces and objects is a way of working through history for closer relations to the specifics of place.

2005 Queensland Music Festival, Credo: The Innocence of God, artistic director Andrea Molino, QPAC, July 15; Erik Griswold in Concert, St Mary’s Church, South Brisbane, July 23; Leni-Basso, Finks, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 28-30; Elision, Glass House Mountains, Judy Watson and Liza Lim, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. July 21-31

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 42

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

Paul Doornbusch opened the Australian Computer Music Conference with talk of the early days. Sydney, 1950 or ‘51 and Geoff Hill programs the very first music to come out of a computer (one of the first—memory stored as acoustic pulses washing about within 5 feet long lacquer coated tubes filled with mercury). The piece was probably Greensleeves. Hill played it over the phone to his mum, who thought it sounded like a kazoo. Doornbusch has reconstructed the sounds and history on a CD and book. At a later talk Rob Esler gave glimpses of his project to revive some of the classics of electronic composition. Great to be able to actually hear these early works rather than just hear about them.

Conference was busy: concerts, talks, installations, workshops, an informal performance space at night. Ideas in the talks often turn up later in the concerts. The concert hall is a large black barn of a space. In the centre, ringed by speakers, people on chairs are arranged into a tight grid. Arms are folded. Everyone listens. Piece ends, silence, then applause. Repeat until finished. Listening to a machine in company always strikes me as strange. Without a performer there is no need to be with other people except as a convenience—in this case the conference is the only time most of these pieces can be heard. Very different to experiencing music as a sociable (or socialising) medium situated in the active body.

Computer music has been around long enough to have generated its own tradition of sounds and ways for articulating those sounds. Things speed up, things slow down, perhaps it’s time to put away the delay lines for a while. Much would not have been out of place in the (analogue) soundscape of the Barrons’ Forbidden Planet. Contrast the maturity in sound generation with the ongoing problem of maintaining interest in compositional structures across a range of scales—the problem of form in computer music. Computational methods can lead to work that obsesses on novelty in the micro details and excludes any audible evolution across larger time scales. Ends up a random-ish succession of sounds. Unfortunately the information flow of a random series is constant at all scales and it is much more likely that we respond to changes and patterns in the information flow of music rather than to the individual bits of information themselves. Hence we habituate to random sounding music, lose interest, nod off, don’t buy it much.

Luke Harrald successfully tackled musical form by avoiding modelling the audible structure of music directly. Instead, he modelled the “social dynamics involved in music performance” with a system of generative composition based on the tradition of performance indeterminacy developed by Cage, Christian Wolff and others. Under this sort of system the performer’s musical behaviour is constrained and encouraged by a set of compositional rules rather than dictated to by using a strict and determined score. Harrald uses an extension of the Prisoner’s Dilemma equations, normally used to model social situations where cooperation amongst people works out best in the long run (keeping in mind that everyone might be about to shaft everyone else and maybe you’d better get in and shaft them first). The result is the delicate and gentle Surroundings, the highlight of the concert series, sustaining interest both in the moment and the whole.

Other works mixed performer and machine, most used the spatial sound array to great effect. Rob Esler was terrific to watch as the frenetic wild man percussionist does Foley. Angelo Fraietta delivered some excellent manipulation of sounds in space using a very home-made looking, circuit boards protruding, guitar-like controller. Jon Drummond used real time video, projecting dye dropped into sugary water onto the large backdrop screen—the diffusion of the dye drove the evolution of the music. Lovely to look at, hard to make the link between the visuals and the sounds. Scott Sinclair and Joe Musgrove went oppositional with a brutal assault of video and audio feedback that bordered on the unethical. Andrew Brown’s software generated a score that pumped out a few bars at a time to the waiting musicians. Improved as it went along. But for Brown, and the computationally focussed composer, aesthetic judgement is often not an end point but an input into the theory of possible musics their software expresses.

Australian Computer Music Conference 2005, Creative Industries Precinct, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, July12-15

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 42

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

Though the lives of the artists span generations and continents, comparisons between Ed Kuepper and Len Lye abound. Both extraordinarily gifted artists, they have earned their notable place in history as much for their creative contributions as their refusal, or inability, to be ruthlessly commercially minded. In their rejection of the tools of the establishment, both anticipated and performed key ideas of avant garde art. Lye, one of the first to experiment with direct painting onto celluloid, is heralded with birthing the music video. Kuepper’s seminal role in vanguard Brisbane band The Saints drove the development of the intense, defiant sounds of punk music. Continued experimentation characterises both careers.

With the MFLL (Music For Len Lye) show, the connections between these two pioneers of oppositional art reach a rewarding fruition. Brisbane-based curator David Pestorius is well placed to bring these two autodidacts together. A long-time follower and scribe of alternative/independent music, and an art lover and scholar, Pestorius mobilised his awareness of both Kuepper’s and Lye’s art (and status) in the realisation of MFLL.

