The saxophone is a relatively new instrument when compared with its orchestral and classical kin. The saxophone quartet, with its short history, is a rare ensemble with a limited repertoire. Ranging from baritone to soprano, the saxophone quartet has an extensive pitch and dynamic range and the ability to produce a vast array of tonal colours. Different timbral nuances can be heard in its shrill and glistening upper registers, smooth mid ranges and thick and reedy low registers. Extended techniques including harmonics, multiphonics, key clicks and tongue slaps add exotic sounds to its palette. Saxophones can combine to create dense textures of layered material or blended textures of sustained tones. In their latest concert, Continuum Sax collaborated with sound artist Gail Priest in compositions and improvisations, expanding further the sound world of the saxophone quartet.

Priest began the concert with a loop-based soundscape spatialised between a pair of speakers. Apart from an annoying buzz from one of the speakers during the first half of the concert, the sonic texture created through the gradual layering of looped material was hypnotic and engaging. Continuum Sax followed with Gavin Bryars Alaric I or II, which was scored for 2 soprano saxophones plus alto and baritone saxophone, to emulate the range of a string quartet. This lyrical work used extended techniques that included circular breathing, multiphonics and use of extreme registers. Although this work combined a variety of tone colours, sections were a little too close to the musical language of Phillip Glass for my liking.

Each of the 3 collaborations between Continuum and Priest explored distinctive combinations of saxophone quartet and electronic music. In Pocalyptic by Priest and Martin Kay, the artists improvised on prepared material made from improvisations by Kay. In the second, Priest improvised with tuned effects, sculpted feedback and samples whilst Continuum worked with aleatoric sketches. In Pari Intervallo Variation by Arvo Pärt, Priest took live feeds from each saxophone, manipulating their overtones. This work was the highlight of the concert.

After a few minutes of the Pärt performed without processing, the initial sounds—subtly manipulated by Priest—now joined the live playing, creating a stunning, unified wash of ambient, pulsating sound. It was almost impossible to distinguish between the live and the processed sound until, towards the end, the saxophones stopped playing, revealing just how much of the total effect was being produced electronically. The metamorphosis was structurally perfect.

Excellent performances of works for saxophone quartet by Australian composers included Four Winds by Andrew Ford and St Mark's Inflection by Jane Stanley. I particularly enjoyed the spatial aspect of Ford's piece as each saxophonist entered and left the stage from different corners. Continuum Sax closed the concert with a rhythmic and energetic piece by Rolf Gehlhaar.

Priest's palette of sounds added dimension and sonic variety to Continuum Sax's performance, although some of the pieces could have been more compelling with surround sound or if the positioning of the performers in the space had been varied. The compositions and improvisations employed a diverse range of colouristic effects, expanding the repertoire and highlighting the capabilities of this versatile ensemble.

Four by Four, Continuum Sax: Margery Smith, James Nightingale, Martin Kay and Jarrod Whitbourn, sound artist Gail Priest, New Music Network, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aug 20

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. w

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

I mainly supervise PhD candidates in music or those using some interdisciplinary approach with music and sound. The supervisory process for a creative based research degree presents 2 areas for discussion. The first concerns the artist’s creative work; the second is the placement of the creative work within the research context. Too much attention to the latter can result in pseudo intellectualisation or misunderstanding of the creative work and the artist’s relationship to it.

There are 2 types of research students in creative practice, depending on their development as artists: early and advanced (mid career artists are usually too busy “making it happen” to consider a PhD). Early career artists are often concerned with the development of technique and see research as a viable career step. Advanced career artists come to postgraduate research for different reasons. In many situations the reason is consolidation. Often, they have exhausted all opportunities in their practice in Australia and are looking for a process to take them deeper into their work. Needless to say, continuity of employment as an artist in Australia can be quite difficult. Postgraduate research in creative practice can offer that continuity.

Mutual understanding

The research investigation must come from the practice. My supervisory approach necessitates an understanding of the artist’s creative process. This involves: (1) observing the idiosyncrasies of the candidate’s artistic practice; (2) identifying the salient features of that practice; (3) identifying hidden strengths, patterns and weaknesses; (4) addressing any technical issues that may be causing a hindrance; (5) problem solving by reviewing the candidate’s previous work, discussing other artists’ works, or developing a familiarity with existing works relevant to the enquiry. For some people these indicators are not necessary to research supervision. I consider all to be important. They lay the foundations for a viable research investigation and methodology. Sometimes, the candidate is totally aware of their practice and area of research investigation. While this makes the early stages of a PhD journey relatively easy, the representation of the work as a research enquiry still demands a lot of input and interrogation.

The right question

Once there is mutual understanding, it becomes possible to begin a research enquiry: some people call this the research question. The process of asking the wrong question at the wrong time can lead to misconceptions. For me, the issue is “when” and “what type of questioning begins the process?” The only question in the first part of the PhD process is: “how can the artist do something better?” Defining the research investigation is relatively easy once candidates are fully aware of their processes. It enables them to understand their context and how they got there. Nevertheless, the research process involves a continual series of questions resulting from the work until ultimately, an appropriate question is asked. Questions such as “what does the work mean?” or “how do I tell someone else what I am doing?” come later. These questions can be problematic due to the requirement for candidates to initially express their creative work as a research question and formally present the interrogation in a written language outside of the artist’s own creative language.

Show, tell & name

The symbolic representation of a creative work is the artist’s primary mode of communication. It can express subtlety, irony, contradiction, ambiguity, paradox, etc. While in some instances the candidate is able to clearly articulate in formal language aspects of a work, it is often counterproductive to initially expect the candidate to be equally articulate in their linguistic or literary skills. Reporting in many universities is text driven. Many candidates spend more time writing about their work than making it. Formally expressing these nuances through written text is another level of structured communication. For these reasons I ask the research candidates to constantly talk about or informally present aspects of their work. Informal communication permits experiment and play with language. This is the first step towards articulating a methodology and must always be discussed in the presence of the work. Through the spontaneity of talking, an interpretative model can be articulated without the candidate knowing what that model may become.

All this is part of the process of ‘naming’, an important step in creative development. Naming is any symbolic representation of the creative act in which that act is described in a medium outside of its own reality. For example, music notation is a visual representation of sonic events. This applies to the exegetical component, which places the creative work in context. It is often the case that candidates, when passionately saying what they want to do, are usually ‘naming’ what they have done. Accurate naming facilitates the next best course of action. If something is wrongly named, it may create misconceptions about the artist’s creative process.

The exegetical perspective

Once the idiosyncrasies of the candidate’s work are understood and both parties are agreed on the naming, the translation from a creative work to one within a research context involves: (1) extracting from the work criteria for evaluation; (2) relating the criteria to some worldview via some exegetical perspective; (3) applying the criteria to other contexts external to the candidate’s work. These steps are non-linear and can operate simultaneously. The criteria for the exegetical perspective are derived from the creative work. They form the basis for a singular or hybridised methodology and enable evaluation and discovery.

I use the term “exegetical perspective” because “exegesis” implies the presence of a written text separate from the creative work. This separation tends to emasculate the creative work of its own embedded knowledge as more importance is given to the reporting of the work within the exegesis. While it is relatively easy to write an exegesis separate from the creative work, one danger is that candidates can become disenfranchised from their own practice. The experience of the work is the knowledge gained from encountering, engaging with or observing events or actions. An exegetical perspective can be achieved through explanation and experience. If we are to argue that artistic work has its own embedded knowledge and is therefore research, then the explanatory dimension must be present within the experience of the work.

There are a variety of ways to experience an argument, articulate criteria or report a point of view. The exegetical perspective does not always have to be a written text because, like the creative work, it is an interpretation. Metaphor, analysis and criticism are some devices that explain difference and similarity. The exegetical perspective can also be another creative work by the artist that provides critical context. It can permeate the portfolio in a number of forms ranging from commentaries, analyses, critiques, intertextuality, deconstructed performance, etc. The rhetorical devices for investigation can be analogy (the more scientific approach), parodic, oppositional or discursive. Whether it is the complex intertwining of all components or a separately written exegesis, the research is the relationship between the creative work and the exegetical perspective.

A creative work is full of sensations, signs, ruptures, phenomena, ambiguities and contradictions. Their combination produces ‘meaningfulness.’ The task of the creative research candidate is to formulate an exegetical perspective, a lens that provides discovery and coherent understanding, yet at the same time embraces the creative work’s contradictions, anomalies and ambiguities. It is important to remember that the ‘making’ and the ‘writing about the making’ are not the same. They are separate. The supervisor’s role is to ensure the exegetical perspective is in dynamic relationship with the creative work and that experience, explanation and interpretation can also be included in the research reporting.

This article is an edited version of a paper originally presented for the Centre for Innovation Research and Commercialisation (CIRAC), Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology in 2004.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 2

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

Jo-Anne Duggan, Impossible Gaze #15 2002

Jo-Anne Duggan, Impossible Gaze #15 2002

Having recently encountered the amorphous nature of a creative doctorate (graduating in 2004) I look back on the experience as enlightening—even with its trials and tribulations—in more ways than I anticipated. My Doctor of Creative Arts project, Beyond the Surface: The Contemporary Experience of the Italian Renaissance, investigated the nature of engagement in museums. More specifically, it examined the experience of Italian museums and the multitude of histories—the art’s, the museums’ and the viewers’—that collide in the context of viewing Renaissance art. The nature of my thesis demanded a multi-disciplinary approach that spanned visual art, art history and theory, museology, historiography and cultural tourism, as well as combining both academic research and image-making, which resulted in 2 major exhibitions shown here and in Italy. I worked with both the visual and the textual to most appropriately and effectively express my concerns regarding museum viewing. In a peculiar act of doubling, I was making art about the experience of viewing it.


A key point in the discussion on creative doctorates is the question of why an artist would undertake one. That this question looms so large puzzles me. Is it so perverse for an artist to want to grapple with academic rigour? Greater employment prospects are often cited as a driving force, but it would be delusional to think a doctoral degree would guarantee employment in the arts and humanities faculties of universities today. Given the number of applicants competing for an ever-diminishing pool of teaching positions one shouldn’t undertake this gargantuan battle for immediate job security. On a more mercenary level, further academic studies can be a major consideration in terms of funding opportunities. Artists wanting to launch substantial, long-term projects often need to rely on the support of either the arts or academic sectors. The art-based project that I had been working on prior to my DCA tended to slip between too academic and not academic enough as far as funding bodies were concerned. I believed that pursuing higher degree research would provide me with a resolution for this dilemma.

Of far greater significance, the DCA was an opportunity to be involved in research that took me outside of my own professional sphere and academic discipline. Having been a photomedia practitioner for more than 20 years and sustaining a long association with the arts through photomedia departments in art faculties and varying professional positions, I commenced studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), not necessarily as a path of re-invention but to expand the knowledge base from which my art could draw. I wanted to explore the concerns and theories that guide other disciplines and to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Fortunately to this end, my work in Italian museums has been enriched by all manner of scholars, curators, historians, museologists, conservators, art handlers, guides and guards as they expressed their views on topics as diverse as politics and dust.

I applied to do a DCA because I hoped that more profound historical and contemporary cultural studies would further develop my ideas and understanding of museums and their visitors, and that my art would evolve accordingly. I also wanted to better articulate, especially through writing, my concerns as an artist. On a professional level, undertaking a doctorate with the backing of a university leant an air of legitimacy to my project (and a degree of accountability) when negotiating with bureaucracies, especially in Italy. It gained me privileges and access to photograph and research in often restricted areas of museums.

Between word & image

A DCA does present its own particular set of challenges (and I stress here that each project and its creative medium carries its own idiosyncratic load). The difficulties that I encountered, though personal, are I believe not unique. Maintaining fluidity between writing and image-making was a constant battle, while the problem of designing an exacting structure on which to hang both creative and theoretical components was the toughest nut to crack. With no models of methodology or guidelines, and during my time too few relevant examples, it was difficult defining the parameters of the project or even understanding what form it could possibly take.

Eventually, with intuitive and astute supervision, I embraced the less conventional structure of a DCA. This liberated me to shift positions alternately between viewer, artist and scholar in order to raise the questions and concerns relevant to contemporary museum viewing. This mode of writing with different voices provided an essential conduit between photographing and theoretical reflection. By combining the practices of writing and image-making I was able to both explore more profoundly and comment more decisively on Italian Renaissance museums and the ideas that surround the act of viewing. The visual component enabled me to focus my concerns and more lucidly follow lines of enquiry that had previously left me tongue-tied. My photographs, clawing at the essence of the museum experience, enabled me to depict the underpinning philosophical issues in a rich and explicit way. They stimulated and inspired the theoretical, historical and cultural reflections in the thesis and contributed a sensorial experience to the intellectual one, enabling the viewer/reader to sense the issues as well as read them.

As an artist, I was painfully aware that I had little grounding in the language and arguments of the numerous disciplines that I was investigating. To acquire a critical overview of the relevant debates I needed to wade through vast amounts of existing scholarship, all the while recognising that it would be impossible within the time constraint of the degree to become expert in each field. As someone working ‘outside’ these disciplines I acknowledge that I only briefly addressed the magnitude of studies that surface in the artwork that I created for this project. While the minutiae of dates and facts are rarely evident in my images, the knowledge of exchanges, influences, changes and developments that have occurred, do contribute to the cognitive construction and intentions of my exhibition themes and image content. The broad fields that I traversed allowed me to see my own work within the context of other artists and scholars and to better understand the scope and positioning of their work. At the same time—although self-reflection is not necessarily relevant to doctoral research—the process enabled me to thoroughly analyse the drive behind my own art-making.


When it comes to assessment a number of issues arise. With no concrete models of what a theorised practice should look like—for either the candidate or the examiner—analysis and assessment of the process and outcomes proves somewhat elusive. While image-making is a natural process for artists to express ideas that flow from research, the open-endedness of images makes the nature of the knowledge they produce difficult to qualify. Furthermore, exhibition work (or other forms of creative output) can prove problematic, as examiners, for reasons of distance or timing, don’t always see the outcomes. Other than providing documentation of the artworks, examiners have no tangible evidence of what was achieved. The scale, context and physical presence that an exhibition produces are lost and under these circumstances the thesis is assessed not only independently but also often without a comprehensive understanding of what the artwork has contributed. In this case, the manner in which the thesis needs to be read must be fully addressed for examiners, especially when artists write across several disciplines (in my case, later identified as art criticism, history and philosophy). James Elkins points out that examiners need to know the “theory of reading that should guide [their] participation” as readers from different disciplines “will not have access to the whole project.” (The issue of ‘reading’ a thesis is discussed by James Elkins both in my doctoral examination report and Printed Project, James Elkins ed, Sculptor’s Society of Ireland, UK, issue 04, April 2005.)


Daily doctoral life is fraught with the curly issues of isolation, limited resources and appropriate supervision, all of which seem unfathomable at the time. I can only in retrospect confess my delight in the process and the challenges that it presented. I had the privilege and pleasure of engaging with the ideas and critical thinking of numerous and varied specialists and scholars, an invaluable experience that ultimately nourished my work (and my soul). At the same time, I learnt to better craft both my research and writing and further develop the indispensable skills of project management and administration that were necessary to undertake this colossal task.

Beyond a great deal of personal satisfaction however, the long term outcomes and benefits of this degree remain undecided. I am yet to be convinced, even with the current push for multi-disciplinarity, that creativity is readily and widely accepted as a valid form of research—regardless of how liberal universities may proclaim to be, they themselves are unclear in relation to the government and funding about how to ‘count’ and think about creative research. In many respects, having an exhibition practice instead of the traditional form of publication, I am confronted with the same quandary I began with—is it considered academic enough?

Having been through the doctoral mill, I would suggest there is a need to continue the search for greater clarity of expectations and requirements, despite the murky situation of creative research in the Australian academic context, so that both candidates and their supervisors can confidently work within a formally recognised framework. This is a paradox indeed given the very nature and contribution of a creative higher degree is in fact its originality and individuality. I would also suggest that with too few places in academia to accommodate an increasing number of creative doctoral graduates, one lives in hope that other types of cultural institutions and knowledge-based organisations will embrace the diversity and innovation that artists can offer. I for one look forward to grander and more challenging projects and fruitful cultural and scholarly collaborations.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 4,

© Jo-Anne Duggan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Melissa Carey, autumn_04

Melissa Carey, autumn_04

A university is characterised by its research centres, a conservatorium by its master musicians. With research high on the agenda, this parallel could provide unity but instead seems lost in an argument over paperwork. At a meeting of the National Association of Tertiary Music Schools in 2003, the head of one Australian music institution is reported to have said, “I hate the word ‘research.’ What you’re doing and what I’m doing is research—why do we have to write it down?” (Diana Davis, “A working model for postgraduate practice based research across the creative arts”, Doctoral Education in Design, 2003).

The question highlights a fundamental issue of the debate which positions academics and musicians in different corners. The traditional PhD ‘thesis’ (meaning the total submission) makes a contribution to knowledge or presents substantial new insights into a field of learning. It asks questions and proposes answers by testing theory or hypotheses. The process and outcomes should be replicable and documented, usually in a substantial, written dissertation. On one hand is the argument that creative work can neither meet these expectations nor contribute to knowledge, on the other is the contention that it extends the field.

According to Peter McCallum, formerly of the Sydney Conservatorium, “The arts are concerned with creating things which are valued for their aesthetic or expressive qualities. I find it more useful to say that artists create aesthetic objects rather than to say that they create knowledge.” But the knowledge argument runs the risk of narrowing the scope of the word. Knowledge need not rely on written fact—new knowledge may emerge through interpretation (Adrian Vickers, Research in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Creative Arts, 2004). To confine knowledge to “acquaintance with facts” is to ignore it as “practical understanding of an art” (Oxford Dictionary). Aesthetic knowledge may be non-verbal: “while some of music’s aesthetic information can be described in words, a considerable part remains untranslatable” (Reiner and Fox, “The Research Status of Music Composition in Australia”, AJME 1, 2003).

Dennis Strand’s report Research into the Creative Arts (DETYA,1998) lists 3 approaches to creative research: the conservative, traditional approach (research about), the pragmatic midway mix of creative and written work (research in), and the liberal approach supporting creative practice as research. The distinction between the last 2 is crucial. In the third, creative work has the status of a thesis, its contribution to knowledge conveyed through the work itself. Although some Australian music institutions choose the DMA as a safe alternative to this format, there are cases emerging in PhD programs. This article offers a few such examples.

There is no confusion about musicological research, or research about music. It leads to scholarly work, historical, theoretical or critical, and is written down. Research in music practice is also acceptable because outcomes contribute to music or develop something new—and there is accompanying text. Some universities have offered this mix for so long that they no longer place it on the “creative” list. In this form, the thesis comprises a portfolio of scores with a written component—superficially a similar format to that in which creative work is the thesis. The thesis doesn’t need to be dualist. Richard Vella’s assessment is that the issue is not so much about the ratio of creative and written components, but rather how best to communicate the research inquiry: “Is it in the work and understood through the experience of the work or must it be explained in some textual commentary on the work?”

Research occurring through music practice may look the same but here the outcome is artistic. PhD candidate Eve Klein (Macquarie University) explains the distinction: “creative works need to operate as a practice or understanding of how the work reconfigures and pushes the artform. The complexity is making this visible beyond simply producing a new ‘original’ artistic work.” Defining the difference between a composition or performance as an artistic event and one which is the outcome of research confounds academics and provides an easy escape for those who allocate funding. Amongst struggling music institutions, money is the motivating force driving their determination to have creative practice recognised as research.

As composition takes on less predictable forms (not all on the page), some institutions exercise more caution than others. Having inherited a composition-based PhD from the University of Sydney’s Music Department, Sydney Conservatorium has extended it to electronic music composition where original software might form part of the outcome. However, as Peter McCallum explains, “in the Con’s case (the software) could never be the sole thesis. That would be a matter for computer science.” Perhaps there’s another argument—that in a cross-disciplinary world, software extends the field and might therefore be considered research in music practice?

Melissa Carey

Southern Cross University takes a more liberal approach. The abstract from Melissa Carey’s research, “Graphic Notations: Visual Representations of Music and Aural Representation of Image”, acknowledges that “our concept of what constitutes ‘music’ has changed”. To prove her point the thesis will be an installation with wall-hung images, artists’ scorebooks and an accompanying audio CD. Carey’s new notational technique (Intermedia Frottage) uses image-sound conversion software to translate image into sound. In this process “the image takes on the role of a graphic score that can be ‘read’ in relation to the sound composition as well as providing an initial map for its creation”. Carey explores the sounds which result from different readings of image, demonstrated in autumn_04. Constructed from a single leaf image using the principle of theme and variations, “each object layer in the image was saved, and subsequently ‘sounded’, individually. The resulting sound files were then reconstructed to create sound composition, in…the way we might ‘read’ the image as a collection of discrete objects, rather than simply scanning from left to right.”

Matt Robison

A description of Matt Robison’s thesis (also at SCU) as a creative folio of 14 original compositions presented on an audio CD with a written component presented in electronic form on CD-ROM neglects the fascinating evolutionary journey his work has taken. A successful musician whose work has been played on television and on the ABC’s Triple J network, Robison claims that research informs and inspires his creative work, and believes his creative and commercial success is “intimately linked” to research practice. His thesis has been acknowledged by examiner Professor Derek Scott (University of Salford, UK) as a model for this kind of doctorate.

Robison’s example typifies the argument for composer and performer that creative work is informed by a unique mix of experiences. The composer framing new work and the musician preparing performance each embarks on a journey comprising research of various kinds, some more obvious than others. Huib Schippers (Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre) describes performance as “the end-result of complex physiological, technical, conceptual, aesthetic and social processes” (The Marriage of Art and Academia, 2003). Reproducing such a journey borders on the impossible, making it difficult to convince academia of its place in the research funding stakes.

Postgrad boom

Australia’s record of philanthropic support is poor, but Sydney Conservatorium’s recent windfall of a $16 million bequest from pastoralist George William Henderson will fuel plans for a new PhD in performance commencing in 2006. According to the Conservatorium’s Dean, Professor Kim Walker, the bequest will support top scholars and performers in “a unique program involving performance, composition and research.” The Elder School of Music at the University of Adelaide has already introduced a PhD by examination in performance which, according to Charles Bodman Rae, is the first of its kind in Australia. All current Elder candidates have secured Australian Postgraduate Awards, so their research is valued where it counts. The work of one, Leigh Harrold, has also attracted ABC-FM to record his performances of American composer Robert Muczynski’s piano music and assess them for commercial release. Also at Elder, jazz pianist Chris Martin is investigating unexplored potential for incorporating 12-tone vocabulary into jazz. Through performance, Martin’s thesis documents “a personal improvisational vocabulary and style that reflects the incorporation of a highly structured approach to dissonance” within the jazz tradition.

Grant Collins

A successful professional drummer and composer, Grant Collins (QUT), combines composition and performance to review the boundaries of the large modern drumset as a medium for contemporary solo performance. Investigating compositions which employ all 4 limbs, Collins will “develop and introduce new techniques to establish advanced levels of co-ordination, independence and motion not previously achieved on a standard drum set.” His thesis combines the development of new playing techniques, live performances and recordings, and new compositions to develop repertoire for training the techniques he is exploring.

If research is expected to demonstrate relevance to the performance and composition of music, Collins is well on the way to achieving this. Ensuring that the results are rigorous and objective is the responsibility of the framework QUT provides for the creative PhD. As supervisor, Richard Vella claims “understanding the idiosyncracies of the candidate’s work is the first step” in the process leading to interpreting or contextualizing creative work as research. He explains that “the relationship between the artist’s creative work and the external world can be done through analogy, parody or some other rhetorical positioning. It can be discursive, analytical or sensory. As long as this relationship is expressed, the candidate’s outcomes or findings can be experiential, explanatory or both. It is the expression of this relationship that makes the work research within the current university context” (“Practice based Research”, 2005).

Eve Klein

Creative work is challenged by academic expectations of adequate and accurate measurement systems to test the research. Like Collins, Eve Klein (Macquarie University) plans to create new work as a way of developing and testing new techniques. In Klein’s case, it is an investigation into how electronic music alters and reconfigures philosophical discussions of operatic vocality. An excellent example of pioneering spirit among creative PhD candidates, Klein has carefully documented all aspects of her creative work, noting an “onerous sense of needing to ‘justify’ the creative component rigorously.” Further, Klein has also undertaken extensive vocal training to enable her to perform vocally to professional operatic standard, a time-consuming commitment.

* * * * *

If institutions are characterised by their research, the new breed of music researchers points to a different style of music institution for the future, one which understands and supports practice as research—regardless of the paperwork. Hopefully, universities will get the (non-textual) message.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 6

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

Yuji Sone, Rosalind Crisp

Yuji Sone, Rosalind Crisp

Yuji Sone, Rosalind Crisp

Deploying Emmanuel Levinas’ notion of irreducible otherness (alterity), my thesis examined hidden assumptions about cultural otherness in performance. Generally, understandings of it are based on recognisability and ultimately difference through representation. Alterity, however, cannot be accounted for in these terms and remains excessive to representation. In the practical component of the research, I explored artistic strategies and ways in which these concerns could be expressed in performance.

I like art works that make me think. Similarly, to make art is to think. In other words, I am interested in the process of making art which provides me with material on which I can speculate. This attitude toward art making is different from those of ‘product-centred’ and ‘market-driven’ art practices. The awarding of the doctoral degree has encouraged me to develop my particular manner of ‘art practice’ as academic research, and enabled me to continue consideration of methodological questions through my current postdoctoral research at UNSW.

Art versus theory

As a new form of degree, practice-based doctoral courses in Australia have not yet earned academic legitimacy, largely due to the ambiguity of their nature and purpose. I still feel I am sometimes seen as ‘suspect’ by both theorists and artists when I tell them that I hold a practice-based doctorate. They sometimes see me as not quite theorist, not quite artist. I don’t mind this in-between position, because it has been very productive for my work, but ‘practitioner-researcher’ doesn’t seem to fit easily into the disciplinary structure at art and academic institutions.

There has been a similar sentiment expressed, in regard to the ambiguous status of practice-based doctoral degrees, by academics in the UK (Robin Nelson,and Stuart Andrews, “Practice as Research: Regulations, Protocols and Guidelines’, PALATINE, www.lancs.ac.uk/palatine/dev-awards/par-report.htm, 2003).

I’ve found that the implicit division between theory and practice is problematic. Elizabeth Grosz pointed out in the late 1980s that art and theory see themselves as antagonists: “both art and theory aggrandise the capacity each sees in itself and thus construes its counterpart” (“Every Picture Tells a Story: Art and Theory Re-examined” in Gary Sangster, curator, Sighting References: ciphers, systems and codes in recent Australian visual art, Artspace, Surry Hills, NSW, 1987). According to Grosz, the practices should not be seen as “doubles (and thus also as opposites)” but as “twins” who share similarities, but differences as well. In fact, Grosz argues for a complementary relationship between theory and practice where ‘theory is one among many inspirational sources for art, and art, one of the critical vantage points from which theory can be assessed.”

I would also argue that the interaction between theory and art practice as research can yield new creative entities, the engendering and analysis of which can be employed legitimately as an academic research methodology.

This issue of the theory/practice divide was discussed at the RIP (Research Into Practice) Conference in 2004 at University of Hertfordshire, in the UK, which focused on the role of artefact in art and design research.

Peer review

The PARIP 2005 Conference, in partnership with University of Leeds, was the final public event of a 5-year research project under the directorship of Baz Kershaw of the University of Bristol. The project was designed to examine issues relating to practice as research in the performance media of theatre, dance, film, video, and television. Peer review was PARIP 2005’s particular focus.

The conference aimed to discuss methods and criteria for “the robust evaluation of performance as research by communities of practitioners-researchers” (conference program). It scheduled peer review sessions alongside panel and plenary sessions. In actuality, the conference made us aware that more studies and discussion on methodologies of peer review need to be done before implementing it on artworks.

Although PARIP 2005 brought together a broad field of practices across theatre, dance, performance art, film, television and new media, some common themes were not necessarily specific to a single, established art medium. I found particularly interesting topics such as “sound/space interface”, “body/space interface” and “PaR (practice as research) and New Technologies”, which cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and suggest new ways of discussing art projects.

The way forward

As universities respond to the ‘knowledge economy’, research culture in the creative arts has ‘forced’ a recognition of practice as an important vehicle for investigative work. “Increasingly there is perceived to be a need and a market for specific forms of doctoral research provision for advanced-level professional practitioners [in the creative arts]” (Bill Green and Adrian Kiernander, “Doctoral Education, Professional Practice and the Creative Arts: Research and Scholarship in a New Key?”, in Bill Green, TW Maxwell and Peter Shanahan eds, Doctoral Education and Professional Practice: The Next Generation?, Kardoorair Press, Armidale, NSW, 2001). Consequently, a growing number of Australian universities allow doctoral degrees to incorporate creative art works, such as visual art exhibition or music composition, as non-text-based research outcomes.

There are, however, noticeable differences between schools and faculties over the nature, course of study, thesis format and examination procedure of the practice-based doctoral research courses offered in Australian universities. The lack of agreement between universities on an appropriate assessment process complicates the acceptance of practice-based doctoral degrees as a legitimate mode of academic research. There is also no agreement on the question regarding the theory/practice divide, which goes to the heart of what we mean by research and the question of what language is appropriate to communicate and understand these academic research findings.

Until these issues are resolved, the question of how research outcomes can be discussed and disseminated more widely cannot be addressed.

Dr Yuji Sone is a performance practitioner-researcher and postdoctoral research fellow at The School of Media, Film and Theatre, University of New South Wales. His current research focuses on notions of intermediation in relation to media/technology-based performance, in addition to investigating methodological issues related to creative performance research. As part of his research project, Yuji is organising e-Performance and Plug-ins: A Mediatised Performance Conference at UNSW for late 2005.

This is an edited version of an email interview. KG

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 8

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

Simon Ellis, Lost Something

Simon Ellis, Lost Something

Simon Ellis, Lost Something

The last decade has seen the rise of the creative postgraduate degree in dance and with it, an institutional interest in the notion of dance practice as academic research, especially in Melbourne and Brisbane. This is no surprise given the number of dance artists in academic positions in Melbourne universities (Dr Elizabeth Dempster, Jude Walton, Helen Herbertson, Dr Mark Minchinton) and the fact that Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is home to Australia’s first PhD graduate in dance studies, Associate Professor Cheryl Stock. Stock is an enthusiastic advocate, stating that “the most important thing about Creative Practice as Research is that it validates the work itself as a research outcome and privileges the artist’s voice which has been marginalised or even silenced for far too long in arts research.”

If professional dancers and choreographers find it hard to achieve a sustainable practice in Australia, those at the interface with broader contemporary theoretical concerns are naturally turning to tertiary institutions. Some Australian universities offer support and stimulation for dance practitioners who may not find these things in their immediate community. Many are also teaching in the institutions in which they are enrolled.

Gavin Webber

A case in point is Gavin Webber, the new Artistic Director Of Dance North in Brisbane. Webber has just begun a Masters by Research this year at QUT with Stock as supervisor. Webber’s research focuses on his dance theatre practice and discovering and intellectualising his own research methodology—a “conundrum” that he is working through. As part of his process involves serendipity, improvisation and accidental discovery, he is considering how these kinds of practices fit into the structure of a Masters. Webber had some reservations about becoming “too much of a researcher in that you may lose some of your creative capabilities as you begin to think too much about how you work.” He cites David Lynch as an artist who doesn’t like talking about his work because he believes this “limits the audience’s ability to dream”, yet at the same time Lynch does talk very poetically about his films. This second conundrum has become another part of Webber’s thesis.

Webber chose postgraduate research after arriving back in Australia from working in Europe with companies such as Wim Vandekeybus’ Ultima Vez. This hugely successful Belgian dance company has little profile here so Webber found it difficult to find support as an artist until he met Stock who drew him into QUT as a teacher. Webber believes that Australian universities provide a lot of support for innovative contemporary dance in this country and that “QUT is very forward-thinking in terms of its postgraduate courses and the role for artists there.”

Stock explains that this direction at QUT really took off in 2001 when Creative Industries was formed as a faculty within QUT and, with it, a new research centre, Creative Industries Research and Application Centre (CIRAC). Stock states that “CIRAC now has around 200 RHDs (Research Higher Degrees—Masters and PhDs) of which half are undertaking Creative Practice as Research across many disciplines, including dance of course.” At a recent conference covering many of the issues surrounding creative practice as research (Speculation and Innovation Conference, QUT, March 2005) dance artists Hellen Sky, Shaaron Boughen, Chrissie Parrott and Simon Ellis gave performative presentations in keeping with the theme of the conference.

Simon Ellis

Ellis enrolled in 2000 at the Victorian College of the Arts’ School of Dance under the supervision of Dr Don Asker and is the school’s first PhD candidate, submitting in May this year. Others have followed: Neil Adams and Siobhan Murphy are both currently enrolled as DCA candidates. Ellis’ area of research was creation and performance beyond ‘live’ processes and the relation to the workings of memory. He draws on Bergsonian theories of memory, Philip Auslander’s performance theory and the theoretical work of Elizabeth Grosz. He also approached questions of epistemology itself—a recurring theme for the artist-scholars interviews—and submitted his thesis as an interactive DVD-ROM which included his written component and video footage. Ellis chose the school because he wanted to “start the project from a ‘dance perspective’…as opposed to commencing from, say, a sociological or psychological framework and then ‘squeezing’ that into a dance perspective.”

For Ellis, a full-time PhD while on an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) scholarship meant being able to “devote my time to developing and rethinking my professional practice…For the first time I was able to just do practice-led research unencumbered by bread and butter jobs.” Despite the criteria that creative PhD students should have a substantial body of practice behind them, Ellis said he began his PhD while his practice was still at a “nascent” stage and that this has ultimately got him off to a better start. It has enabled him to think outside the limitations (and disappointments) of funding rounds and categories with their emphasis on ‘tourable’ work, which has in turn impacted on his practice. Current projects seeded during his PhD research include a series of animations based on Melbourne dancers, the dad.project (www.skellis.net/dad.project) and a larger scale project involving collaborative partnerships, Inert (www.skellis.net/Inert).

Julie-Anne Long

Julie-Anne Long was also motivated to take on a PhD by some fairly practical realities. Having finished an MA Honours by research she decided she needed to get a “proper job” due to the lack of funding for dance in NSW, but every academic job that came up had a PhD prerequisite. She also chose to do a PhD without a creative component as she has perceived a degree of academic snobbery in Sydney that values the former over the latter, an attitude that has been overcome in other Australian states and some other countries. And like Ellis, she could not have gone ahead without an APA scholarship.

Long is the only practising dance artist currently enrolled as a postgraduate student in a dance department in NSW. (This is indicative of the broader crisis in tertiary dance studies in the state.) She is completing her thesis in the School of Media, Film and Theatre at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and chose that institution because she knew other postgraduate students working with dance theory there. The thesis has an autobiographical slant and the working title is Walking in Sydney: Looking for Dancing. Long maps the city at our own historical point via the spaces and places where dancing occurs, while remembering the sites where people used to work. She says that the main reason for beginning this project “was that there is so little written about the independent dance scene in Sydney. I was wanting to present an alternative history of dancing in Sydney, and reflect on the puzzle of non-recognition.” Long continues with her solo dance practice outside of her academic research and is happy to do so in an academic climate she sees as placing so little value on the artist.

Tracie Mitchell

While Long’s research works around and just touches on her own history as an artist, Tracie Mitchell’s DCA is providing an opportunity to take stock of her current dancefilm practice in relation to the recent history of international dance screen work. Like Ellis, she feels that the degree is in its infancy and that “we are making up the rules as we go along.” She enrolled in the School of Human Movement, Recreation and Performance at Victorian University (VU) in 2005. Her supervisors are Mark Minchinton and Jude Walton. Mitchell chose the school as she “found this one was most rigorous about the theory of art practice, particularly contemporary arts practice.” Other postgraduate dance artists currently enrolled at VU include Josie Daw, Alice Cummins, Gretel Taylor and Holly Cooper. Graduates include Trevor Patrick, Helen Herbertson and Russell Dumas.

Mitchell returned from overseas at the end of an Australia Council Fellowship and, like Webber, was looking for a supportive environment in which she could focus on making work. An APA recipient, Mitchell feels she has been given “a fantastic gift” that will allow her to do just that. The impact of her studies on her long-term career is not as important to her as the immediate “investment in making deep and thoughtful work”.

Claudia Alessi

On the subject of longer term benefits of postgraduate study, Claudia Alessi believes the postgraduate work that artists produce is a valuable addition to the resources available for tertiary studies in the performing arts. Alessi is enrolled as a masters candidate at WAAPA in the School of Dramatic Arts’ Dance faculty. Her research is based around a series of solos, Point of Entry, and the effect of integrating physical and visual art forms (aerial work, physical theatre, puppetry, martial arts, video) with ‘pure dance.’