Tusalava, Lye’s first, extraordinary film from 1928 (a black and white semi-abstract film featuring wriggling microbe-like shapes, laboriously cel-animated over 2 penurious years), is now silent. Originally performed with two pianos, the score, produced by Lye’s long-time friend, Australian Jack Ellitt, has long been lost to history. According to Pestorius, the combination of Lye’s interest in “the relation between the moving image and the movement of their accompanying music” and appreciation of the “very cinematic” dimensions of Ed Kuepper’s important solo work prompted Pestorius to approach Kuepper with a concept to add music to the films, not as a pre-recorded soundtrack, but live. Kuepper came to the project with little to no knowledge of Lye’s formidable legacy, but with his manifold connections to the visual art world and his musician’s meter, he instantly appreciated Lye’s remarkably kinetic work.

Kuepper says he was “inspired by the abstract rhythms” to create the music for Tusalava, and several other famous Lye animations. Rather than try to replicate the original soundtracks, which were deeply, generatively intertwined (a result of Lye’s obsession with synchronicity), Kuepper’s interpretation resulted in freer flowing, rock-inspired pieces for guitar and drums. The Lye Foundation granted permission to use Lye’s films and Music for Films was born.

Success in Brisbane, Melbourne and a show in Sydney at the Opera House brought numerous accolades for Music for Films in 2003. While some purists may prefer the original soundtracks, the adventurous Lye would probably have approved given the energy and spirit of the Kuepper collaborations, especially in the light of Stan Brakhage’s notion of the contemporary sound/avant-garde film performance as an entirely discrete form.

MFLL sees Kuepper continuing to develop music to accompany moving images but this time for specially commissioned short video art pieces by high profile international artists. When, in 2004, the Lye Foundation chose to withdraw permission to screen the films, both Pestorius and Kuepper wanted to continue the project, and so a number of artists were contacted to produce video works. Each artist was provided with examples of Kuepper’s more cinematic music (including those pieces devised for Music For Films) and invited to produce imagery in response. Kuepper was then presented with the videos, from which he devised the final music for the program. MFLL features drumming by long term collaborator Jeffrey Wegener, with whom Kuepper played in 80s experimental “jazz-punk” band The Laughing Clowns. They were joined by cellist Jane Elliot for the most recent performance at the Queensland Music Festival.

The international video artists’ work is brilliant, contributing to the show’s appeal to European audiences (it toured to Berlin, Vienna and Paris to widespread acclaim). French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster is as highly sought after as she is selective—her very presence is a coup. Her video piece, After Len Lye’s Free Radicals, is an exceptional digital work, mastering subtle organic forms in 3D animation. One of only a few works to refer directly to Lye, its sparing visual quotation of Free Radicals’ white-on-black scratches teams beautifully with Wegener’s tribal tom drums, echoing the African drums of Lye’s original and creating a sublime, referential—even reverential—artwork. Liam Gillick’s anarchic theme-park work, Public Information Film, is also delightful; a colourful, ironic statement (given that Disney is widely acknowledged to have appropriated Lye’s work for Fantasia) scored with jaunty verve by Kuepper’s fast paced playing and Wegener’s merry rhythms.

The Australian work is also of very high calibre. Eugene Carchesio’s video piece continues the organic minimalism for which he is feted in his visual art and experimental music. For Ian Burn is composed of a single fixed take of a window from which can be seen gently swaying trees. The contrast between the unyielding horizontals of the blinds and the shimmering leaf and bark shapes beyond creates a meditative experience of opposites, enhanced by subdued but resonant music.

Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s video, Pangaea, also stands out for its conceptual clarity. Multiple layers of lapping waters and map outlines converge and dissolve; we see a ship sliding past, some quick night-vision shots, and bands of intersecting colours appear and disappear. As Kuepper’s jubilant guitar soars, accompanied by itself (thanks to a synthesiser device enabling multiple tracks) and Wegener’s throbbing drums, text appears: ‘Manus Island.’ In an instant, an array of associations strikes, about boats, water, Australia, the Pacific and ‘solutions’; with the musical crescendo, contemplation is inevitable, fittingly reflective of the music that was initially created for Tusalava, right at the beginning of the project.

Music For Len Lye is both a homage and a dedication to Len Lye (the music is ‘for’ Len), and also a description (the music began as scores for Lye films). Cleverly, it also conjures up MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer’s “LLMF’ (“Live Like A Motherfucker”). When asked about the process of making music Kuepper described it as “fairly intuitive initially, then (with) an element of intellectual appraisal later to see if my intuition was correct.” Judging by the success of the shows, it undoubtably was.