Alessi turned to solo practice due to “the current economic climate and the lack of funding that is allocated to dance—in particular contemporary dance within WA.” The masters offered her the opportunity to seek out and investigate “like-minded dance practitioners” and provided her with a challenging creative project which she would not have been able to do without an extended period of research.

* * * * *

This survey of dance artists and the kinds of creative research they are generating in dance departments across our universities represents only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other choreographers currently enrolled in various postgraduate degrees include Paul O’Sullivan, Csaba Buday, Jennifer Proctor, Shaaron Boughen and Karen Pearlman. Postgraduate research is providing our dance artists with an alternative source of funding, resources, employment, sense of community and creative stimulus at a time when many of these are in short supply.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 10

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

Deborah Leiser-Moore, Here and There—Then and Now

Deborah Leiser-Moore, Here and There—Then and Now

Theatre practitioners are undertaking postgraduate study in universities round the country. Creative doctorates, Master’s degrees and PhD work by research and practice appear to be choices many artists are making after some years in the industry. A range of reasons came up when I spoke to those engaged in postgraduate research, but all spoke of the riches of having the time to go deeper into theory behind their practice, and of the access to the resources of a university.

Vanessa Pigrum

Director and performance maker Vanessa Pigrum is mid-way through an MA in Animateuring at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). After some years as Artistic Director of the Melbourne Fringe, event management, teaching in the tertiary sector and following the birth of her daughter, she decided to pursue an MA part-time and “juggle it” with her other projects. The MA has allowed her to pursue “an eccentric interest”, examining how structural models from music and the visual arts can be adapted for the process of making theatre. “After working in the field for over a decade I started to feel I was able to apply skills I had built up into a range of activities. You find yourself slipping into being a gun for hire, applying the skills you have to what’s in front of you. There were very few pet projects. The practical concerns override your inner creative drive. I was saddened by the lack of space for applying myself to projects—to be able to follow them through.” Pigrum also values the support of her supervisor. “It has been very encouraging to know that my mentor is (almost) as involved in my research as I am and will push me to be more thorough, more daring, more circumspect.”

Anna Tregloan

Anna Tregloan is a set and costume designer also completing an MA in Animateuring at VCA. “A lot of what I do is show-oriented and has a quick turn around. It has been good to take time with the MA.” She explains that she has been “working practically in aesthetics for a long time but hadn’t had a chance to do academic and philosophical research.” The structure of working within academic parameters freed her to explore the link between her practice and the principles underlying her work. “As much as you’d like to take yourself off to the library, it’s good to have a construct to do that within—that pushes you along.”

Kim Bastin

Composer and director Kim Bastin has this year begun work on a PhD at Latrobe University through the Theatre and Drama Unit. “I’ve been working very hard for the last 19 years and arrived at creative burnout last year. I wanted to give myself a period away from creative work in order to revitalize my energies and have time to reflect on my creative practice.” Her PhD examines the practical question of “how theatre directors and musicians communicate across 2 very different disciplines. I am also looking at how music works within current theatre practice; what it does, how it creates meaning, how it supports narrative and emotion.”

Sam Haren

The opportunity to explore both theory and practice appealed to director Sam Haren, who is doing his PhD at the Flinders Drama Centre in Adelaide. Researching the work of the Wooster Group and Romeo Castelucci and the connection between place and performance. “I’m looking at how dwelling in a place culturally influences the company and the work they make. The PhD is in part researching these organisations, but there is also a practical component looking at the way I work in Adelaide—how this place effects my own work.” Haren has relished the opportunity to continue an extension of learning, “to feed the work that I’m doing”, as he continues his freelance work as a director alongside his PhD studies.

Deborah Leiser-Moore

Director and performer Deborah Leiser-Moore also took the chance to further her own work through an MA at Victoria University. “When you’re in that spin of working, working, you don’t have the chance to sit back and you don’t get interrogated in the same kind of ways.” Leiser-Moore’s MA has been mainly practical, and examines the passing down of ritual from one generation to another in Jewish and Muslim culture. She created a video installation and performance piece which used the ritual of the wedding as a centrepiece. Extensive research and development took place over a period of 4 years as she juggled other work commitments and parenting her young son. The project and resources of the university enabled her to learn how to edit video. “I was able to move my work to a different place—I was excited by changing the form of my work. When you’re making new work and funded by the funding bodies you don’t try new things because you’re not being funded to do something new, but something you can already do.” This can lead to a kind of stagnation, as the pressure of working to project demands in short timeframes means artists draw on their existing skills, rather than going deeper, or developing new abilities.

Ralf Rauker

Performer Ralf Rauker has commenced a PhD at Edith Cowan University, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) while he teaches full-time in Contemporary Performance. He is familiar with combining a theoretical and practical approach. For him, “research was always very much connected with my artistic interest to make a performance or develop performance training.” His PhD revolves around Brecht’s first play, Baal, and has a practical component which will involve 3 different productions based on Voyages of the God of Happiness by Brecht. Why Brecht? “I love Brecht! I hate Brecht! I want to know more about Brecht! For my work as a lecturer and an artist it is an essential struggle, to confront myself with his work. Trying to find out what political theatre means at the beginning of the 21st century I want to learn from Brecht’s enormous influence on political theatre during the 20th century.” However Ralf Rauker’s attitude to Brecht remains critical. “I want to find out what I can use from his legacy and what is not relevant for me today. And in the future I want to ask the question again and again: Why Brecht?”

Kit Lazaroo

The question of linking 2 worlds come up in a different way for writer Kit Lazaroo as she reflects on the first 12 months of her PhD work with the East Timorese Hakka community in Melbourne. She explains, “a number of the East Timorese had been asylum seekers for up to 10 years and had never been given any certainty about the outcome of their cases. I wanted to research the impact of that uncertainty upon wellbeing.” As part of her PhD, Kit meets with members of the community each week to hear their stories of Timor, and to share craft activities. “Because I practice in the worlds of medicine and playwrighting, research into the lives of the East Timorese refugees seemed like a way of bringing those things together—to examine the subject of wellbeing on the one hand, but doing it through story-telling on the other. But I didn’t think it was going to result in me developing myself as a playwright—that realisation has come more recently.”


Most of the practitioners I spoke to were comfortable with combining performing arts practice with academic work. Many were stimulated by new ways of confronting their own practice, of being presented with a fresh set of questions to ask. Deborah Leiser-Moore says it “is a rigorousness you would never ask of yourself. It’s so exciting.” Anna Tregloan has also combined a practical component in her MA with a written component which she is “struggling through” at the moment. “To work within certain academic parameters I often found to be counter-intuitive. But in the end I would come up against these research boundaries and keep on going. It has been fantastic to be freed of the product oriented nature of the task of making a show.”

The question of resources and practical support is a major one for theatre makers. Sam Haren also makes the point that “as independent artists you are looking for ways to practice and to have professional development and extension of your practice.” The practical aspect of his PhD is an opportunity to “accelerate an academic understanding of a proposal—like a litmus test.” He is also conscious of the historical legacy of undertaking postgraduate research. “The whole idea of a PhD is that you’re extending the theoretical knowledge of the field you’re working in.” He says that financial considerations (“Do I need to get a job at the call centre?”) have played a role in his decision to go on with the PhD. “However, if I had to pay HECS and didn’t have a scholarship then I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”

Anne Thompson

Anne Thompson, who works mainly as a director after many years as a dance practitioner, is completing her PhD at Flinders University. Unlike the other artists I spoke to, she has done a “straight PhD.” Her subject of enquiry has been white performance and reconciliation. “I was interested in exploring what it was to be white in Australia. My experience in contemporary dance had never confronted me with cultural politics. I had engaged with feminism and the body, but the issue of racism felt like an unthought through area for me.” Her work has been entirely written with no practical component. Anne Thompson had been freelancing for a couple of years and didn’t like taking work that she “didn’t feel happy with at the end.” She applied for a scholarship for the PhD study “to buy me some time. It is a way of self-funding.”

Thompson has worked extensively in the performing arts and education, and believes there is a good relationship between the sectors. She has been charged and changed by the experience of academic research. “It trains your mind. If I did 6 years of an intensive dance style it would train my body in a particular way. I think differently now. There is a stamina and rigor in relationship to ideas. My brain has been shifted into a different shape.” The solitariness of the work of postgraduate research has not troubled her. Her work as a dancer and choreographer means she is used to working in a self-motivated, disciplined way. “The parallels are clearer to me in the dance sense, because of the discipline of dance and having to shift yourself into the pedagogy that’s presented.”

The academic impact

How has the academic study affected their practice? Vanessa Pigrum’s piece, The things you cannot know opens in August in Melbourne as part of her MA work. “I am hoping to get out of it a new process to share with other artists.” Anna Tregloan says, “I went back and read postmodernist theory and theatre history that I hadn’t read in years and theories that I hadn’t come across—all this has broadened the understanding of my practice and clarified the doing of it.” Kit Lazaroo is still formulating what the work will mean to her practice as a writer. “I’ve always felt that I write plays because I’m this odd person and I don’t mix very well with other people—it’s something I need to do to get through life. Now I can see in a more general way that it’s something that other people share and it answers something quite deep in people. How it will actually affect my writing I’m not sure yet.” Ralf Rauker too can only guess at outcomes for his own practice. “I’m just at the beginning of my postgrad work and I don’t know yet how it will influence me as a practitioner. I don’t want to get irritated by the formal aspects of doing a PhD. The academic world and the world of an artistic practitioner are different, but this does not mean that communication is impossible. Because I want to continue to work as a university lecturer I will build bridges in my own thinking and doing, between those 2 worlds. As an artist I know how fruitful creative chaos can be, but I also know how important it is in performance work to organise your material. In a way the PhD is an exercise in how to organize my research and how to connect it with my performance work.”

Kim Bastin feels the tension between the two worlds more acutely. “I am attempting to produce something that doesn’t require a higher degree to be understood, or will only be of use to academics. I don’t want to get so immersed in theory that I won’t have the confidence to create anything when I go back to my practice.” Lazaroo also expresses the difficulty of blending 2 approaches in a project. “I had this dream I was given a can of sardines, and I had to put the sardines in a blender and as I walked to the blender I’d opened the tin and the sardines were alive and they had little budgerigar heads with beaks and they were biting my fingers trying to stop me taking them to the blender.”

Industry impact

How might the numbers of arts practitioners with postgraduate qualifications affect the industry as a whole? Anna Tregloan feels that theatre in Australia “lacks a great deal of philosophical discussion about itself. In comparison with the visual arts there is very little discussion on and around it. If more debate and discussion begins to happen around theatre as an artform then I’d like to participate.” Sam Haren’s hopes that increased numbers of performing arts practitioners undertaking postgrad research will enable artists to have “a greater awareness of context and the history of their field.”

Personal motives

The commitment to postgraduate research has come out of deeply personal reasons for each of the artists I spoke to. Vanessa Pigrum asked herself, “Are you still in the game or not? Are you going to take an easier road, or the opportunity to keep your artistic self stimulated and active?” Sam Haren spoke of a desire to “Get out of the rat race of getting the next project funding and going into a carefully pursued line of work.” Lazaroo describes how “It’s not a resting thing, it’s a wrestling thing—wrestling with who I am, why do I write, what relevance does my writing have.” Bastin is pursuing her line of enquiry because she is “hoping to have a few more answers to questions I confront in my own practice.” Tregloan believes “it is an artist’s responsibility to be knowledgeable in what they’re doing and to have as complex an understanding as they can manage.” Anne Thompson says the “brain shifting” nature of the work has given her “a clearer sense of my own cultural positioning and my values and where I come from.” It all sounds so very rewarding and constructive, in theory and in practice. Clearly, postgraduate research for theatre practitioners can be a brain shifting challenge that creates a reservoir of meaning for practice.Jane Woollard is a director and writer and Artistic Director of Here Theatre. She completed an undergraduate degree at University of Melbourne and a diploma at VCA in the 1980s and is feeling that her brain could do with some shape shifting at some point in the near future.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 12,

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

Cat Hope, DACS-BEAP 2002

Cat Hope, DACS-BEAP 2002

What is ‘Sound Art’? For many, it refers to sound-based art work (or at least art work where the principal focus is on sound) across the broad gamut of performance, installation and broadcast contexts, which departs from both traditional musical instrumentation and notational methods and frequently employs electronic media. Others may see it as an intersecting space with roots in post-Cageian music practice, or indeed ‘post-phonographic’ music practice, and installation art. Artists labelled under this term perform in local warehouse, gallery and club performance series such as; impermanent audio, Disorientation, 1/4inch, Club Zho, Make it Up Club, Small Black Box, and Fabrique; and at festivals such as Liquid Architecture, What Is Music?, Now Now, Electrofringe, BEAP, SoundCulture and REV. Despite questions over its status as a discrete discipline, it is clear that practitioners feel a strong sense of community and share artistic and political concerns which are distinct from the western classical music and visual arts traditions. For example, performance is rarely separated from composition, developments in electronic media and communications technologies heavily influence practice, and traditional instrumental/notational practices are either not privileged or have been superseded by other forms of electronic notation and sound production.

Against the backdrop of this diverse and evolving contemporary practice are the universities, conservatoria and art schools offering postgraduate study and research training which, more often than not, takes the form of advanced creative practice. Strong competition in the marketplace has forced these institutions to orientate themselves in specific directions, especially tertiary music schools and conservatoria. The emerging pattern has been that conservatoria have remained orientated towards instrumental training in the western classical tradition, whilst many tertiary music schools have chosen to focus on more contemporary aspects of musical production, developing areas of research strength around contemporary, or ‘non-heritage’ practices. It is in the latter institutions, that the strongest support exists for sound art and electronic music at postgraduate level. These institutions include (but are not limited to) the music and sound areas at QUT (Queensland University of Technology), University of Western Sydney and the University of Wollongong, joined by some significant players with media and communication arts strengths such as Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and (University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Other institutions may provide some support via individual staff, but the majority of practitioners tend to gravitate to one of the above institutions for research degrees in this area, with some choosing to study at a distance. This may be due to the fact that these institutions have identified this area as one of focus and have made a substantial investment in a number of academic and research staff to support that. A number of these institutions also hold ARC research grants in the field, some within specific research concentrations, thus bolstering their capacity to support a strong research training agenda. Not surprisingly, staff profiles and research track records seem to be critical ingredients in attracting high quality research students. Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, a major attractor might have been access to advanced facilities, but since the increase in speed of home computers, most artists who work at this level maintain relatively powerful home studios, allowing them to undertake a great deal (although often not all) of their production work off-campus.


To probe the issues around postgraduate research in this field, I spoke to a number of established and emerging artists who have completed, or are currently undertaking, research degrees. First off, the reasons for enrolling were many and varied. According to artist/musician Dave Noyze (Burraston), currently undertaking research in generative music and cellular automata at the Creativity and Cognition Studios at UTS, it was a necessary qualification. Aspiring to full time research work at academic institutions in the UK he said, “the response…was always the same: you need a PhD before we will be interested.” For emerging artist Mark Havryliv, whose postgraduate research at the University of Wollongong involves the development of original software to explore gaming devices as musical instruments, it was a desire for input from supervisors, a formal framework and an opportunity for cross-disciplinary interaction. Havryliv was also attracted to opportunities to gain teaching experience. For artist/curator Philip Samartzis, who undertook practice-led research in surround sound performance, installation and publication via a PhD at RMIT, it was “worthwhile to work within a structured learning program in order to introduce rigour and ongoing critical analysis into my working methodology.” By way of contrast, sound artist/sculptor Nigel Helyer, who enrolled after a long period of arts practice, said “my arm [was] slowly twisted” through a number of offers from various institutions over the course of time, which led to being a “guinea pig candidate” in a new DCA (Doctorate of Creative Arts) program at UTS.


On the issue of locating appropriate institutions and supervisors, a wide variety of views were expressed. While some found the choice of institution and supervisor a simple or natural process, the majority were presented with few choices, experiencing some difficulty locating both a suitable supervisor and a concentration of research students in relevant areas. Some had unsatisfactory experiences in prior undergraduate or Masters degrees and sought a more supportive environment for doctoral work. The composer/performer Lindsay Vickery, who is undertaking a practice-led doctorate at QUT on new structural models for solo interactive multimedia works, undertook his first postgraduate degree at another institution prior to the ‘creative practice as research’ era. He says, “the suggestion that I theorize my own work was actually dismissed as ‘not academic’…My folio and thesis were sent for examination to experts only in the area of my thesis, resulting in pages of notes about the Stockhausen [content] and about a paragraph of comment on the folio works that were supposed to comprise the bulk of the submission.” Herein lies a clear example of the once strong hold that traditional musicology had over the postgraduate area in many ‘older-style’ music departments. It was a somewhat curious phenomenon, given the significant push from key figures in European modernism to place composition at the centre of research culture in music. Whilst it might be tempting to think that the almost universal uptake of European modernism in universities was a good thing for ‘sound artists’, much of the discourse was very ‘notation-centric’, ironically privileging score-based instrumental music over much of the important musical experimentation in which so-called ‘sound art’ has its roots. Are we seeing an argument for ‘sound art’ yet?


From a student perspective, the choice of institution seems to be driven by both the staffing profile (potential supervisors) and the existing student cohort, suggesting that there is a desire for a sense of community. Cat Hope, bass player, noise artist and lecturer at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) has recently enrolled in practice-led research towards a doctorate through Media Arts at RMIT. Although provided with encouragement by her academic employer, she felt “on my own in Perth—there are no other PhD sound researchers there.” By contrast, she felt “very at home when amongst the students in Melbourne.” Mark Havryliv feels the benefits include “support from a group of other students, not necessarily music students, to work with and hold my ideas accountable to”, suggesting a desire to interact with other students to test ideas in cross-disciplinary contexts.

The projects

The types of projects undertaken in this field are predominantly practice-led, consisting of a folio of works accompanied by a contextualizing exegesis. It is not uncommon for the research to take the form of original software and in some cases, hardware, with a number of such projects underway in various institutions. Whether the projects are practice-led, soft/hardware based or theoretical, however, there seems to be an interest from all artists to examine their work and processes within a more rigorous conceptual framework, often revealing or consolidating important aspects or, in the case of emerging artists, assisting in developing a notion of informed and focused practice. Peter Blamey, the well-known no-input mixing board performer/improviser, is undertaking a PhD by thesis (a less common choice for artists) at UWS, researching the history of the sine tone and simple acoustic phenomena in experimental compositional practice. Although a theoretical investigation, observers of Blamey’s work will note an intimate connection arising from his strong interest in pure minimalism and the American experimental music tradition. “Delving into the work of artists I admire is in part examining the history behind some of what I do artistically, whether I have consciously acknowledged it before or not.” According to Philip Samartzis, “over the course of the research program…I became more confident about my field of investigation…I felt I could clearly articulate my findings.” Lindsay Vickery is finding the process of theorizing his work a very rich experience: “the theoretical frameworks for the work specific to the degree seem to have spread outwards towards areas of my practice that I didn’t initially see as connected…It brings a certain focus to the work and importantly forces one to consider seriously the opinions of others…which is not necessarily most artists’ strong suit.” Nigel Helyer, on the other hand, felt that he commenced his research degree with a strong sense of theorised practice, but expressed concern that the institution “simply could not ‘get’ the concept that a practice was in itself (or embodied) a ‘thesis’…the administration possessed a peculiar ‘default’ setting that had difficulties with the notion of practice as valid research.”

Many artists feel natural synergies between their research and other aspects of their creative careers. Dave Noyze enthuses over a recent completion of new music track based on cellular automata: “the final production and mixing was done by Australian electronic music legend Garry Bradbury (ex Severed Heads)…Tom Ellard (current Severed Heads) told me it was played on Triple-J last Sunday.” If the broadcast of PhD folio work on Triple-J is seen as an amusing and somewhat unexpected benefit of the doctoral experience, Helyer notes dryly, “being a Dr. lets me park my car [illegally], sometimes gains an upgrade on planes, and makes suited academics uneasy!”

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 15

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

The romantic notion of the writer is not of one who’s been trained: the big-game hunting Hemingway, the rail-riding Faulkner, wind-tousled Emily on the moors. The university trained MA graduate writer is not so evocative. In fact, there are authors who go to great lengths to obscure the fact that their writing developed within a university writing context. Partly because the university qualification tends to wipe out street cred, and, mostly, because the university-trained writer rouses suspicion. The made writer is a faker.

Though of course, this notion is beginning to be challenged. We know, for instance, that in the USA graduate writers are extremely prominent. This is starting to happen here, with an uindeniable proliferation of creative writing courses.

While many established writers are taking DCAs (Doctorates of Creative Arts) to consolidate their practice in some way, or to provide the possibility of academic employment, there are MAs offered that constitute the writer’s first full length project. For me, this was the case. As I neared the end of my Postgraduate diploma, I decided to take a break from film subjects, and almost as an aside, and since I wasn’t up to the gruelling nature of film projects, took a unit in narrative writing. I produced a short story, later published, that proved enough to gain entry into the MA.

But the question is—and has been since the introduction of creative writing programs into the universities—what happens when the creative project meets the academic project? Do they have the same ends? What happens when the creative project aligns itself with academic ends, rather than orienting itself to industry: in this case the publishing industry? Certainly at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), where I studied, publishable work was emphasised, and there was no snobbery permeating distinctions between, say, genre writing and literary fiction. But with a university, there is always the question of the academic project. For me, the academic project involves the extension of the discipline. It must. It can’t simply be to emulate successful formulae, or to produce a perfect replica of the perfect book. To me, inherent in the academic project is a call to arms to take risks, and this isn’t necessarily—as it’s been accused—a contrivance.

Room to move

During the years of my MA, I worked on a manuscript supervised by writer and editor Jan Hutchinson. At the end of the degree I had produced a short novel. Well, ostensibly a short novel. There was the ‘story’, set in 70s Melbourne, when the stasis of suburbia collided with the spectacular in the guise of the Sharpie. While my training had equipped me with understandings of character construction, scene setting, structure etc, I broke any rules I felt like breaking in order to respond to my material, and, as an academic experiment, to extend the practice of creative writing. What was produced was an unusual manuscript: neither highly experimental, nor highbrow/obviously intellectual, and not without its flaws. It wasn’t contrived to be unusual as such; it felt ‘natural.’ It was, paradoxically perhaps, as much about instinct as it was academic, because what academic training does best is allow you to explore genesis, how things have come about, and you don’t just accept conventions. In so doing, you automatically disrupt naturalised constructions such as character, ‘prose’, plot, structure. And this proved to be highly problematic when I turned to the market.

Getting published

After my MA had been completed, marks had been registered, and the manuscript printed up and bound, I began to approach publishers. I’m not going to complain here about the manuscript being lost in the large stacks of unsolicited material in agents’ and publishers’ offices. I mean I would, but I was far luckier. The manuscript was introduced directly to editors and agents by some of the lecturers at UTS who had taken an interest. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, every one passed. Some lingered for a while (in the publishing world this can take the best part of a year), tossing up if character arc could be developed (I never would have co-operated, incidentally). But all eventually passed. Not every single publisher in Australia, but nearly. When it looked like the manuscript would never make it to a book, along came the writer Keri Glastonbury. I had already met Keri in the corridors of UTS several times when my supervisor suggested to her she might like my thesis. Keri ended up taking the book to Stephen Muecke, Local Consumption Publications (LCP) publisher, and made it happen.

And so it did. Novelist Mireille Juchau came on board, editing the manuscript, and Christen Cornell joined later, after returning from China. It was a very homemade affair. Photos were taken by Sophie Boord, and she and the gals from Spring In Alaska designed the book. It looked exactly as I wanted it. There were advantages in publishing like this which I never would have experienced somewhere else. Most importantly, my book was allowed to be: it was allowed to fail or succeed, whatever these mean, on its own terms. LCP is an academic publisher (though not a university press), and nearly everyone involved had come from academia; it was also somewhat radical, roughly affiliated with Cultural Studies, which meant the book wasn’t expected to conform to the conventions of literariness. All of which added up to the proper place for my manuscript, and the only place. In my MA year I am still the only one to have had their manuscript published. Others have experienced long deliberations by publishers whose marketing departments end up deeming the works “too quiet.” Though none of these manuscripts could be called experimental, in this notoriously down era of fiction publishing the question of writing that breaks with tradition seems particularly vexed.

In whose head?

When my book was released and reviewed in the mainstream press, I couldn’t have been prepared for the vitriol that erupted from the Age reviewer. My little novella was, I never guessed, entirely offensive. Basically a petty moralist tract (why weren’t these kids at school?), the thing that really made me cringe was the reviewer’s assertion that the vernacular I used was designed to “get you inside the Sharpie’s head” and create sympathy for the character. When she gloated that she would have liked to see these young people thrown in a divvy van, she was making plain something I’d forgotten about literature. That it’s for the middle class (by which I mean an aesthetic and moral state of being). I had failed to get her into the Sharpie’s head, I’d failed to create sympathy, and I had failed to write to her. If you don’t take aim at the middlebrow, you commit literary suicide (unless of course your work is indisputably high literature).

While the street press was favourable, while 2 universities are now teaching the book, while both writers and people who never usually read love it, there are those who hate it. That’s the way it should be. The book I’m sure has its problems. One I suspect is too much plot. But in the mainstream press reviews, while some were grudgingly flattering, peppered with backhanded compliments, not one talked about how the book might be different, how it might have opened up new ground. They were most concerned with how it failed to be a conventional reading experience; how it didn’t fulfil their ideas of literature. And that, at the end of the day, is what can put academia and industry at odds.

Now the book is done, its film rights have been bought by the New York production house Avery Childs, and if that eventuates we’ll see how this academic project sits in the cinematic realm.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 16

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

Peter Hegedus, Grandfathers and Revolutions

Peter Hegedus, Grandfathers and Revolutions

As the world rapidly divides itself between the technologically comfortable and the technologically wary, one often hears the word ‘Luddite’, used to mean someone who resists engaging with technology. But this is an inaccurate use of the word. Originally a Luddite was a craftsperson, for example, a glove maker, who knew everything about their craft from tanning leather to embroidering appliques. Skilled craftspeople were called Luddites after the leader of a union movement that was against transforming individual workshops into assembly lines. On assembly lines any worker could be replaced because each worker only did one small, easy to learn job; none was an expert, so none was indispensable. The Luddite label was perhaps the first use of the now well-honed neo-liberal tactic of disempowering resistance by labeling it as outside the ‘mainstream.’ The original Luddites were not resisting technology, but the decreasing of skill and devaluing of knowledge.

How would these original Luddites have responded to the proliferation of postgraduate degrees in the arts, particularly in film and video? My feeling is that these degrees are, in a sense, resurrecting the ‘workshop’ approach. They counter the assembly line method that allows the blithe production of films like Dumb and Dumber and the culture that greedily consumes them. Those of us enrolled in Masters and Doctoral degrees in film and video around Australia are Luddites in the sense that we want to do and learn, to be individually responsible for our work from beginning to end.

Peter Hegedus

Peter Hegedus, Doctorate of Visual Arts (DVA) candidate at Griffith University in Queensland, has created a much lauded body of work from within the university. His BA Honors thesis film, Grandfathers and Revolutions (1999), won prizes and screened widely in Europe. He “realized through [the film], and having the chance to reflect on the theoretical side of things, that this was something I should explore”, and took up a Masters degree. But the practical work was very demanding, not leaving enough time to focus on theory. Hegedus deferred while producing and marketing Inheritance: A Fisherman’s Story (2003), which won even more prizes, and was short-listed for an Academy Award in the documentary category. He was consequently offered a scholarship and entry to the DVA, which he began in 2004. About the DVA, Hegedus says: “The degree develops as you go. I may have 3 or 4 projects to submit in the end, but I may not. I’m doing the best I can.” Working out what the submission will finally be is, in a way, part of working out the nature of his practice. He started out with the intention of making a documentary and writing a work called Towards a Model for Contemporary Documentary Production, but “things have changed. I am interested in fiction and non-fiction, and my thesis will probably expand to look at both. I have a slate of projects and these will have an effect on the DVA and on me as a filmmaker.”

Perhaps as a consequence of being associated with a university since high school, Hegedus is thoughtful about the connection between theory and practice. He believes that “there is a contingent of people who specialise in the theorizing of film, and it is important to have dialogue with them.” His ‘theory’ is pragmatically oriented. It is theory in the original sense of the word: theoria: (Latin) a looking, a seeing, an observing or contemplation, hence a speculation. Hegedus’ ‘speculation’ is close to the bone for practitioners in the industry. His ideas are organized around 4 key issues: “control, conscience, commerce and creative treatment.”

This theory/practice mix is one of the most significant features of the postgraduate programs, and may be one of their most important contributions. If these programs can develop filmmakers who are at once ‘industry ready’ (skilled and experienced), and industry wary (critical and reflective), the industry and its culture could change. In the shorter term, there is a sense that for everyone I spoke with, the support structure the programs provide are shelters from a certain thoughtlessness about “control, conscience, commerce and creative treatment.” As Hegedus says “there is life out there, but it is always some sort of compromise.”

Jenny Coopes

Jenny Coopes, who has just finished the first semester of the new MA in Animation at University of Technology, Sydney, is taking a break from “life out there” after working at Fairfax as a political cartoonist for 20 or so years. Just after taking a voluntary redundancy offer, she ran into Gillian Leahy (filmmaker and Associate Professor at UTS) who told her about the course. “It was a little moment when life changes.”

Coopes says, “When I first started the course my idea was to animate editorial cartoons for the television news. I may well still do it.” But she is not exactly career oriented. “I’m very conscious that a lot of students are here to prepare them for a job, but that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m hoping that my final project will be a film worthy to be shown somewhere, but I have no idea after that. I may go and do a doctorate because I love being a student. Although I thought this would be a lot easier than it is. Working is easier.”

Coopes had never been to university. UTS took her as a postgraduate without her being a graduate, which, she says, is “a very sensible thing to do because they get people from all strains of life. Most of the students are from graphic arts backgrounds and also computer literate. I had never used a computer because of drawing. But my fellow students had not used conventional art materials, paper, crayons, pastels.”

The diversity of skills and ages within the programs is actually another strength of the postgraduate degrees. The students learn a lot from each other, form teams that go on to work together, and influence each other aesthetically. As Coopes says, “the course is changing me a hell of a lot. Being with people half my age…got me back in tune with a younger culture, and another way of looking at the world. My thought process is slightly different, which is a great thing. Political cartoonists have a use-by date unless they change their style.”

Dustin Feneley

Dustin Feneley, Night

Dustin Feneley, Night

Dustin Feneley, the youngest of the 4 postgraduate students I talked to, is also very aware of the impact the other students in the MA at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) are having on his thinking. “It’s a small group of totally committed, like-minded people, passionate about what film is and what it can be, what it can do. Each individual’s sensibility, their sense of drama, conflict, humour sparks a fantastic amount of debate.” In our conversation Dustin pours forth ideas, energy, enthusiasms and convictions with generosity and insight. He was an actor as a teenager, did his BA at UTS, and then went straight on to do a graduate diploma at the VCA. Even before his graduate diploma film Night was short-listed for Cannes, he was accepted into the VCA’s new, highly competitive coursework MA. He speaks warmly about the program. “At the VCA we do get practical training but the culture of school is for graduate students who want to be writer-directors. The VCA has given me a sense of belief in myself and what I could do…I thought I had been telling my own stories but I realised I had not been until getting into a situation where no one is pulling their punches, where they ask, ‘What the fuck are you doing? What are you saying?’”

Another reason for staying ‘inside’ comes up later in our conversation and resonates with the experience of everyone I talked to. Feneley says, “I’m dreading being kicked out at the end of the year with a film and a piece of paper because I will have to join the queue and strategise and navigate a path that resembles a career.”

Peter Templeman

Peter Templeman’s choice to enrol in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) writing program after successfully finishing the 2-year MA in directing actually seems like a clever way to “strategize and navigate” the industry. Templeman says, “I am out in the world, but being enrolled at AFTRS in writing helps pressure me to have my feature finished by the end of the year. Not being forced to hand it in at the end of the year would mean not doing it. I have had a bunch of other opportunities…but there are benefits to being here, the office, the pressure, the tutorage, the feedback.”

One aspect of Templeman’s experiences that mirrors those of Feneley at the VCA is that “critical analysis from really experienced people coming in from the industry and analysing your films and looking at and sledging your work is a really positive thing.” But some of the rigours that Templeman enjoys at AFTRS are almost the opposites of the pleasures that Feneley talks about in the VCA’s “auteur based culture.” One of Templeman’s current AFTRS projects is writing for a TV series and “I am learning a lot from that because I’ve never written for someone else before. This series is not my idea or creation, it is a real crafting challenge.”

Templeman’s bio, which came from AFTRS on his agent’s letterhead contrasts with his own self-effacing tone. It begins by saying: “Peter was recently awarded the Australian Film Commission’s Excellence in Directing at the AFTRS 2005 graduation. His last 3 films, Splintered, Milkmen and Gifted Thumbs have won 16 festival awards between them, including 7 Best Films and the Slamdance Grand Jury Award for Splintered, placing it in front of the selection panel for next year’s Academy Awards.” Templeman just says the awards are “encouraging, and you need that kind of encouragement to justify not getting a real job.”

Templeman, Feneley, Coopes and Hegedus are all deepening and extending their practice, creating new work, and enjoying some level of financial/facilities support in their postgraduate programs. To these benefits they individually add the benefits of working within structure, navigation of a career, undergoing the rigours of tough analysis and criticism, changing entrenched views, creating a community of collaborators, and restoring the balance of theory and practice.

What about learning?

There are a couple more things I would add to the list from my own experiences of 3 postgraduate degrees: there is the act of learning itself, and there is something ineffably humane about the whole undertaking. The funding bodies would do well to look at it as a model. The postgraduate degree is a workshop/apprenticeship model which trusts the apprentice.

The apprentice is not a novice, indeed they are often very close to their mentor’s level of achievement. In the workshop we draw on the works of many masters and consult with mentors, not to mimic, but to discover ways of working. The scholarship is provided for living expenses with no questions asked about how it is being used as long as you’re still alive and present. The focus then is on the project and the thinking around it. The facilities are provided. There is regular reporting on progress, which means that there is oversight concerning whether or not your head is above water. The accumulated wisdom of people with more and different experience from your own is accessible and forthcoming. Research and in-depth reflection are not just encouraged but required. At the same time a product is also expected and given a rigorous set of deadlines.

Interestingly, no one I talked to had much information about how his or her final projects—films and writings—are assessed. Unlike the days when admission to a guild was a goal that would bring status and financial rewards, none of us got involved for the purpose of being awarded (‘admitted to’, as they say) a postgraduate degree. Clearly, the degree itself is not the point. Three of the 5 of us see teaching as an option for supporting filmmaking when we are post-postgraduates, and the degrees may be useful for that. But the long term outcome of the burgeoning of postgraduate degrees is not necessarily more teachers, but more filmmakers, and from all evidence, better, more thoughtful, more culturally enriching filmmakers.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 17,

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

Janet Merewether’s Jabe Babe

Janet Merewether’s Jabe Babe

Writer-director Janet Merewether has created a film evoking the magical aura of childhood, for a childhood never really had by its subject, Jabe Babe. To do this, Merewether and her collaborators meticulously craft a fantasy world, richly theatrical in its detail and colouring and insert into it classic documentary detail—personal interviews, experts, medical information and old photographs.

Jabe Babe, at her elegant best, addresses us directly, framed by radiant green foliage and against a pink background. But soon she appears as a giantess dwarfing a technicolour maquette city, stretching out langorously between buildings, manipulating vehicles, and lifting the roofs off houses to reveal a monitor in each. Here we see her, in black and white, before a series of homes where she had lived as a foster child to short-term parents who were either wonderful (once) or appalling (most of the time), after being taken from her brutally cruel and schizophrenic mother at 7 years of age. In between these reflective moments, of memories of families into which she could never fit, vivid scenes suggest a rich fantasy life as, among others, cowgirl dominatrix and neo-Gothic mortician. In an hilarious King Kong episode, Jabe Babe peers into a skyscraper window, smashes it, plucks out the man inside and swallows him. She comments that she’d been destructive in relationships.

What the documentary material reveals is not just the problems of the foster child or the very tall child, trouble enough in themselves, but the delayed awareness that Jabe Babe suffers Marfan Syndrome—bodily disproportions of various kinds, damaged eyesight and a dangerously enlarged aorta. As a geneticist explains, had she be born a generation earlier Jabe Babe would now been dead. Even so she lives with the prospect daily. It’s not surprising then, she says, that given her childhood (including sexual abuse) that she adopted the role of dominatrix to exercise control over others, and that given her sense of mortality, she began to pursue a career in the funeral industry.

The carefully structured alternation between onscreen narration, numerous fantasies and ample documentary material gives the film a firm rhythm but never lessens the surprises as we see a life taking positive shape, and a wiser, friendlier 31-year old Jabe Babe emerging from the “spiteful, nasty” girl her best friends encountered in the 17-year old. She later leaves the life of the dominatrix behind (it clearly served a purpose), embraces a heterosexual relationship, studies for a career as a mortician and thinks about having a child (a surreal moment with her dressed as Alice in Wonderland cradling a piglet), although she is utterly realistic about the implications of that as a fantasy.