Ed Kuepper’s Music for Len Lye, Queensland Music Festival, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 16-17

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 43

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

In Metaphors of Vision, Stan Brakhage asked “how many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?” Alex Carpenter’s music asks a similar question about sound. Can we, even for moment, recapture the primal, unconditioned experience of the child? If we (reluctantly) agree with Brakhage that “one can never go back, even in the imagination,” then we must go forward in pursuit of knowledge, of perception in its deepest and most fundamental sense.

The physical impact of Alex Carpenter’s music, heard in a small gallery at high levels of amplification, is so forceful that it focuses immediate attention on the physical sensation and might lead to the conclusion that there is nothing more to it than that.

But Carpenter’s art—with music now increasingly and inseparably linked to video—is also a philosophical investigation into the nature of sound and our perception of it. There are some obvious precedents, the most notable being La Monte Young. Born in the turmoil of the 60s, Young’s work initially seemed to be anarchic, fuelled by drugs and the hippie ethos. His association with the Fluxus movement did little to dispel this impression, as Fluxus was often perceived as flippant and flaky, an impression that the artists did little to correct and at times deliberately and mischievously encouraged. But a key element of the movement was what Henry Flint called ‘concept art’, art that is about ideas, often articulated through seemingly insoluble paradoxes. Young created some of the most notable and philosophically challenging works of concept art, works that revealed a mind which (contrary to superficial impressions) possessed daunting self-discipline. That quality has determined the trajectory of Young’s art ever since, with the side effect of making his work resolutely non-commercial and almost inaccessible.

Carpenter’s music has some affinities with Young’s, while his use of music and video brings to mind Phill Niblock. That broadly puts him under the stylistic rubric of Minimalism, a description that seems as inadequate to describe his work as it does Young’s 7-hour long Well-Tuned Piano. Carpenter wants to evoke a specific response in the listener, an experience of Sound (the capital is deliberate)—sound in and of itself, independent of cultural conditioning, sound as experienced by the child who does not yet know what ‘sound’ is. Is such an experience possible? It is not simply (not that there is anything simple about it) a physical sensation, nor is it an emotional experience (which 19th century attitudes, still dominant in music today, would have us believe is the primary purpose of art). Paradoxically it can only be experienced—if at all—through physical sensation, mediated by culturally loaded artefacts such as guitars, synthesisers and PA systems, and moreover—in this performance—in an art gallery, albeit an ‘alternative’ gallery. If it must be concluded that Carpenter’s project contains contradictions, that is exactly what makes it so interesting.

Featureless landscapes rush past on left and right walls, like riding in a very fast train through the outback, while multiple keyboards, guitar and samples produce a dense, textured wall of sound. The music (Chord from Second Delphic Hymn) is one extended chord with a rich spectrum of high harmonics. Turning one’s head from side to side, or cupping the ears in various ways, reveals more of the structure of the chord in all its jangling, pulsating glory. Beyond the micro-variations in the sound, the music is essentially static. Like the video projection that hurtles at breakneck speed while the landscape scarcely changes, the overall impression is of motion arrested. The Futurists’ worship of speed has been turned on its head; rather than rushing forward into a glorious technological future, this high speed ride takes you to exactly where you are. If this is a philosophical investigation, it is pre-Socratic; at one level, following Heraclitus, everything is in a state of flux, but Parmenides steps in to retort that nothing moves. (There might be Zen resolution to Carpenter’s paradox: according to Hui-Neng, ‘Mind is moving’.)

In a more relaxed mode, a video of slowly turning dancers is curiously compelling. Their circular movements are yet another form of arrested motion, while the lighting and gentle music bathe them in a glowing aura. What appear to be coffee grains slowly being washed away by water form the material for Excavation Pattern 3. The gradual erosion produces constant change, yet in the end no real change. High energy music returns with Emerging like an Infant from the House of Truth, in which furiously repeated notes on keyboards—recalling Guy Klucevsek’s Oscillation series for accordion or the ‘clouds’ of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano—with the addition of guitars and saxes, assault the ears with frightening intensity. Like most of Carpenter’s work, there is constant change (and, in this case, an extremely active micro-texture) without forward motion.

With an increasingly assured use of video, Alex Carpenter’s work continues to grow in depth and interest. His recently released DVD, Studies in Dynamic Photography (Vanished Records VAN20504), makes his work available to a wider audience.

Alex Carpenter, Music of Transparent Means, De La Catessen Gallery, Adelaide, August 7-8

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 43

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

This year new music ensemble Topology is venturing into uncharted territory in a series of collaborations with jazz groups, pop musicians, vocalists and the rock group Full Fathom Five. Since meeting at university, FF5’s Ian Thompson and Topology’s Robert Davidson have worked together in a variety of improvisational bands, recording projects and art events, so this concert was inevitable, celebrated with the formal launch of their album Future Tense.