Wonderfully shot by Jackie Farkas and exquisitely (and epically) designed by Kari Urizar, Jabe Babe is exemplary, inventive documentary filmmaking, a rich hybrid of imaginative projection and documentary reflection. Every level of production (including editing, music, sound design) commits to Merewether’s vision of life as a contemporary fable: “This story belongs to Jabe Babe, who started small, but grew and grew…” It’s a great addition to the body of experimental work that Merewether has created over many years, a work to which she brings both her sense of humour and formal inventiveness.

Jabe Babe, A Heightened Life, writer-director Janet Merewether, director of photography Jackie Farkas, editor Roland Gallois, costume & production design Karla Urizar, sound designer Liam Egan, composer Felicity Cox, producers Janet Merewether, Deborah Szapiro, Georgia Wallace-Crabbe, in assocation with AFC, FTO and SBS Independent

Jabe Babe—A Heightened Life, official site
Information and DVD sales:

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 18

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

In May this year, I undertook a program of visits to a number of universities and film schools in England that offer production courses in documentary filmmaking. The trip arose primarily from contacts I had made over recent years at documentary conferences and other events. It wasn’t meant to be particularly systematic and the visits were necessarily brief (maximum one day) but it was an illuminating exercise nevertheless.

One area I was particularly interested to explore was that of higher research and, specifically, higher degrees by practice. It’s 4 years since a Masters by Research program was instituted in the VCA Film and TV School and currently 15 students are enrolled, most of whom are engaged in narrative screenwriting projects. In Australia, the notion of the PhD ‘by practice’, sometimes called a ‘production PhD’, is also becoming more common and the VCA now has 3 PhD students in film (under University of Melbourne rules they can submit a practice project plus 40,000 words instead of the standard 80,000 word thesis).

This development brings into focus the ‘thesis film’, a somewhat problematic concept but one in which there is growing interest and perhaps considerable potential. Some consider it as another way of making films at a time when the kinds of independent documentaries made through mainstream funding sources are restricted due to the hegemony of the broadcasters and funding agencies.

In Britain there is a growing recognition in film departments that a PhD by practice varies significantly between institutions (and sometimes even within institutions). I visited the Centre for Research and Education in Art and Media (CREAM) at the University of Westminster where a symposium had just been held “to share information and debate ideas about supervising and examining PhDs in the moving image practice area.” The symposium had been organised because nationally, “departments are working with a number of different models of the relation between theory and practice, and with somewhat differing expectations about what is submissable” (“Supervising and Examining Practice-based PhDs in the Moving Image-Symposium”, www.wmin.ac.uk/mad/page-825).

From the perspective of documentary practitioners like myself, whose interests lie less with the theoretical, the question of most interest is how further study might contribute to the development of one’s own filmmaking. This is particularly important because creative development is not encouraged by an industry increasingly using government funding as a means of subsidising the manufacture of television programs rather than supporting independent filmmaking.

The ‘thesis film’ is clearly no panacea for this situation. However, its growth could perhaps contribute to a diversification of documentary making and the development of the form. The problem with seeing research by practice as an opportunity to make films in an under-funded area lies in the nature of the PhD tradition itself. As with a written thesis, the thesis film cannot simply be a record of the research undertaken. It has to be a work of original research in itself, which adds to the existing knowledge and understanding of the form in an original and significant way. Steven Maras at the University of Western Sydney has recently written about this. As he says, “the thesis film is more than just a film with a thesis (or argument). The film is the thesis” (“Screenwriting and the ‘Thesis—film’: Notes on a genre to come,” Cultural Studies Review, Vol 10 No 2, Sep 2004). The question for the documentary practitioner then becomes, how does one make a film that serves the purposes and requirements of a PhD but is also accessible to a general audience?

Maras describes the thesis film as one that “seeks to ‘think’ in the medium of presentation. This might include aspects of talking head intellectualism but goes further in performing the ideas through the devices and techniques of an audio-visual medium. By ‘performing the ideas’, I mean more than presenting an audio-visual analogue or illustration of a particular idea, or even a poetically evocative elaboration of the theme, but a gesture that furthers the overall thesis of the film, or elaborates on the complexity of the issue.” In other words perhaps, the ideas determine the form rather than the form merely illustrating the ideas. Such films may be essayist or experimental in nature, but not necessarily.

This notion of the thesis film is not new of course. There are a number of significant examples in the annals of Australian documentary that qualify but which were not funded through University Departments or higher research grants. They include Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985), Gillian Leahy’s My Life Without Steve (1986) and John Hughes’ One Way Street (1992). Not only were these films funded through mainstream funding agencies such as the Australian Film Commission but they were widely appreciated by general audiences, including at film festivals, and, in the case of One Way Street at least, by an ABC TV primetime audience.

It is almost impossible to imagine films like these being commissioned, funded or screened via the mainstream today, such has been the effect of market forces on public broadcasting in Australia. Sure, there have been some interesting developments in ‘hybrid docs’, ‘docusoap’ and ‘reality TV’ formats but the notion of making documentaries about complex ideas, never mind the notion of ‘thinking’ with film, has become anathema in an era when homogenisation and globalised franchising of formulaic genres rule the day, along with ratings. Nowadays one rarely experiences such films even at the major film festivals.

So the growth of interest in the production PhD and the thesis film might be timely. As Maras says, an important aspect of this development “comes from the notion that while the dominant medium of thinking, reading and writing for the past 2 centuries has been the book, it is possible to think in other media. Indeed, electronic media forms such as hypertext change the rules of the game for the presentation and argument structure of scholarly work.” In this regard, other forms of higher degrees by practice such as interactive works are also becoming more common. No wonder institutions are now scrambling to establish the ground rules for this kind of higher research, in order to maintain the standards of the Masters or the PhD as “original research” and to satisfy those traditionalists who see these as essentially theoretical endeavours requiring written exegesis.

In contrast to the potentially dulling hand of institutional requirements it is interesting to note that a thesis film might actually be fun. One PhD student I met in England is looking at science documentaries. Having identified this as the most conservative, formulaic and rigid form of the documentary—despite the myriad devices used to jazz them up—this student is looking to devise a new form that will transcend the illustrated talk and be more ‘open’ whilst not betraying the requirements of scientific methodology. An interesting project, though needless to say, he hasn’t cracked it yet.

There are of course a lot more questions about research by practice in film which I can’t go into here, not least those concerned with the practical issues of cost, technology, equipment and production values. But in the context of tertiary institutions in Australia such as the VCA, which provide production courses in the various forms of filmmaking and/or new media, all this is more than just interesting. Why? Because we should not simply be concerned with providing industry training but in playing a significant role in the development of film practice—in other words, contributing to the debate.

In the words of Dr Erik Knudsen, whom I met at the Adelphi Research Institute at the University of Salford in Manchester and who was the first person there to attain a PhD by practice in filmmaking in 2002: “The notion of media practice programs merely being training opportunities for aspiring young people intoxicated by the lure of the film and television business while the industry defers its training responsibilities to the higher education sector has evolved. I believe higher education can forge a strong presence within the overall media sector by defining its role as the place where innovation, research and development is taking place. If higher education had strong roots in such practice-based innovation and research, the quality of the programs would strengthen and the results, hopefully, would become apparent on our television and cinema screens” (“Doctorate by Media Practice—A Case Study”, Adelphi Research Centre internal paper, University of Salford).

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 19

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

Carol Jerrems

Carol Jerrems

Like any number of artists, photographer Carol Jerrems is familiar to an intimate circle, acknowledged by the cognoscenti and largely unknown to most Australians. Jerrems died in 1980 at the age of 31. Kathy Drayton’s film portrait, Girl in a Mirror vividly documents the life and work of this remarkable artist drawing on Jerrems’ considerable collection of photographs, short films and diaries, donated by her family to the National Gallery of Australia.

Kathy Drayton came upon 3 of Jerrems’ images in the AGNSW’s survey of 20th Century photography, World Without End. Her interest led her to the NGA collection and curator Gael Newton. Her 55-minute documentary features 73 of Jerrems’ original prints, many never seen before, plus 166 new prints made from negatives in the archive by photographer/master printer, Roger Scott and the NGA’s Barry Le Lievre. Drayton adds images of Jerrems herself from other collections, excerpts from her diaries revoiced by Justine Clarke and interviews with a number of Jerrems’ photographic subjects—largely friends and fellow artists from the days when most artists lived in collective households and art and life were pretty much inseparable.

Notably, Drayton also stages in the film a number of recreations that draw on the photographic process. Carol Jerrems understood the photographer/subject relationship as an exchange and you sense she’d have approved of the filmmaker’s efforts to get inside her pictures. In one sequence, Drayton interviews the subjects of Vale Street, probably Jerrems’ most famous photograph. A bare-breasted young woman (Catriona Brown) faces the camera with calm bravura. Two teenaged boys behind her are shirtless and tattooed. The look the 3 share with the photographer is both ambivalent and suggestive. Intercutting with the interview to J. Walker’s (Machine Translation) insistent score, cinematographer Andrea Howard’s camera moves across Jerrems’ proof sheet. Like a little movie, the stills animate the incidents that culminate in the iconic shot. Time collapses as we re-live and simultaneously reflect with the subjects on their moment of “fame or infamy.” Mark Lean and Jon Bourke, former Sharpies from the tough West Heidelberg Tech where Jerrems taught at the time, now mild-mannered and middle-aged, recall how they could hardly believe their luck when Jerrems passed around a joint and the girl from the other side of the tracks slipped out of her shirt. When we get to the famous image, we fall through a small black square in the proof sheet and into the next sequence.

Says Drayton, “Throughout her life, as her photography evolved, (Jerrems) moved from observer and recorder of the historical moment, to a very personal open style: collaborating with her subjects in their representation, and often including herself in reflections in the frame.”

The film also reveals a complex personality and the way its contradictions inevitably impacted on her practice. Lean and Bourke talk about the way that their teacher imaged them as much tougher than they really were; former colleagues and lovers speak with chagrin of having to come to terms with the way she used her sexuality as an entrée into the intimacy she desired for her photographs.

All these elements combine to make Girl in a Mirror both fitting tribute and fascinating response to the work of a significant Australian artist. An assured first feature documentary from Kathy Drayton, the film premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival followed by screenings at Melbourne, the forthcoming Brisbane, Auckland and Wellington Film Festivals and has already attracted some international interest. The film screens later this year on ABC TV.

Girl in a Mirror: A Portrait of Carol Jerrems director Kathy Drayton, produced by Helen Bowden (Toi Toi Films)

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 20

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

Angela Ndalianis
Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment
MIT Press, Mass. and London, 2004

“Once upon a time there was a film called Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1992), and on its release, audiences went to the cinemas by the millions to be entertained by the magic that it had to offer.” This opening sentence of Angela Ndalianis’ Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment encapsulates both the book’s resolute emphasis on the popular and the sense of magic, wonder and virtuosity that she argues characterises contemporary ‘neo-baroque’ aesthetics. What makes the book more interesting than other postmodern celebrations of big-budget Hollywood, computer games and theme park rides is Ndalianis’ charting of the links between a significant strain of 20th and 21st century entertainment and the 17th century baroque. Asserting that the technical-aesthetic innovations of both eras give “voice to the association of art with pleasure, divertissement, and entertainment”, she also argues that the contemporary neo-baroque is more challenging and complex than the largely religious connotations of 17th century baroque forms due to the heterogeneity and ambiguity of metaphysical allusion in a secular age. “The unity of the neo-baroque embraces a more daunting task than that of the baroque,” she writes, “asking its audience to discover order from multiple and often contradictory paths.”

In sustaining this cross-century framework, extensive research into and critical reflection upon the respective eras is utilised in presenting the neo-baroque as a logical continuation of the 17th century baroque challenge to an “Aristotelian-Ptolemaic-Christian universe.” Crucially however, Ndalianis argues that an expanded kind of classical order can emerge from the apparent chaos of the baroque—an order heavily reliant upon audience media literacy, without which “chaos reigns supreme…[T]he classical can emerge only when the audience is capable of deciphering the system.” In a familiar move, Ndalianis goes on to differentiate between 2 hermeneutic levels, common to both the 17th and 20/21st century contexts: a broad accessibility by way of the text/artwork’s impact as spectacle, and a more complex intertextual address made up of “iconographic conceits” and metaphors for more “discerning” readers.

As with the baroque’s appeal to religious and mystical suggestion by means of revolutionary formal innovation, Ndalianis highlights how contemporary cutting-edge technical virtuosity is also “strange enough and so radically new as to evoke not only curiosity and wonder, but an aura of the mystical.” This wonder easily becomes “a ‘spiritual presence’…affected by scientifically and technologically creative illusions. Hence the new age element in many contemporary baroque films.” A crucial distinction is set up through the idea that rather than forging signifiers that point to a meta-zone, neo-baroque form is highly reflexive in carrying out its primary role of enabling an immanent wonder: mysticism is generated within the technical virtuosity on display. As Ndalianis suggests while discussing the conclusion to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): “it is both the spectacle and technical mastery as performance that produce the state of affect…[T]he neo-baroque seeks to make the concreter (the technological) unrepresentable by imbuing it with a spiritual quality.”

The book asserts that this spiritually suggestive, high-technology form is brought to life with “the active engagement of audience members, who are invited to participate in a self-reflexive game involving the work’s artifice.” Ndalianis argues this active spectatorship is enabled by the baroque’s “open structures”, which favour an intertextual relationship between a film, its sequel, computer game, comic, theme parks ride, etc. This argument reaches its apogee with the contention that the modern-day ‘high concept’ blockbuster, initiated with Star Wars (George Lucas 1977), has meant “the conception of the passive viewer collapses…The audience’s perception of and active engagement with the image orders the illusion.”

Irrespective of how convincing one finds this argument vis à vis the kinds of spectatorship these films possibly engender, such an assertion also implicitly disavows previous eras of film and criticism centrally emphasising the ‘active viewer’, notably various film modernisms. While Ndalianis does mention that the baroque has been often associated with modernism (citing the Latin American writers of the 1960s and 70s), neither modernist cinema’s emphasis on active spectatorship nor its diverse baroque excursions—Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais, Raul Ruiz being well-known exemplars—are engaged with, beyond a lone citing of Ruiz.

Simultaneous with the suggestion that contemporary Hollywood increases the activity of the spectator, we have the familiar assertion that contemporary virtual forms brought about by digital technology inherently connote fecund interactivity. What remains unaddressed is the question of what kinds of thought, interaction or creativity such activity encourages or entails. This point relates closely to the book’s disavowal of political analysis or critique. Ndalianis highlights well the connection between 17th century baroque artists being commissioned by powerful (mainly religious) figures of the day and contemporary baroque practitioners requiring the financial backing of today’s high priests in the form of large corporations, taking care to state that such reliance cannot be without an ideological component. But beyond acknowledging that such a dimension exists, the book never elucidates how this political economy and its related ideology play out. Nor is the possible nature of this ideology discussed.

By the end of the book, the author’s self-conscious attraction to the baroque seductions she details may actually provide for a (perhaps inadvertent) critique, such is the bold clarity of the concluding remarks. Ndalianis uses openly ontological terms when she says the advanced technologies of the neo-baroque “can reaffirm our connection with the basics of our being: our ability to scream hysterically, to feel intense joy and exhilaration…[W]e recompose the multi-media components and they, in turn, recompose us by reconfirming our ability to feel intensely.” Her investment in the value of technological advancement as a means to endless progress in feeding neo-baroque forms and our evolving humanity is summarised in the book’s final sentiment: “Where these journeys will take us, one can only guess…[O]ne thing is certain: I will definitely go along for the ride.”

The absence of critique that characterises the book is partially explained by Ndalianis’ illuminating early assertions vis à vis postmodernity and its theoretical reflections. She states that “postmodern debates do not constitute the primary concern of this book”, distancing herself in particular from the highly critical early reflections of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Yet her book repeats the now much more familiar—and much more celebratory—postmodern tendency to affirm the intertextual nuances of contemporary popular culture that, as Ndaliandis understandably suggests, critical theory historically viewed as “the product of an era steeped in sterile repetition and unoriginality.” In this way, the book seeks to (re)valorise not so much the baroque per se but its distinctly popular outcomes. The value and originality of Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment lies in its trans-century analysis, featuring an effective mix of sophisticated big-picture commentary and detailed intertextural analysis of specific artworks. However, to imply it is unusual or brave to celebrate and closely analyse the formal, conceptual and spectatorial centres of image-dense popular culture in the wake of 2 decades of postmodern criticism and theory is surely by now untenable; rather than subversive exceptions, such discourses and studies constitute the prevailing orthodoxy.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 20

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

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer

To sustain an art cinema career in an Australian context demands an ingenious balancing act. It is necessary to judiciously work to a low budget, create innovative content and style that will attract the international marketplace, and maintain a sensibility that appeals to an Australian audience who display, at best, a distinct indifference to their local industry. It takes a consummate risk-taker, problem-solver and troubleshooter to fulfill this formula.

One filmmaker, of a precious few, who has successfully endured calculated risk-taking is Rolf de Heer. The only Australian director to have been in competition in all 3 major European festivals, he has commenced production of his eleventh and most logistically challenging feature to date. Ten Canoes the first Australian feature film to be spoken entirely in an Indigenous language, is set centuries before white contact with the continent, and utilises an entirely non-professional cast. The shoot’s location is on the edge of the Arafura Swamp, near the Ramingining community in North East Arnhem Land. Within this primordial landscape resides the largest concentrated mass of crocodiles in the world. From the film’s base at a local cattle station, De Heer explained the shifting nature of the project and the ways he dealt with significant production challenges, from the story itself to his stylistic approach.

“Ultimately, I wrote a script that conformed to the parameters that were set for me,” he explains. De Heer’s premise was to use the local Yolngu people as actors, but to come up with a story that they wanted and were able to perform. Quite a traditional group, not only were they non-actors but the concept of pretence was fairly new to them. “Here there’s no such thing as fiction; [stories are] all real in some way.” As a result, he incorporated familiar local history into the script. In particular, he sought inspiration in the photographic work of Donald Thomson, an anthropologist who did extensive work in Arnhem Land, North Queensland and the central desert in the 1930s. Thomson is remembered so fondly by the Yolngu that they refer to an epoch as “Thomson Time” and have songs about him that they hand down to the new generations. “It fits completely into their mythology now…and it’s because of those photographs that have made their way back here and their identification with their relatives in them.