For the CD, Full Fathom Five recreated Topology works such as Five Notes with an electro-pop feel, while FF5’s Going Equipped features Topology’s rhythms and harmonics in a quirky acoustic essay. The combination of music styles together with effective visuals developed by staging designer Mark Bromilow and his team and displayed on a huge hanging screen, provided an hypnotic, almost cinematic experience for the Powerhouse audience.

The first half of the concert featured Topology performing works by ensemble members Robert Davidson and John Babbage. Although at times the sound mix was quite strange, with the double bass and saxophone sometimes almost inaudible, the compositions effectively showcased Topology’s refined approach to minimalism. The ensemble creates performances that draw you in as the music slowly grows. Violinist Christa Powell’s tone was exquisite, her playing soaring over the ensemble.

Robert Davidson’s work for solo viola, Spiral, was performed with great intensity and musicality by Bernard Hoey. Throughout, the viola plays a short phrase which is then looped while the next phrase is played. The result is a deeply emotional, almost meditative piece that could easily send the listener into a trance. Previous hearings suggest this performance was at a much faster tempo and therefore perhaps not quite as effective, but the performance was brilliant.

The standout work in the first half was Robert Davidson’s McLibel, based on Britain’s longest-ever trial where fast food giant McDonald’s sued 2 activists. It featured Davidson’s established technique of mixing vocal samples and moulding them with instrumental lines. While the technique of playing with the rhythms of vocal samples is not new, it is the narrative quality of Davidson’s compositions that engage the audience. The performance was outstanding, the instrumental parts matching up with the vocal lines so well it was virtually impossible to dinstinguish between them.

The second half of the concert had Topology and Full Fathom 5 joining forces to perform tracks from the new album. Electronics and acoustic instruments seemingly melt into each other as if always meant to co-exist. Some inspired drumming by John Parker lifted the intensity of the entire ensemble, with the line between minimalism and pop music very blurred indeed.

How can composers who have grown up in the past few decades engulfed in the explosion of musical styles not be influenced by popular culture? It is encouraging to see Topology at the forefront of developing an intellectual and artistic approach to a post-classical music. Perhaps contemporary music in Australia does have a future with ensembles such as these creating a style that bridges the gap between contemporary chamber and pop music.

Toplogy & Full Fathom 5, Future Tense, Topology: Christa Powell (violin), Bernard Hoey (viola), John Babbage (saxophone) Kylie Davidson (piano), Robert Davidson (double bass); Full Fathom Five: Ian Thompson, Sam Korman, Robert Mynard, Tam Patton, Ben Thomson, Josh Thomson, John Parker; visuals Mark Bromilow and Jen Muller, sound Brett Cheney; Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 8 www.topologymusic.com

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 44

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

Peter & Martin Wesley Smith

Peter & Martin Wesley Smith

In a richly realised thematic program titled Drawing Breath and built around the subject of breathing, the Song Company excelled. The choice of often demanding material from across the last millenium requires fearless vocal virtuosity. Under the direction of Roland Peelman the company displayed it amply. In a host of short works in the first half of the concert, the ensemble performed against the background, aurally and visually, of media artist George Khut’s interactive video as it responded to his breathing (members of the audience tried it themselves in the interval), heightening awareness of our conscious and unconscious relationship with a biological fundamental.

The songs were not only about breathing, for example in its metaphorical connections with spirit, but frequently exploited its character—short, long, breathless, staccato, lost—and the conditions which transform it—drunkenness, love, worship, anger, halitosis and pollution. One of the bonuses of the program was in the opening trio of songs where the voices took on instrumental qualities: Philippe de Monte’s Bonjour Mon Coeur, Claude Lejeune’s Revecy venir du Printans and the Pink Floyd/Jean-Michel Jarre Breathe/Oxygène IV arrangement. The effortless continuum the company achieved in Guillaume de Machaut’s De souspirant/Tous corps/Suspiro left me breathless, while the The Violence of Work (Stephen Cronin to a poem by Geoff Goodfellow) was effectively stressful—punctuated as it was with sharp breaths and disturbing, vocally produced industrial noises. The glides in Hin-yan Chan’s Liquor Mania not only evoked a decline into drunkenness, accompanied by variously pitched hiccupings, but also the magical voices and instruments that are the breath of Beijing opera.

The second half of the concert featured substantial works of the heavy breathing variety—sensual laments, operatic soarings and outbursts. The vocal variety of the program expanded rapidly in Giulio Castagnoli’s Madrigali guerriero e amoroso and Frank Nuyt’s Ai da verde (from Racine’s Britannicus). Where Castagnoli introduces whistling, warbling and weeping in his Monterverdi-inspired meditation, Nuyt’s bracing 2003 work begins with hums and whispers and turns on the drama with rushes of breath, rolled r’s, stamps and claps in a grim 17th century vision that corresponds with our own dark times, closing on a spoken voice against a single, tireless, enveloping chord. A great concert bordering on the overly generous, but at the same time a wonderful opportunity to review the Song Company repertoire, inlcuding many works they have commissioned.

On June 11, in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, and on June 15 in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House, the Song Company presented Brothers in Crime, a celebration of the 60th birthday of Martin and Peter Wesley Smith (the valley is their home). What the concert brought home is not only the affection and respect for the brothers in the musical community, but the totality of their vision—accessible, direct, sometimes satirical, often overtly political works drawing on popular musical idioms and pushing them to new levels of complexity. The first half of the concert came from their powerful 1994 music theatre work, Quito, not only an indictment of Australia’s mishandling of East Timorese refugees in the 80s and 90s but prophetic of our government’s subsequent cruelties to refugees from other countries. The remainder of the concert included a range of works new and old that entertained and enlightened with their gentle wit, whimsy and droll barbs, all done justice by the Song Company.

The Song Company, Drawing Breath, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 28; Brothers in Crime, A 60th Birthday Concert for Martin & Peter Wesley-Smith, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 15

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 44

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

Bill Viola, Four Hands 2001

Bill Viola, Four Hands 2001

Bill Viola, Four Hands 2001

“What is the answer?’ [Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, receives no reply.] ‘Then what is the question?”

The first time I saw a medieval gilt altar-piece in the British Museum (as opposed to a reproduction), I stood in awe, and cried. For the first time I understood the relationship between passion, art, and devotion—both why these artworks were revered and what kinds of reverences they held. Madonnas, the Christ as man and child; delicate, almost boneless human frailty, richly felt and even more richly framed. Caught in the zeugma of such transcendent vulnerability, I am amazed: adoring, aghast, awash, ashamed, I am touched into wonder at the interweaving between the art, my life, suffering, the body, identification and difference. These pulls and tugs forge an empathy between my own and the others’ sufferings.

Standing before Bill Viola’s The Passions—themselves a result of studying medieval and Renaissance devotional works at the Getty Institute (part of a larger multi-participant research programme in 1998)—I am not so forged or tugged. I am not even sure I am touched. I observe hands touching, holding, carrying, moving others on. I am not asked to be these people, recognise them in me. I am, however, moved and carried; I observe and ride the waves of motion-in-emotion that I see. This is a different order of watching being asked of me.

So much has been written and spoken about Bill Viola’s work that I can barely begin to comment. The current viewing season of The Passions at the NGA has spawned so many offshoots and events that it is hard not to be buffeted and distracted by them. Chunky Move will do a short choreographic residency, John Bell will give a lecture on actors’ passions, and good luck to them. But I am not at all sure that these are of any real use.

There is much chatter circulating about whether Viola’s actors’ ‘enactments’ are ‘real’, or ‘not real.’ Surely we can leave that debate to reality TV. I don’t care whether or not Viola’s people are actors. In some of his pieces, I like better than in others what they ‘do.’ But the strengths in the works do not, for me, rely on how well-played or ‘true’ are the passions they represent. It is what they are sculpted into, and their peculiar affect, that concerns me.

Unlike the Getty masterworks, Viola’s contemplations are largely stripped of contexts. They refer to, but enact, their iconographic references differently. The Christ who ‘resurrects’ is in fact still dead, falling again into his devotees’ arms (there goes god). In another, a procession of mourners one by one approach a (mangled? decimated?) body we never see (there goes identification through empathy). We watch instead effects—though limited—of horrors, separations, catastrophes. Indeed, one does not ‘move on’ from the captured moment (or ‘pass through’ death or grief), as some have worried: nor yet examine the different ways we experience them (for example, through laughter, numbness, or nervous breakdown). I am aware not so much of an exploration of variety, but of a pallette which restricts itself intentionally.

Jonathon Lahey Dronsfield (in The Art of Bill Viola review compendium), an ethicist and philosopher, has great trouble with Viola’s restrictions. His essay, “On the Anticipation of Responsibility”, worries that his works carry no “questions that are not predetermined in the works themselves”, that there is nothing left ‘yet to come’; that they take away, even from death, “what cannot be anticipated about it”:

There is no sense of the possibility of our making a contribution to the image, no way we can intervene and assist; …we are left merely to ‘share’ or not in the experience of what is presented,…the prelude to a guaranteed answer…the room for one answer only…[the asserted mystery of things].

Indeed, the joys of The Passions are rarely ones of surprise. Even the intermittent rumblings of the massive installation, 5 Angels for the Millenium, which pre-empt the whale-like leap of swathed human figures from ocean depths, become more subliminal as one stays in that twilit, night-sound buzzing room. The major experience of the work becomes immersion within cycles of emergence and return. As one walks through the entire exhibition from dark to lighter rooms, all the works—enormous, back-projected, or on smaller LCD or medium-sized plasma screens—repetition without progress is a major force. I am not sure if repeated viewing is of any gain.