“In particular there’s a sequence of photographs about goose egg gathering…It was something that hadn’t been done properly for decades and they’ve been talking for years now about restarting it….I learnt pretty quickly that that’s what they wanted to do…[a practice] that’s terribly important to recreate.” Thomson’s photographs also formed a visual guide for this section of the film. Most notably, de Heer maintains the pristine black and white and formal composition of the original stills. “I was very much drawn to shooting in black and white because I wanted to preserve the Yolngu’s vision of that past…most of the shots are still-framed, a number of them very directly inspired by the Thomson photographs.”

The canoeists leisurely drifting though the swamp, searching for nests, in striking black and white panoramic long shots certainly makes a strong image but cannot sustain a feature narrative. De Heer decided upon a second dramatic line to weave into the narrative, but encountered a problem. “The past, or ‘Old Time’ as the locals call it, has been idealised to such a degree that everything good happened in the past and nothing bad ever happened…this formed part of what I had to put into the film. There was nothing allowed that had the remotest thing to do with dramatic conflict… So I had a real problem creating a film around the ethnographic details the cast wanted, and what I knew cinema could and should be doing.”

To get around this, de Heer sets his second narrative strand in the mythical past because, as the Yolngu explained, there anything can happen. So one of the canoeists in the Thomson-inspired segment tells a younger gatherer a story set in a Dreaming-like scenario, and that forms the primary on-screen action. This tale is shot in colour not only for the rationalist reason that it’s “becoming harder and harder to sell a black and white film”, but as a stylistic contrast to the main narrative. Rather than static framed compositions, the mythical section frames a larger cast, contains constant movement, and makes prolific use of steadicam to go with the vibrant colouration. “The idea was to have a shot for each scene…each shot taking some hours to do but each with a lot of inherent internal interest”, de Heer explains.

So, there was a script and a methodology. But there were other problems. “It became clear in pre-production that there was no way we could pull this off”, de Heer recalls. “We were in deep, deep trouble if we tried to shoot the script the way it was.” Amongst the difficulties was communication. David Gulpilil, who was an inspiration behind the project (“He rocked up with a photo of Thomson’s one day and said ‘Look, we need 10 canoes!’”), was to be co-director but withdrew for various reasons. “I had no one who could straddle the film world and also speak the language.” Not only was speaking to the actors made more difficult, but constructing an appropriate cast proved a challenge. “We had trouble getting 10 canoeists in the first place, let alone cast for large camp scenes.” These problems were further compounded by the pitfalls of directing non-actors; “to get them to do things like repeat action; to get continuity between cuts: forget it.”

Directors have to be able think on their feet, re-strategise and prioritise, and fortunately these are de Heer’s strengths. There was no time to rewrite the script, so he decided to use the same mythical story as a basis, but “stylise it, surrealise it, shift its tone from cinema reality to a more heightened, exaggerated way of doing it…this was done so we could patch holes more easily.” De Heer elaborates on his shift in method:

“What I decided to do, was leave the black and white section the way I planned it, make it the most difficult part of the shoot and make it happen some way. It took a disproportionate time in the schedule for the amount of the screen time it takes because some of that stuff was incredibly difficult to set up. Then the other section…there’s just a lot of little vignettes in a way. There’s very little cutting in a scene, there’s a bit, but not much at all… [I would] get what dialogue I could from it, but I was planning to have some sort of first-person narration anyway…to tell the story where it needed to be told, and illustrate that with these vignettes. For example, yesterday we had this situation where it was meant to be a vignette without dialogue but I couldn’t get it to work, added some dialogue, and then it did work so I won’t have to put some narration into that one. But today we had one where the dialogue didn’t work at all, in fact the actor involved couldn’t do it. But once I got rid of the dialogue and made it almost pantomime, it was fine. So we can use narration where we need to when it’s not clear in the story.”

The film is currently in postproduction and is scheduled to premiere in March, 2006. Ten Canoes, director Rolf de Heer, co-director Peter Djigirr, producers Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 22

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

Anthony Lucas, The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello

Anthony Lucas, The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello

The REVelation Perth International Film Festival has been growing in stature since its beginnings in 1997 as a small showcase of independent film, hand-picked by artistic director Richard Sowada and screened, entirely in 16mm format, in the basement of Perth jazz club The Greenwich. Since then, REVelation has developed into a cutting-edge international festival with a strong reputation for innovative programming. Although the festival spans genres, its signatures are political documentaries, music-related films and its linking of cinema with performance (various “microcinema” evenings combine screenings with DJs, guest speakers and, this year, SBS’s The Movie Show recorded at the Fly By Night Club in Fremantle).

The 2005 program included some heavy duty works, from the gritty Hungarian film Kontrol and the much talked about ‘bio-doc’ Tarnation to observational documentaries like Gunner Palace and In The Shadow of the Palms which chronicle the lead up to and aftermath of the war in Iraq.

Archival documentaries with a strong left-wing feel, like Lech Kowalski’s punk profile DOA, Sandra Jackson’s powerful Negroes with Guns (on civil rights agitator Rob Williams and the rise of the Black Panthers), and The Take, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s exploration of the Argentinian economic crisis, dominated this year’s offerings. A strong selection of Australian work appeared primarily within the animation and short film programs.

Get Your Shorts On!, held annually since 2003 by ScreenWest in conjunction with REVelation and The Film and Television Institute of WA (FTI), is the premier showcase of local short filmmaking in the state. This year, the program featured a mix of idiosyncratic animation, outstanding Indigenous documentaries and a number of psychologically complex dramatic works with a dark, almost gothic sensibility—a strain that also ran through the animation program.

Short films like Chris Frey’s Phaid and Andrew Milner’s Sleeper were slickly spooky. Phaid is a grim, surrealist exploration of a young girl’s reaction to her father’s all-consuming depression and his dependence on medication, while Sleeper examines the blurry line between real and imaginary in the distorted psyche of a young man. Stylistically, these films leave a strong imprint, but they lack the emotional impact of the Indigenous works in the showcase, Gary Cooper’s Sugar Bag and Ashley Sillifant’s Broken Bonds.

Sugar Bag, which won Best Director for Cooper at this year’s WA Screen Awards, is the compelling narrative autobiography of 70-year-old Laurel Cooper, a light-skinned Aboriginal who as a girl was taken from her parents to the Moore River orphanage. Her parents had hidden her in a sugar bag. This beautifully crafted mix of oral storytelling and dramatic reconstruction generates a wealth of meaning and emotion, especially through its focus on the striking faces of the actors playing Cooper’s mother and father.

Like Sugar Bag, Sillifant’s Broken Bonds is another powerful documentary drama of memory, history and family. It tells the story of a young Aboriginal man whose exposure as a child to his father’s abuse of his mother only strengthens his resolve to make something of himself. Many years later, he becomes a successful boxer, but he cannot escape the dark memories of his childhood, or the belief that the only way to escape his past is to literally fight his way out of it.

The gothic noir of Phaid and Sleeper and the psychological density of Sugar Bag and Broken Bonds was paralleled in a number of the animations. The Legend of the Scarecrow, by Spain’s Marco Besas, is palpably infected with the spirit of Tim Burton, and its theme of melancholy outsiderdom and visual sense of foreboding are echoed in the intriguing L’Homme Sans Ombre (Georges Schwizgebel, Canada, 2004), the most self-consciously aesthetic, or painterly, animation in the collection. Made up of constantly shifting paintbrush strokes, it references some of the great art movements of the 20th century, from abstract expressionism and the ghostly surrealism of Giorgio di Chirico to the late-60s psychedelia of Alan Alridge. It’s less about concrete storytelling than it is about revelling in the purely visual, sensory qualities of the animated form.

Although the highlight of the animation showcase was undoubtedly the sophisticated, computer-generated Canadian Oscar winner Ryan (secured by Sowada before it won an Oscar), there is something to be said for the simplicity of the traditional cartoon animation. Indeed, Sowada seems to have deliberately chosen the quirky and the old-fashioned over the cutting-edge and computer-generated for this year’s festival. Works like Handshake (Patrick Smith, USA, 2004) and Herman: The Legal Labrador (David Blumenstein, Australia, 2004) are almost crude in style. The former, in which 2 young people shake hands at a bus stop and become inextricably glued together, has the same SquiggleVision style as late-90s TV cartoons like Dr Katz: Professional Therapist, while Herman: The Legal Labrador relies more on the humour of its premise (a crime-fighting, trouser-wearing dog is able to communicate with humans).

Seeing Ryan (Chris Landreth) halfway through the program prompted the realisation that I had been watching a handful of nicely executed cartoons, not, as I’d hoped, a showcase of boundary-pushing experiments in form. While the Colombian CGI work El Ultimo Golpe de El Caballero (The Knight’s Last Blow; Juan Manuel Acuna, 2005) is a triumph of video-game noise and action over substance, Ryan proves that computer-generated animation, despite the ‘absence’ of the artist’s hand, can be mind-bogglingy innovative, making us think while we gasp at its technical wizardry.

Ryan works on a meta-level, as an animation within an animation. Ryan Larkin was a successful animator in the 1960s and 70s who fell prey to alcohol and cocaine abuse. The film begins with Larkin being interviewed in some sort of asylum for the mentally and physically disintegrated. He is creatively dried up, body parts are missing (including a large chunk of his head, and the skin around his arms) and the coloured tentacles of some strange electric shock force spiral out from what’s left of his hair.

In chronicling Larkin’s heyday as a psychedelic animator, Ryan moves between styles grotesque, sci-fi, apocalyptic and surrealist (in one scene, Magritte’s famous businessman with an apple for a head can be seen sashaying down the street). Ryan is an exemplar of the future of 3D rendering in animation.

The other standout in this collection is an intriguing Australian work, Anthony Lucas’s The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. It fuses early 20th century modernism with Jules Verne Victoriana in its visual style, with sepia-toned cardboard-cutout characters in silhouetted profile, and themes of scientific travel, romance and adventure. Morello is a spindly, buttoned-up figure on an intergalactic voyage to find a cure for the disease plaguing his homeland, accompanied by a spooky scientist with a blacked-out Sigmund Freud profile and a sadistic, overweight captain.

With its heavily stylised combination of Indonesian-style shadow puppetry, expressionism, and a gunmetal grey, black and sepia-toned palette, Jasper Morello is an incredibly atmospheric and original piece of animation, the deserving winner of a number of recent Australian animation awards. It exploits the freedom of animation, the Verne genre and artform references to suggest other times, which now seem like other worlds.

On the whole, neither the animation showcase nor the collection of WA-made shorts proved to be much of a revelation, but a few truly original gems were on show. Indigenous short filmmaking is palpably alive and well in WA, with directors like Sillifant and Cooper obviously ready for the leap into the longer format, while the legions of aspiring Australian animators would do well to take a leaf from the sepia-tinged book of Jasper Morello creator Anthony Lucas.

Animation Showcase, July 1; Get Your Shorts On!, WA Short Film Showcase, July 7; Luna Leederville; REVelation Perth International Film Festival, June 30-July 10

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 32

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

Micha Wold, Alice et Moi

Micha Wold, Alice et Moi

The St Kilda Film Festival did not get off to an auspicious start. Opening night was supposed to showcase the cream of Australia’s top 100 shorts but the session was characterised by tired scenarios and an almost total inability on the part of the filmmakers to fully examine the implications of their storylines. Soft writing, soft acting, the soft option—they all lessen the blow. We were also treated to ‘gimmick filmmaking’, whereby the demands of a sponsor shoehorn the content into lame outcomes, like the Micro Movie promotion. Sponsored by Siemens, this was really a promotion for their latest phone, which can shoot a minute or so of video. There was a competition for the best 90-second film made with it, and that can’t be healthy for Australian short-film making, already afflicted by the accursed punchline disease (call it the Tropfest Syndrome). Ninety-second films are all punchline and that’s sad.

But what do I know? I’m a critic. I’ve never made a film. I know what I like, though, and that’s why I was smitten by the festival’s International section, especially the Aspen and Interfilm components. The Aspen program, direct from Colorado, featured highlights from the 2004 and 2005 Aspen ShortsFest, and kicked off with Bill Plympton’s animation Guard Dog (2004). You can’t really go wrong with ‘Plymptoons’—the man has a singularly warped worldview that magnifies the most innocuous of details and turns them into outrageous, off-centre treatises on life and the universe. In Plympton’s world there are no beautiful people, just grotesque, pinched shells of human beings meeting extreme fates in very vivid fashion. Guard Dog was no exception—long live this man and his nasty sense of humour.

The best of the rest included Rob Pearlstein’s Our Time is Up (2004) in which a psychologist discovers he has 6 weeks to live. Life is literally too short for him to listen to his whining patients, and he watches in glee as one fruitloop after another implodes, driven batty by the rising bile of their neuroses. Underground (2004), by Aimee Lagos and Kristin Dehnert, was a rip-roaring cat-and-mouse tale played out in the dank subway of some unnamed city. Two heavies pursue a woman from train to train; she’s totally wound up—these men clearly mean her harm. This tense buildup results in a jaw-dropping finale, a punchline of sorts, but one that’s guaranteed to smack you about and leave you punch drunk.

The other Aspen notable was John Harden’s La Vie d’un Chien (The Life of a Dog; 2004), a silly homage to/parody of Chris Marker’s legendary time-travel photo-roman, La Jetee. Here, a scientist invents a potion that turns people into canines for 24 hours; human-dog cults subsequently spring up around the world. There were a few bestiality jokes but the real fun for the filmmaker seemed to lie in aping Marker’s style. But the grafting of a tacky sci fi storyline onto a source as sublime and metaphysical as Marker’s seems pretty indiscriminate and a tad disrespectful (as the director acknowledges in the credits; “To Chris Marker—sorry for all this.”). Still, you’d be hard pushed to find an Aussie filmmaker who’d dare to reference such a source, so my verdict is: tacky Marker is better than no Marker at all.

Interfilm Berlin was something else again, presenting explosive, affecting scenarios with maximum impact—fully integrated units that totally transcended the limitations of budget or the short-form medium. The Confrontations concept has been a feature of each Interfilm festival starting in 1999, when right-wing street violence was on the rise in Germany and the Yugoslavian civil war was peaking. The program invited filmmakers to essay their thoughts on the New World Mood—and it’s just as relevant today, with the War on Terror ensuring that we all continue to bite the bullet.

There was nary a punchline in the entire bunch. Some that stood out: Lara Foot-Newton’s And there in the dust (2004), detailing the growing malaise of child rape in South Africa but avoiding graphic sensationalism or empty sympathy with stunning use of stop motion and narration; Gabriela Monroy’s Un Viaje (A Trip; 2003), a Mexican film about a man taking his autistic son for a ride on the subway, resulting in a hallucinatory journey for all concerned; and Soyons Attentifs (Beware, 2003), by Thiery Sabban, which used a similar structure to the aforementioned Underground, heightening the tension inherent in the urban jungle, then defusing it with a goodly dose of humanism. Another highlight was Micha Wold’s Alice et Moi (2004), a Belgian film about a guy on a road trip with his nagging aunts, gradually losing the plot as he tries to cope with not only his overbearing, old-school relatives but also a split with his thoroughly modern girlfriend communicated via mobile phone. There were mad skills in this one—everything from acting to cinematography to writing, each crewmember at the absolute top of their game. Even the Interfilm shorts that didn’t quite work deserved applause for their willingness to innovate, like Pascal Lievre’s L’Axe Du Mal (Axis of Evil, 2003), featuring Dubya’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech sung to the tune of a cheesy, 1980s Jermaine Jackson/Pia Zadora song.

After, I met some Aussie filmmakers and we were all bowled over by the quality of the Interfilm program. Everyone was inspired to make something of similar quality, and that’s the real value of the St Kilda Film Festival. Sharing the vision of filmmakers overseas is a golden opportunity—especially at the grassroots level of short-film making—and we can only hope it impacts on the increasingly insular, out-of-touch Australian filmmaking scene.

St Kilda Film Festival, May 24-29

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 24

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

The OnScreen Course Guide: Filmmaking & Screen Studies is available as a PDF.
Please see RT69 for part 2 OnScreen Course Guide: New Media Arts.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 25-

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

Ian Gwilt, Scrollingheaven

Ian Gwilt, Scrollingheaven

Frankly, it should be no surprise that new media artists gravitate towards academia. The net was created by academics, for academics—manifesting collegial networking and the intertextual nature of their theories. At the risk of foreshadowing a potential epiphany at the close of this article, this mature marriage between thought and technology emerges as perhaps the major attraction to postgraduate research for new media artists.


Tracey Benson, a PhD candidate at the Centre for New Media Arts, Australian National University, comments that “many artists working with new media have a strong conceptual rationale supporting their work”. Ian Gwilt, a PhD candidate at the School of Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of New South Wales (UNSW), wanted to channel his “theoretical, research and creative activities through the vehicle of a postgraduate qualification.” Joel Zika, who is studying a Master of Fine Arts by research in Digital Imaging and Multimedia at Monash University, was intending to embark on a “lengthy and concise body of research” anyway and quite simply wanted to be acknowledged for it. Obviously an artwork is a certification of research undertaken, of a different kind. If new media artists research anyway, why enter an institution, and what are the benefits of a postgraduate qualification?

Chris Caines, who is researching towards a Doctor of Creative Arts at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), thought his work could “benefit from being explored in the context of ideas bigger than those [he] might consider in just making a project alone”. Caines’ creative projects have oscillated between film, video and new media, with interactive narrative being a common thread. Recently, handheld media has piqued his interest, culminating in a locative media project, go this way, commissioned by ACMI in 2004. Likewise, Gwilt is interested in the “crossover between the human experience in both the digital and physical environments and the relationship between these 2 spaces” and explores the big ideas of theorists such as Lev Manovich, Pierre Levy, Michael Heim and Walter Benjamin. Gwilt creates interface paintings, large scale digital prints, video animations and 3D Rapid Prototype sculptures that foreground the Graphical User Interface (GUI) as “a vehicle to comment on the formal, social and speculative aspects of a computerised culture.” His research, Gwilt reflects, has allowed him “to contextualise [his] work from a variety of perspectives…from a historical, theoretical and conceptual position.”

The right niche

All the new media artists I interviewed unanimously volunteered the supervisor as the critical factor in their choice of institution. Gwilt thinks it is “crucial to establish a good fit with your supervisor who is knowledgeable about and interested in your area of study”. Benson warns that the relationship with your supervisor “can make or break your project.” A good relationship with a supervisor, she elaborates, nurtures your creativity. The number of funded places, the status of the university, and facilities were also cited as deciding factors. But what of the defining structures?

The dissertation incubator

Zika has been creating animations and printed works in installations and performing with video and animated content for 6 years. He is researching new ways of imaging the scenography of ‘Gothic cinema.’ At the moment he is looking at “early amusement park rides (ghost trains, haunted houses) as interesting examples of immersive cinematic spaces.” Just like the click clack of an old ghost train, with skeletons jumping out of the pitch black, Zika wanted to rattle along the dissertation methodology with the “pressure of committing to a set of works” at certain turns. This downward pressure of the tropes of a dissertation—‘scope’, ‘aim’, ‘goal’ and ‘methodology’—fashion a unique incubator for artworks, which can have positive and negative effects.

Zika notes that it “slows you down and makes you focus” and that he is “focusing on the links between ideas which [he has] had on the table for years”. For Caines, academia presents an “opportunity to develop an area in a formal and rigorous way that forms a strong underpinning for future work.” Rhys Turner has just completed a Master of Visual Arts Electronic and Temporal Art by research degree at the Sydney College of Fine Arts. He started creating digital works 4 years ago and is currently experimenting with “alternate interfaces, and social interaction within a new narrative mode.” His latest work, Video Stereo, uses a modified 1960s stereo cabinet, a Technics 1200 and a computer. The work, which was part of PICA’s 2005 Hatched national graduating artists’ show, invites the user to interact with the video by scratching, DJ-style, the vinyl platter. Turner says his experience in academia has given him a more professional approach to his arts practice. Inversely, he laments the bureaucratic complications involved in obtaining funding and, as for Gwilt and many others, the tight definition of research often excludes aspects of his creative practice.

Creative limits

How is the creative process different in academia? Academic requirements, for Benson, limit the “opportunity for free-forming ideas” but the active community of forums and seminars has contributed greatly to her research and skills development. Caines has found funding and research models encourage the approach of a “creative product as simply a means to those research ends.” On the other hand, Gwilt observes “[t]he process can take on a more elevated position and become the focus of the creative activity, as opposed to the production of discrete finished pieces”.

How does academia nurture the creative process? Gwilt feels that funding to attend creative conferences and even have a sabbatical is valuable. Primarily, however, the “creative and responsive environment cultivates a sense of enquiry and constant re-evaluation” and so provides a “healthy challenge.”

For Turner there is “encouragement for new creative processes and ideas” and “productive criticism.”

When asked about the relationship between her creative work and her thesis Benson described it as “dysfunctional.” However, unlike a dysfunctional human relationship, an exegesis and creative work never separate. For Benson, the insights she gained from her theoretical investigation into the effects of online communities, activism and accessibility informed her studio work. Out of “interest and concern for one of the case-studies” in her thesis there grew an impetus to create her latest web-based work, Swipe (2004-5). Zika is hoping to build a symmetrical relationship between his practice and theory, where ideas he discovers through his creative experimentations are explained in his theoretical conclusions while other findings are expressed purely through his creative work. Turner sees the dynamic as hierarchical, with “theory as an important step in solidifying art practice and storytelling…secondary to art practice”.

Exhibiting, more or less

Are these artists exhibiting more or less since commencing study? Benson finds that she is exhibiting less because she is wary of distracting herself and straying too far “off-topic.” Gwilt finds the rigour of study drives his creative output and so he is exhibiting more. However, due to time constraints, he is exhibiting more locally and less internationally. Zika is exhibiting more and claims this is due to links he’s made whilst at university.

The network benefit

Besides the inspiration to create, what do they take from their experience? Most important for Turner is the ability “to create no matter where, why or how.” But, just like the unanimous nominating of the choice of supervisor for selection of institution, all the artists are in chorus about the primary benefit of the academic experience: networking. I was surprised by this, but, given the new media artists I interviewed were already somewhat established before commencing postgraduate studies, the desire to network would be paramount. However, I must note for those who are in a position like myself, where they are both emerging artists and researchers, “networking” plays a larger role shaping my creative and theoretical expressions than broadcasting them. This dual function of configuration and portal renders academia as a kind of GUI (Graphic User Interface) to potential novel creations.


Finally, would the postgrads recommend the experience to others? Turner would, because it “lets you focus on what you want to specialise in…You meet lots of like minded people and you get to create your own work in your own space with good feedback and facilities.” Gwilt suggests that you should be clear on what you want to study and why—the topic should be something you’re willing to spend 3 to 4 years on. And, as all the artists have agreed, “find the right advisor to suit your needs.” Benson would recommend the creative degree “to artists who want to push the theoretical and conceptual aspects of their work.” She says that there are “some exciting things happening in tertiary education at the moment, particularly in the field of digital and new media arts.” The best elements of academia for artists, offers Caines, is “the collegiality, the free flow of ideas and debate [and] the freedom to explore work outside the constraints of the market.”

Chris Caines: http://madeupstuff.com/
Ian Gwilt: http://www.iangwilt.com/
Rhys Turner: http://www.rtek.com.au/
Joel Zika: http://joelzika.cjb.net/

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 32,

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

Terry Atkinson

Terry Atkinson

On the way in to the First Hand Launch, I noticed that the steps of ACMI at Federation Square had become a meeting place: crowded with large groups of people, most notable was the age range: from children to elders and everyone in between. It was a taste of things to come.

Involving Koorie Heritage Trust, Aboriginal Affairs, ACMI, and Koorie communities in Melbourne, Heywood and Ballarat, First Hand has 2 major aims: “to give young Koories the skills and confidence to express themselves and to empower the Indigenous community to explore questions of culture and identity.”

The project began in late 2004, when young Koories, between the ages of 11 and 27 underwent training in media production and cultural studies. They were joined by community elders including Uncle Wally Cooper, Aunty Joy Wandin-Murphy and Uncle Sandy Atkinson, who brought wih them their knowledge and facilitated discussions about culture. By 2005, 5 short films had been produced.

In Old Man, Amy Gordon asks Uncle Kenny (Elder Kenny Saunders) to speak about growing up on Lake Condah Aboriginal mission. It’s the kind of story that’s best on film, because Kenny Saunders shows us everything: the ruins of the mish, the site of the old church, the whole place. He shows us where his family slept, how he used to count the stars through the chimney in the summer months. And he also shows us where, not so long ago, as a child, the “police drove up over this hill, with a very, very well dressed lady” and took away the children, Gloria, Eunice and Ronnie Foster, leaving him and his community devastated. This is real history, stark with the detail of experience, in the presence of place, told by someone who still carries it in his body. Amy says she “never knew [Lake Condah’s] amazing history”; neither did we. As Uncle Kenny tells us of the social relations that existed in the old communities, for instance the midwifery and the doctoring, it’s just the beginning, he suggests, of exploring the history of Koorie culture denied by the colonisers for reasons he still can’t understand.

In the film In This Place Again, Tim Kanoa’s journey begins when he hears Shane Lovett’s inspiring songs. At the Bendigo Correctional Facility, accompanied by the songs, Tim and Shane talk about culture, about music, about prison, about family—Lovett shows pictures of his daughter who wants to be a vet. It’s great to be sharing this, because in every interaction there’s a transmission of culture, of discussion around what it all means. It’s particularly sad when they have to split. It takes us back to the beginning of the film when Tim is standing alone after his visit, looking like he’s trying to absorb the whole experience outside the looming Bendigo Prison where his friend is incarcerated: “I just wanted to get a shot of the place.”

In Memories we walk with Jacy Alberts-Pevitt’s grandmother as she teaches her grand-daughters about the country she’s grown up in, their country: “Heywood, The Old Place, Lake Condah, just home.” She knows everything about the place: what’s happened, what’s there, what can be made. She shows the girls what reeds to use to weave baskets, tells them stories, shows them where they’re not allowed go, places she’s never been. An outsider could never know this world. But the girls are learning, and they’re learning as their grandmother learnt, directly from generation to generation.

In Possum’s Tale, Josie Atkinson recounts an attempted trip up river, as a child, trying to find her way back to her father’s land. This film is about Josie’s connection to land, her yearning for it, and her separation from it. She has to get back. When we see Josie and her daughter together, embracing in their country, we see how land and culture and family are inseparable: “My country is my family and my community … I’ve got to get back … Return to my country.”

No Dedication (No education), by the Ballarat Aboriginal Co-Op Youth Group, ages 11-18, documents a great performance by MC Johnny Mac for kids and their parents at the Ballarat Aboriginal Cooperative. The theme was education, and the kids took footage of the day and interviewed their parents about it. It’s all here, it’s cross-generational, contemporary and music-video style: a vision for a culture-strengthening future.

Inside the music, stories, history, social relations and traditional knowledge, there are cousins, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, parents, children, elders. These are films about connection, about memory and the past, about the future. The network of complex relations. They are films about culture.

First Hand, project manager Chris Patterson; Australian Centre for the Moving Image, June 30; Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne, July 4-Sept 4

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 33

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

Radiant Cool: a novel theory of consciousness
Dan Lloyd
The MIT Press, 2004

There’s a standard in detective shows—bring in the Profiler, get inside the criminal’s head, root out that psycho-consciousness. “See those bite marks, that misplaced shoe-tree. We’re looking for someone who loves their mother.” So when Dan Lloyd—academic philosopher—wants to write “a novel theory of consciousness” he turns to crime fiction, the natural genre of phenomenology, and writes Radiant Cool, a novel that starts with a murder and ends with a reference list—a couple of hundred pages of crime fiction, then a hundred or so of explanatory notes.

The first two-thirds of Radiant Cool are a crime-noir frame for Lloyd’s take on consciousness. Page one and the disgruntled, always wears black, Miranda Sharpe finds the body of Max Grue, her PhD supervisor. The body soon disappears, leaving Miranda to search for Grue in a series of set pieces that are sometimes a bit clunky stylewise, but mainly fun and pacy. As with the noirs of old there are lots of deviously motivated strangers ready to make friends with, and later betray, the heroine. Guns go off, computers appear to crash, world domination is thwarted. And in classic noir style it doesn’t end well for our heroine either.

Overt, oblique and insider references abound. This is not a novel of character development; the characters are there for symbolic reasons, complete with loaded names. The hardcore psychiatrist, Clare Lucid (the bravery of cornball jokes), is a parody of mind-as-software types—who needs wetware, the mind could just as easily run on a suitably organised collection of sandwiches. When Miranda fakes a problem for an excuse to see Lucid the first few lines of the therapy session mirror the output of a session with ELIZA, an AI program written in the 60s that faked being a Rogerian psychotherapist.

MIRANDA: I don’t quite know where to begin.
LUCID: Is it because you don’t quite know where to begin that you…

The Russian detective is Porfiry Petrovich Marlov (the detective in Crime and Punishment plus Philip Marlowe). The scientist, Zamm, sees the brain like an engineer’s block diagram (he’s named after an applied maths journal). The name of the missing Grue comes from a famous problem in induction set by Nelson Goodman—grue refers to a property that depends on time. Max Grue’s big insight is that consciousness depends on time. Grue is also a particularly self-absorbed philosopher and his death, blinded by stroke, unable to contact others, rambling on deep within his own subjectivity, is strictly Liebniz’s “windowless monads.”

On top of the insider jokes (there’s a great reference to Young Frankenstein, plus suitably nerdy names for computer systems) are great chunks of explanation that act as background to the processes Lloyd has gone through to develop his theories. Marlov teaches Miranda about multidimensional scaling, a method for visualising complex data sets. A lot of space is devoted to how Jeff Elman’s recurrent neural nets encode time and context. It all sits fine within the novel and would sit just as well in an introductory textbook.

The various explanations get elaborated in the final non-fictional section where Lloyd gets more formal, puts phenomenology first, neuroscience second, and uses stats as the great decider. Makes for a nice change from the great mass of books that use—shudder—quantum physics to explain where all the juju mind stuff goes on. Lloyd works through defining consciousness then tackles some explanation to material cause. Start with superposition—the way that perceptions can have lots of interpretations all at once. Is it a bird, is it a plane…how can one sensory input be so loaded with possibility? From neuro the explanation is that superposition follows from the way experience is coded in the brain—sensory inputs get recorded strongest on the path they come in on, gradually mixing it up with traces the further away from the input pathway they get. Elaboration and contextualisation. Traces are bidirectionally connected so that activating one activates others according to the strength of their past association. Seeing “is it a bird” activates neural traces corresponding to all previous “is it a bird” experiences, and traces are being activated by the other stuff that is going on not directly connected to the visual input. Activation spreads, priming indirectly related traces—say the activations that occur when seeing a plane overhead. Those activations are ready to go but not up to threshold yet. With the sound of a plane new neural patterns are strengthened, others weakened, and “it’s a plane” pops out. Superposition as a traversal through plausible cause.

But the really big deal for Lloyd is Husserl’s idea of temporality, how consciousness has to be able to link events together so that we hear a melody rather than a succession of discrete and unrelated frequencies. Lloyd reasons that if consciousness is in the brain then temporality should show up in the unfolding of neural activity in time. Activity will be similar to itself in the short term, but always moving forward, never to repeat. He finds evidence in functional magnetic resonance images taken of people performing a range of experimental tasks. He runs the stats, dynamical systems and multivariate scaling as per the novel, and finds what he wants, never the same brain twice but always most similar to itself when closest in time. Lloyd takes this as evidence for temporality and, by extension, consciousness. However he has only shown that brains slowly change and maybe slowly changing is just the way brains are, conscious or not. Learning and experience must change the brain but they can happen without consciousness. Getting a scan, head stuck in a magnetic field, hydrogen atoms synching up and spinning out of phase as the blood’s perfusion of the brain slowly changes—that fits the ‘learning experience’ tag.

Does Lloyd have a novel theory and compelling argument? Not really, but with Radiant Cool he does give a nice intro to the field of consciousness studies. After which try Walter Freeman, Francisco Varela, Tim van Gelder and others.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 34

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

Mrongovius and Recht, Unfurl

Mrongovius and Recht, Unfurl

“Step through the looking glass”, says the Vanishing Point press release, offering us a role as a latterday Alice in worlds conjured by new media art in Experimenta’s latest show. The digital revolution in the hands of artists has generated a new sense of amazement, of awe and the uncanny—from sideshow to sublime. It’s entertaining, sometimes hands-on, with a thin dividing line between arcade game and serious artwork. What’s more it’s art that draws on the very technology that ennables and haunts our everyday lives.

After the success of its touring exhibition, House of Tomorrow, which featured mostly Australian artists, Experimenta presents in Vanishing Point, an international collection of new media artworks, a cinema program, and, direct from Paris, Festival Némo, France’s audio-visual festival of short innovative European screen works. As well there’s Aural Gazing, an immersive collection of solo and collaborative works from Japan.

The international artists in Vanishing Point are Ji-Hoon Byun (Korea), Wu Chi-Tsung (Taiwan), Shelley Eshkar, Paul Kaiser (USA), Julie C. Fortier (France), Luke Jerram (UK), William Kentridge (South Africa), Julien Maire (France), Minim++ (Motoshi Chikamori, Kyoko Kunoh), (Japan), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (Japan/Vietnam/USA), Junebum Park (Korea), Hiraki Sawa (Japan/UK), Lee se-jung (Korea), William Wegman (USA), and Yang Zhenzhong (China).

South Korea has embraced new media art with a passion. Ji-Hoon Byun’s Duk-eum was a highlight in MAAP04 in Singapore (RT64 p27). Don’t miss the opportunity to play with its waterfall of light. Junebum Park’s droll short video fanatasies have been amusing visitors to the ACP’s Mirror Worlds (see p37).

The strong line-up of Australian innovators includes Stephen Barrass, Chris Gunn ; Penny Cain; Tim Costello, James Robison with HitLab (NZ); Daniel Crooks; Alex Davies; Leslie Eastman, Natasha Johns-Messenger; Shaun Gladwell; David Haines, Joyce Hinterding; John Howland; David MacLeod, Narinda Reeders; Martina Mrongovius, Sruli Recht; Daniel Von Sturmer; and Craig Walsh. RT

Experimenta, Vanishing Point, BlackBox, the Arts Centre; Margaret Lawrence Galleries, VCA; NGV International; Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces; Frankston Art Centre; September 1-30; www.experimenta.org

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 34

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

Trish Adams, machina carnis

Trish Adams, machina carnis

You enter a large, very dark room illuminated only with strategically placed red down-lights. To the left hang 2 swathes of diaphanous fabric: small images of red cells floating against blackness. Towards the right hand corner stands an object curtained off by a large acrylic sheet hanging from a chrome rail. Through the heavy red plastic you can make out a horizontal hip-height structure—a bench or table. The room is quiet but for a dull, distant hum. Suffused with the pure red light and cordoned off, the bench looks a little like a modernist altar.

As you approach you see it is a bed of the kind found in doctors’ surgeries, with a surface of padded black no-nonsense vinyl, and thin steel legs. A large flat monitor is positioned horizontally above one end. Once you’re on the table, your head positioned beneath the screen, a circular image is projected—a petrie dish—full of smaller shapes. Placing the hanging stethoscope microphone over your heart, you watch the cells ‘respond’ to the pulse as the beats boom and echo in the gallery space. The latest in Trish Adams’ explorations of biotechnology, machine carnis continues to explore the “vital force” of biology, this time through an immersive experience bringing together audience participation and actual living cells.

During her recent collaboration with the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland, Adams “was inspired by the latest research that indicates adult stem cells are capable of “changing fates and becoming other types of cells.” For the installation, “stem cells were taken from my blood and cultured in the laboratory.” With the help of scientist-collaborator, Dr Vic Nurcombe, these cultures were incubated with special substances, “and after 5-6 days my stem cells developed into heart cells. Subsequently they began to beat, synchronise and cluster so that I could watch them throbbing in real time under the microscope.”

The pulsating aqua, white and maroon images shown on the monitor above the participant and on the hanging translucent screens are digital videomicrograph images of those cells, pulsing in time to the prone viewer’s heartbeats. Also evident in the microseconds after each beat is a faint image taken from a webcam above the bench of the participant’s face, combining imagery of the outside and the inside of the body. Adams hopes that viewers will explore “their personal reactions and interpretations whilst interacting with the cardiac image data which responds to their presence.” The viewer can also “observe that cultured cardiac cells have grown into a microscopic simulacrum of a beating human heart, as if the vital, functioning interior engine of their own body were laid bare before them.”

Adams’ ongoing investigations into corporeality and the materiality of the human body and probing of “both the unknown possibilities of virtual presence and recent developments in biotechnology such as stem cell research” are informed by her sculptural background. This is evident not just in the exquisite simplicity and attention to detail of the objects—bench, microphone, monitor, curtain—or the confident, dramatic way they are assembled, but in the manner normally abstract scientific ideas and contemporary debates are performed in the objects and processes of the work.