We now look on the 19th century ‘science’ of physiognomy as a kind of dark horror, exploitative of the disabled, a heinous categorisation of extremes of emotion as a tool of social control. Yet taking measure of emotions is something I believe Viola shares with the theorists and painters (such as Le Brun and the Duchenne de Boulogne) he studied during the Getty project. I say this, bearing in mind that Viola’s work notebooks exhibit a high degree of compassionate and humane observation of the human condition.

In a strange sense, the pieces in The Passions are moving stills. Utilising the body as a tekhne, or art-tool, Viola captures an emotion’s trajectory, much as stop-frame photography would the progressive blooming of a flower. We observe, do not interpret or interfere. But we do watch something follow its full course.

Viola’s video tekhne is of course extremely high: the quality of images and projections; the slowing of the films; the strength of his compositions, brooding and spilling in waves of motion and emotion not just within single frames, but also across and between many. These waves establish relationships between diptychs and triptychs, and between other works in the same and adjacent rooms. One accumulates a rhythmic, rather than verbal, narrative. One’s breathing slows.

What touches is not so much the realism, nor the comprehensiveness, of the enactments—this is not psychoanalysis, nor less a purification ritual, as in Buddhist meditation—but that I am called to accompany the enactments: stay with them, not baulk, turn away, or interfere. And this is what touches me: like the mourners who touch and move each other through the camera frame in Observance, I am moved through, and on. I am entrained and held.

It makes sense that 5 Angels…, a separate work, concludes this exhibition, because it heightens the motion of the whole: from immersion to eruption, and to immersion again. Plasma, miasma, placenta, bardo. Emergence: potentiality. Awash. The breakthrough of an epoch, or the single thought of a single mind. Surges. Another motion wave. In a sense, each of the Passion ‘portraits’ are emergences of feeling through screen membranes. None is about ‘what is yet to come’, but what is coming anyway.

Perhaps for me the favourite: the chosen shapes of Four Hands. Like Buddhist mudras, simple shapes distill symbolic form. The hands perform motions beneath emotion, the shapes beneath shape-making, That is much.

Bill Viola, The Passions, National Gallery of Australia, July 29-Nov 6

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 46

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

Julia Dowe, white cranes day and night

Julia Dowe, white cranes day and night

For a show predicated, essentially, on the idea of drawing, Vehicle confounds any preconceived ideas the viewer might bring to it. This vibrant collection of compelling works is as far from the idea of pencil likenesses and conté sketches as it could be, featuring examples of ingenuity and lateral thinking using a wide range of—to this gallery goer—unexpected media. The description “electric drawing”, which was used by several commentators to sum up the show, gives some idea of its impact.

Curator Felix Ratcliff has assembled an impressive group of exhibition participants and has chosen an intriguing curatorial premise: “a range of contemporary drawing-based works…whose conceptual strategies and manipulation of materials constitute and represent dynamic forms of cartographic activity” (catalogue essay).

The Sydney-based trio known as Conductor presented a one-off performance in which they created a large work using real time audio and video-editing devices, electrically-conductive graphite pencils and paper, manipulating a bank of synthesizers and software to represent elements of the aural, the musical and the visual. Both the exciting resulting image and the video of its creation feature in the show.

Julia Dowe’s delicate kinetic drawing, the digital animation entitled white cranes day and night (the cranes are machines, not birds, incidentally) investigates spatial and visual limits utilising a slowly moving gridded formation. On a loop, individual, simplified, linear cranes slowly emerge, line by line, against blue backgrounds symbolic of night and day, only to dissolve or dis-assemble in the same manner. The repetitious use of forms and movement, as the diagram-like outlines of the cranes appear and fade, emphasises the spatial nature of time, creating for the viewer “a mental map of temporal discontinuity” (catalogue notes).

Sculptor Sharyn Woods’ Reinforcement re-interprets and subverts the notion of drawing by using arc-welding burn marks on MDF to create a star-like modernist pattern, based on the unpretentious fence post finial. Other lines and scratches add to the “dimensionality and linearity” (catalogue) of the work, and I found it interesting to appreciate the piece and its shapes taking on board the catalogue references to symbolic associations with fortifications, weaponry such as spears, violence and the military.

Jake Walker’s Untitled, parts 3 & 8 (marker pen on acrylic) are delicately beautiful, flowing, curving, curling ‘landscapes’ in limited palettes in soft tones, dotted in a somewhat pointillist manner and able to be read in a variety of ways. Anne Mestitz “takes a line for a wall”, to use the Paul Klee phrase, turning aluminium cable, paint and car detailing into a 3-dimensional mobile sculptural piece inspired by anonymous verbal exchanges between people. The physicality and beauty of this work, Heresay, are entirely seductive.

Other works also utilise media in inventive ways. Ian Friend’s A Decompensation Episode #2 maps the mental disintegration of a close friend. Using Indian ink, gouache, crayon pigment and casein, this spectral image sits somewhere between the painterly and the drawn. Textile artist Sara Lindsay has utilised gouache on paper to imitate the appearance of the drawn line, such as that made by a coloured pencil. The title, Shima, is Japanese for the word ‘stripe’ as it relates to textiles. The work speaks of the lines traced by a shuttle moving across woven fabric and also functions as “an autonomous directional diagram and motion-map’ (catalogue). Mick O’Shea creates Audio Drawing, a time-based DVD documenting the sights and sounds of his artmaking; movements, textures and the aural traces made by his body and his media as he paints and draws at his “audio drawing table” (catalogue).

Vehicle is multi-layered and intellectually rigorous, with an engrossing and illuminating exhibition catalogue. As a purely visual/aesthetic experience the show functions exceedingly well. CAST gallery is a venue whose aim is to present a varied program of the best in contemporary art; Vehicle is one of the most successful exhibitions I have seen there this year.

Vehicle: Drawing, Maps, Models and Prototypes, curator Felix Ratcliff; artists: Conductor (Michael Robinson, Cy Norman & Pia Van Gelder), Julia Dowe, Ian Friend, Ralf Hanrieder, Karin Lettau, Sara Lindsay, Anne Mestitz, Mick O’Shea, Jake Walker, Sharyn Woods, CAST Gallery, North Hobart, July 2 -31

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 48

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

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Go!

Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds’ programming for her first Melbourne Festival, due to commence October 6, looks wonderfully adventurous. Not only does Edmunds sustain Robyn Archer’s commitment to featuring Melbourne artists (this year it’s Malthouse, Paul Grabowsky, Cuocolo/Bosetti, Back to Back Theatre, Chunky Move, Bruce Mowson, La Mama, Brian Lipson, Shelly Lasica, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Rebecca Hilton, Uncle Semolina & Friends and Aphids), but she also makes bold programming moves on the international front that give the festival a distinctive, contemporary performance personality.

The works are from artists who transform our sense of time and space, who offer new possibities in performance and who will entertain, irritate and exhilarate. Largely from the UK, Japan and the USA they are: Saburo Teshigawara (Japan, whose sublime work the RealTime team revelled in at LIFT97 in London), Forced Entertainment (UK, wickedly funny, radical highlight of the 2004 Adelaide Festival), Lone Twin (UK, live art heroes), Ryoji Ikeda (Japan, creator of deeply immersive electronic art), Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players (a unique theatrical mini-cosmos), Shin Wei Dance Arts (NY, a hit at the 2004 Sydney Festival) and Ann Bogart’s SITI Company (USA, founded in 1992 with Suzuki Tadashi).

In this edition Chris Kohn (of Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre) interviews Richard Maxwell in New York; Bruce Gladwin talks about Back to Back’s exploration of sound and space, which has led the company to perform in the Flinders Street Railway Station; and David Young reflects on where his Melbourne Festival work, Thousands of Bundled Straw for the Libra Ensemble, is positioned in his life as a composer and a director of the globe-trotting Aphids.


Process and structure

A recurring theme in this edition is the evolving strategies employed by artists in putting works together: Back to Back and Aphids reflect on chance and vision in the evolution of their work, but also on where they’re likely to go next. Antje Pfundtner, a visiting German dancer and choreographer describes the accidents of life, career and success and how they effect her process. Richard Maxwell talks about writing, casting (of performers trained or not) and the subsequent re-framing of his vision. Brisbane’s Colourised Festival of Indigenous film re-works the form of the film festival and the latest RealTime-Performance Space artist’s forum envisages a new breed of creative producers to help artists, increasingly weighed down with administration and company structures, to realise their visions.



Innovators in new media arts, performance, photomedia and dance have excelled in recent award announcements. Congratulations to new media artist Melinda Rackham on her appointment as the Executive Officer of ANAT (Australian Network of Art and Technology) in Adelaide, and to her predecessor, Julianne Pierce for being selected earlier this year to curate the 2006 Adelaide Festival Biennale of Visual Art. Amanda McDonald-Crowley, Pierce’s predecessor before she moved to Europe to co-direct ISEA 2004, has been appointed to another internationally significant new media arts position, the directorship of Eyebeam in New York. The renovated facility includes a 5,000 square foot main gallery, new production and education studios, labs, editing suites, prototyping galleries, administrative offices, a flounge/events space, a bookstore and 17 staff.

The $40,000 NSW Helen Lempriere Travelling Fellowship has been awarded this year to Ms & Mr (Richard and Stephanie Nova Milne) for their The Woman Who Mistook Her Husband for Art a witty work about oneness and technology, comprising sound, sculpture, performance and video projected onto a levitating organ. Both College of Fine Arts graduates, the couple propose to take part in a 12-month research residency at the Rijksakademie in The Netherlands, an institution encouraging the kinds of cross-media practices they fancy. Amsterdam is also the place where Marina Abramovic famously ran into Ulay, her partner in life and art and they began their ‘Relation Works’. Two years later they tied themselves together by their hair for 17 hours.

The rich legacy of experimentalist Rex Cramphorn lives on in the biennial Cramphorn Theatre Scholarships ($30,000) awarded this year to performer, director and dramaturg, Nikki Heywood who is undertaking a professional development program in Cork, Zurich, Berlin, Brussels, Prague and Venice, focussing on methods of collaborative performance practice. A key element of her program includes an intensive workshop in Cork with Chicago-based group Goat Island, and attending the Venice Biennale’s 37th International Theatre Festival directed by the man of the theatrical moment, Romeo Castelluci.

Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Narelle Benjamin, whose most recent work was admired in these pages (RT68, p40) won the Hephzibah Tintner ($40,000) which she will use towards making dance films including one at AFTRS. Cover artist for RealTime 68, photographer Cherine Fahd, was awarded the 2005 NSW Women and Arts Fellowship ($30,000) with which she will make Sleepless, a participatory documentation of the lives of the homeless in Sydney’s Kings Cross.


Fine residency offer

Here’s a generous gesture from a popular home away from home for many artists. Regents Court Hotel in Kings Cross has initiated a Writer/Artist in Residence Program offering a studio apartment for 3-12 weeks for local or international writers and artists who’d like to have some dedicated working time in one of Sydney’s most comfortable boutique hotels (www.regentscourt.com.au).

Congratulations to performance duo Mirabelle Wouters and Lee Wilson (Branch Nebula) on the birth of baby Ubu and to Nick Wishart and Imogen Ross on the birth of baby Curtis. KG, VB

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 1

As part the On Edge Festival, a week-long celebration of contemporary new media and performance, Liquid Architecture brought an exciting selection of international and national sound artists to the region. Three shows were held at the magnificent Tanks Art Centre, a series of old fuel tanks from World War II that have been converted into live performance spaces. Acoustically unique due to their cylindrical structure, the venue fascinates audiences, musicians and sound artists alike.

The first Liquid Architectureconcert was a 'beat less' evening of sonic exploration and experimentation and featured 4 acts that approached sound making from varying perspectives. The show was held in an amphitheatre enclosed by tropical gardens and was the perfect setting for such an event.

After opening with warm, melodic tones that created a dreamy ambience, Ai Yamamoto introduced layers of textured sound and harsh industrial noise-a performance aurally intense in parts and thoroughly enjoyable. Robin Fox used an oscilloscope to generate fascinating kaleidoscopic patterns triggered by simple tones generated from his laptop. New York sound artist DJ Olive followed with the most engaging performance of the evening, demonstrating some brilliant avant-turntablism. Graceful to watch, he oscillated between turntables perfectly reproducing a pattern of movement and in rhythm with the vinyl. This clever, multilayered performance included a cut-up of the voice of George Bush (repeating the word “terrorist”), with DJ Olive utilising his laptop to create beautiful washes of sound and then turntables to construct abstract sound collages.

The debut performance of local sound artist Spiral Soundsystem began with minimal ambient pieces that combined deep drones with beautiful, melodic flute playing and distorted digital effects. Popular with the audience, the long second half of the performance strayed somewhat from the theme of the evening with the introduction of beats and dubby bass lines.

Friday night's diverse performance program attracted a large audience for collaborations between sound artists and performers with the audience moving about the space. Fox and Lawrence English (Brisbane) collaborated with David Samford (Brisbane) on an intriguing new circus performance (see Williams), while File_Error and The Impurist (both from Cairns), and Yamamoto and English provided subtle sound interventions throughout the evening, performing under a glorious fig tree. The climax of the evening was Bonemap's spectacular performance, Brink, with DJ Olive on sound (see Winning).

The intimate second concert was a beat oriented night with the audience sitting on the stage or dancing with the artists. Popular local act, the Urban Monkeys, opened with their unique blend of funky breaks and abstract beats. Machina Aux Rock from Victoria delivered an impressive performance, literally rocking the house. The night ended with a minimal techno set from German artist Thomas Brinkman.

On Edge was a thoroughly inspiring festival that stimulated and challenged audiences to think about performance and sound art practices. The Friday night event proved that combining experimental sound making with performance is clearly the way to go to attract an audience in Cairns. Liquid Architecture left quite an impression, perhaps greater than the festival directors realise, and we look forward to it returning next year.

Liquid Architecture, On Edge Festival, The Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns, July 13-16

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg.

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