Brilliant sculpture often invites touch and machina carnis is constituted not by rhetorical address but by actual touch. The stethoscope microphone is rather sensitive to pressure—too little and it won’t register, and too much will prevent the movement of the diaphragm which is necessary to make normal breathing audible. The genuine interactivity which places the viewer right at the centre of the work is also an unusually sensual experience (it’s not every day one bares one’s breast in public in the name of art!). There is a delightful synaesthesia in ‘seeing’ one’s heartbeat, too.

Unusually for video art, in machina carnis the video, rather than being the defining activity, is sensitively incorporated to enhance the interactive experience. Adams’ sculptor’s eye is evident: she wanted “to work with moving images. I wanted to be able to create environments or ‘sensitive spaces’ that took advantage of the fluidity, ambiguity and ephemerality offered by mediums using projection as a counterpoint to materiality and corporeality.”

The restrained palette of the entire installation and complex videomicrograph images underline the critical role contemporary 3D animation has had in organising our perception of the appearance of cells. Biotechnology, as a place where epistemological, ontological and political debates converge, is a key concern of a number of artists seeking to challenge and complicate often simplistic views. This intimate engagement of the participants provides a novel and timely insight into genetic technology, which Adams hopes will “re-privilege the aesthetic experience of corporeality in the discourses surrounding genetic manipulation.”

Trish Adams, machina carnis, installation, Rehearsal Room, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 5-9; quotations from the writer’s discussion with the artist.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 35

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

Eduardo Kac, Move 36, transgenic installation, 2004 (detail)

Eduardo Kac, Move 36, transgenic installation, 2004 (detail)

Eduardo Kac, Move 36, transgenic installation, 2004 (detail)

Controversial creator of an “artist’s gene” (Genesis, 1999) and a fluorescent rabbit (Alba, 2000), Eduardo Kac is a new media arts visionary. Working and speculating in the areas of interactivity, telepresence and transgenic art, he exhibits internationally and lectures and conducts workshops on his own and other artists’ works and the issues arising from them. Documentation of his work can be found at www.ekac.org. Eds.

Eduardo Kac’s Art and Biotechnology Workshop at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation brought together bio-art practitioners, writers and theorists to “discuss the complex and fascinating relationship between biology and art in the larger context of related social, political and ethical issues” (press release). Kacs opened the workshops by recontextualising and demystifying bio-art, placing it in a continuum of works by artists who have used living beings in many different ways. Kacs explains biotechnology as an understanding of life such as to be able to harness its processes—to take a simple example, as in the making of yoghurt or plant grafting. In 1644 grafting was already ‘naturalised’, as seen in paintings showing farmers grafting orange twigs onto lemon trees, joining discrete elements to produce new viable life forms. Analogously bio-art is medium specific; only certain strains will survive the grafting process.

The American photographer Edward Steichen is cited by Kacs as one of the first artists to create a new life form and present it as art. Steichen bred delphiniums and exhibited them at MOMA as artistic works in the 1930s and 40s. He also wrote scientific articles about his findings, thus straddling the worlds of art and science. Steichen used cross-pollination and often deliberately employed chemicals to cause ‘unnatural’ mutations. You can still own a Steichen; the seeds are available on the internet, distributed through a seed supplier, begging the question—is the buyer then committed to keeping the artwork alive? A question that must also inform the work of contemporary bio-artists.

Steichen was part of a larger movement in the 1930s to appropriate life as art, where art moved from representations of the body to the body itself and its processes. The 1960s saw the culmination of this engagement, evident in works such as Manzoni’s infamous signed collection of his canned shit. Around the same time Kournelis exhibited 12 live horses, unadorned, nothing but the living objects in the gallery. Here the focus turns to the smells, sounds and sights of life, away from the discourse of art. These works highlight the issue of distribution, another concern of bio-art. The residue of the Kournelis horses resides in the photographs, oral histories, conceptual discussions and media records that are materially connected to the event. The artefact of bio-art is the record, the history-making aspect of the work which acts as evidence. How does this artefact become part of an artistic economy? How can funding bodies be persuaded to support projects with a predetermined life span or invest in artworks that, like Kacs’ own, live for up to 2 years, surviving only in photographic records and written documentation.
Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac

On day 2 of the workshop, Kacs focused on the 60s, the 70s and ecology. During this time both scientists and artists focused on the effects of organisms on each other, and how living beings interact with their environment. A classic artwork of this time was Alan Sonfist’s colony of soldier ants trapped in a terrarium with a mound of fruit. Here the agency of the artwork is left to the life forms inside it, with the uncontrolled outcome of ants arranging and rearranging the fruit as they use it. These self-regulating systems were often ephemeral, such as Sonfist’s Mould Paintings, where the bacteria eventually destroyed the canvas, reconciling art with natural processes when conventionally its focus is preservation.

The ecological artworks also served to highlight processes that are usually hidden, such as Helen and Newton Harrison’s Survival Units, in particular the fish bred for the purposes of the exhibition, killed for the same purpose, and eaten. The public protested against the method of electrocution originally chosen by the artists as the most humane way of killing. Traditional methods of killing fish were then used. Bio-art has provoked many such protests from the public because it makes visible processes that are usually hidden.

Day 3 of the workshop focused on art and genetics. Paralleling the earlier work of Steichen, George Gessert bred irises in the 1970s, taking notes on each breed and photos for exhibition. He counter-bred against the mainstream, trying to retain characteristics that were usually bred out in a kind of imaginative resistance to homogenisation by large companies and breeding associations. Contributing to a greater state of biodiversity, Gessert also penetrated the seed market. But his work also highlights the hostility of the gallery environment for living artworks. Gessert knocked holes in gallery walls and, in Japan, delivered light from the roof via optic fibre cables to the gallery space to keep an iris alive for the duration of the exhibition.

David Kramer’s bacterial paintings of the early 90s also call into question the traditional system of collecting artworks. Agar, ecoli and nutrients are sealed into their containers once growth has produced an aesthetically pleasing form. But the bacteria are still alive and growth may continue after the seal is broken. One of Manzoni’s cans, kept for too long under hot gallery lights, exploded! How does bioart change the custodial role of curator or collector? Will collectors purchase works that will fade, destroy themselves, die?

A more common concern in a time of hysteria about outbreaks of disease asks if the work is safe? Eduardo Kacs sees part of this as paranoia stemming from a lack of familiarity with a molecular vocabulary. We deal with bacteria every day when we clean our homes, but ‘Ecoli’ are more worrying even though involved in our digestion. However, Kac believes that at the moment we do not have enough awareness of biological processes to be able to foresee consequences of manipulating them.

Day 4 of the workshop targeted an inevitable issue in bio-art—consciousness. Kacs reported communication between bacteria ennabled by the growth of protrusions for connecting and communicating with each other and exchanging genetic information. He sees “the field of biological studies…changing from a life science into an information science.”

The project for bio-artists at the moment is to open up the art establishment to new methods of distribution for living artworks, outside of the hostile gallery environment. As bio-artists navigate the cellular world, it seems they must also navigate the unfamiliar territories of collaborations with scientists, the grey areas of the art-science nexus and an artistic economy that exists beyond the artefact.

Art and Biotechnology Workshop with Eduardo Kacs, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, May 18-21

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 36

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

Junebum Park, 1 Parking 2001-2002, DVD

Junebum Park, 1 Parking 2001-2002, DVD

Mirror Worlds—Contemporary Video From Asia reflects, often humorously, sometimes surreally, on globalised culture and its consumerist economy that both fuels unbridled change and provokes violent reactions.

Junebum Park’s 3 videos are typical of the exhibition’s tone. 1 Parking (South Korea, 2001-02) offers a bird’s-eye view of a car park where an enormous pair of hands hover over the scene, moving the cars about and pushing pedestrians along when they threaten the traffic flow. The impression of a controlling force guiding the city is enhanced by the projection of the image onto the gallery floor, placing the viewer in the position of the giant ordering the rapid fire activity below. In 15 Excavator (2003), the same oversized hands operate an earth moving machine on a building site, while The Advertisement (2004) sees them nimbly plastering advertising signs across an office block’s naked facade. The fast motion in all 3 works lends a comic edge to the unsettling representation of the myriad powers ruling life in the modern metropolis, with the hands evoking everything from the surveillance of traffic controllers to the more abstract ‘hand of the market’.

Chen Shaoxiong’s Anti-Terrorism Variety (China, 2002-3) similarly evokes unseen forces, this time of political and religious violence. The work comprises 2 screens angled at 45 degrees, each with an image of an urban skyline. One is Guangzhou, the other Shanghai; both feature ultra-modern high-rises, with some structures looking more like science fiction fantasies than buildings of the present. Boats glide across Guangzhou’s harbour, while in Shanghai pedestrians stroll in and out of frame and a major road dissects the screen, creating a strange disjunction between the futuristic skyscrapers and the familiar scenes of city life below. In the skies above, cartoonish silhouettes of jetliners periodically appear, moving like unconvincing models in cheap television sci-fi. Sometimes they come in groups, sticking to the buildings like flies caught on flypaper, before fading one by one. At other times the towers bend like blades of grass and permit the aeroplanes to fly harmlessly by, or else the tallest tower in each skyline curves like elastic before snapping back, launching the aircraft off-screen. Sometimes the planes simply fly into the buildings, to reappear on the other side transformed into missiles or doves of peace.

Anti-Terrorism Variety wryly evokes contemporary events, or rather our mediated experience of them, the iconography referencing everything from the 2D graphics of early computer games to handicam footage of the September 11 attacks. The Chinese setting also called attention to the universalising power of media imagery. More subtly, the ability of the towers to mould themselves to accommodate or avoid the silent onslaught graphically represents the capacity of the modern globalised economic system, symbolised by China’s 21st-century skyline, to absorb, dodge, or repel almost any force set against it.

Rashid Rana’s focus in 10 Differences (Pakistan, 2004) is more oblique. Mirror images of the artist face off across a screen, each raising and lowering a pistol in an uneasy stand-off. Both figures stand before identical tables decked out with formal cloth coverings and flowers, suggesting negotiating tables as well as a domestic setting. Finally, with an explosive roar, the guns fire simultaneously, and the screen cuts to 2 images of Rana’s bloodied corpse sliding down the wall and slumping forward. One image frames him in long shot, the other in close up, tilting to follow the bloody trail of his slide. The action and setting in each frame is a mirror image of the other. After a fade to white, the sequence returns to another face off, another blast of guns, and the 2 Ranas collapsing in an endless loop of escalating tension, violent outburst and death. 10 Differences suggests multiple readings. Some relate to the artist’s home, Pakistan, a nation founded on a violent split with a mirrored other. More broadly, the cycle implies that the constant threat of violence between opposing forces creates mirror images of tension and fear, with multiple viewpoints only becoming apparent in the aftermath of conflict.

Elsewhere in the exhibition Flight Rehearsals (2003), by Indian artist Kiran Subbaiah, draws more on the traditions of Surrealist cinema than the conceptual tropes of most video art. The work is a highly amusing meditation on the way our ordering of time contains and constricts our imaginative compulsion to flights of fancy. Beginning with an image of the artist sitting on a table, Subbaiah relates in a droll voiceover his attempts to learn how to fly. Practising only in the early hours of the morning to avoid being “discouraged by the interrogation of responsible people”, he discovers the secret of flight, which involves jumping into the air as high as possible and then jumping again before “gravity has time to act.” Naturally, his ability to fly brings an understanding of the language of birds, including the dawn crow of the neighbourhood cock.

With the coming of morning, Subbaiah’s flight is framed by a television screen and we track back into a looking-glass bedroom. A cooked chicken sits atop the television. An alarm clock rings and Subbaiah comes crashing to his bed in the extreme foreground. Initially, the clock appears to be next to him. However, when Subbaiah rises and walks over to stop the alarm, it becomes a very large clock at the back of the room. It’s difficult to convey in words the clever distortion of our sense of space. As Subbaiah turns off the alarm, his dream of flight on the television disintegrates into visual static. He turns the TV off, picks up a smouldering cigarette and takes a rueful puff.

Superficially Mirror Worlds’ most overtly comic and whimsical work, Flight Rehearsals is a complex interrogation of the relationship between our dreams and their literalisation in mass-produced moving images. It’s also an entertaining narrative, a surreal depiction of the mind’s ability to conjure images of the impossible, and a deadpan comment on the way the conditions of modern life delimit our ability to creatively and intellectually take flight.

Although more overly filmic than the rest of Mirror Worlds, Flight Rehearsals confirms the impression that the avant-garde of the moving image is now to be found in the gallery rather than the cinema. In an age in which the image is increasingly utilised to convey simplistic, one-dimensional messages of hatred, fear or consumerist pleasure, video provides a crucial means by which artists can intercede, interrogate and reflect upon our highly mediated global landscape. Small quibbles like chronic sound spillage aside, curators Zoe Butt and Bec Dean are to be praised for expanding the Australian Centre of Photography’s already broad ambit and exposing Sydneysiders to the work of our region’s artists in this most vital of contemporary forms.

Mirror Worlds—Contemporary Video From Asia, curators Zoe Butt and Bec Dean, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, May 27-July 10

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 37

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

Clare Langan, Too Dark for Night

Clare Langan, Too Dark for Night

Within an hour of landing at Tullamarine I can usually be found, like a faithful pilgrim, descending the staircase of ACMI’s screening gallery in the hope of losing myself in selections of the best in contemporary screen-based art. The latest offering World Without End, is definitely an exhibition where the viewer is asked to surrender to an unknown journey. Inspired by Godard’s dictum “It is not necessary to create a world, but the possibility of a world” (catalogue essay) curators Alexie Glass and Alessio Cavallaro have selected Australian and international works which play with scale and time, exploring vastness through compression, fetishising the detail in the epic, and challenging the sense of self in an infinite universe.

In the entrance stairway is the Pleix Collective’s Netlag (France)—a tessellated map of the world made up of footage from over 1600 web cameras across the globe. We pan and zoom in on sections of the map to glimpse quotidian activities as captured by the anonymous cameras. The banality of detail provides this world view with a bland universality, heightened by the generic electro beat of the soundscape.

Susan Norrie’s Enola (Australia) also plays with scale but focuses more on the compression of the constructed world. Filmed at the Tobu World Square theme park, the camera slowly circles the wonders of the world in quarter size—the Eiffel Tower plonked next to the Vatican, nestled near airports with aimlessly circling planes. Strangely the muzak soundtrack adds to the suggested silence of the place, in which the only living figures are 2 hooded observers, peering in wonder at these creations. This world is too clean, too ordered, too observed, too quiet…we have built ourselves out of existence.

From this quiet, constructed world we enter the bombastic audiovisual symphony of Simon Carroll and Martin Friedel’s History of a Day (Australia). Here the viewer is surrounded by cascading images of a day in progress from sunrise to sunset. In the intervening 4 minutes we experience earth, air, water and fire—soaring across seas and deserts, plunging into volcanoes and industrial zones, riding tempests and cloud gusts. The footage is stunning, playing in cannon across the 5 screens, accompanied by a near operatic soundscape. The pace and virtuosity of the piece is certainly impressive even if the grandeur overrides the possibility for deeper contemplative resonances.

Matching the visual scale of History of a Day, is Daniel Crook’s Train No 1 (Australia). Shown several times over the last few years, this is the most impressive presentation of this work, spanning half the wall of the main gallery, utilising 3 projectors. Using his TimeSlice technique, the vision is staggered and interwoven extending the visual material—in this case a train—into seemingly infinite dimensions. Each sliver of image has its own character and charged essences which in combination create a shimmering mirage of everyday experience.

Deftly placed opposite Train No 1 is the most subtle but beguiling of the works in World Without End—Ross Cooper and Jussi Ängeslevä’s The Last Clock (UK). Concentric circles are formed by the rotation of clock hands—hour, minute, second. The circles are heavily textured with tawny smears, each with a different density. The accompanying notes tell us that these are the product of the sweep of the hands of a clock across live video images from a camera placed upstairs on Federation Square. Knowing this and discovering figures appearing and being wiped away—moments held and then obliterated over 3 different timeframes—lends the piece an ephemeral, poetic quality, a ‘liveness’. However, it is a knowledge well hidden unless you read the notes. Perhaps there is a way in which this work could be presented in relation to the source of the video material, so that the cause and effect could be more easily discovered.

It is this same ‘liveness’, the physicality of Lynette Walworth’s Hold: Vessel 1 (Australia) which makes it such an appealing work. A gentle interactive experience, the visitor holds a finely crafted translucent glass bowl in order to catch the projection—underwater creatures of quivering cilia, wispy tendrils and exotic colours are manifest in your hands, accompanied by an intricately textured soundscore. Placed in its own viewing room, the work still weaves its magic 4 years after its initial inception.

Scattered through the exhibition are Robert Cahen’s Cartes Postale: Video Melting Pot (France). Starting with touristic stills, these scenes have but a brief moment to come to life, before being frozen again in time. There is a satisfying haiku element to these works—revealing layers below the cliche. My favourite is the idyllic view of an Icelandic town which, when unfrozen, shows an aeroplane soaring across the skyscape.

A jarring inclusion is A Viagem (The Voyage) by Christian Boustani (Portugal). Commissioned by the Portuguese government for Expo ‘98 it depicts the 1543 Portuguese expedition to Japan. It is a finely crafted and visually impressive film of collaged action and 2 and 3D animation inspired by Japanese gilded panels. However, there is a self-conscious trickiness and triteness that makes it sit uncomfortably within the contemplative framework of the other exhibits. Its cute and beatsy soundtrack completely drowned out the unearthly calm of Darren Almond’s (UK) A, a meditative exploration of Antartica.

Moving from the white ice of Antartica into the sweltering vastness of the Namibian Desert, Clare Langan’s Too Dark for Night (Ireland) is an apt culmination for this journey to the end of the world. A lone figure walks with calm purpose across the massive wind-sculpted sand dunes. The cinematography is astounding, and Langan’s use of handmade filters subtly protects the viewer from being swamped by the image. The figure searches for signs of other humans, finds only ruins and continues the search, a cycle as inevitable as the entropy of the shifting landscape. This is quietly devastating.

Seoungho Cho’s Rev (South Korea) and Brian Doyle’s The Light (US), were the least engaging works in the exhibition. Positioned next to the exit escalator, Doyle’s quietly contemplative studies of light (lights) are both visually and aurally overwhelmed by Cho’s hyperactive portrait of urban living—a collage of wildly spinning cameras, a revolving door and a candle flame. This section also marks the centre of the gallery space, so not only did Cho’s sound overwhelm Doyle’s work, but all the sound from the works seemed to coalesce into a cacophony of thunderclaps, train noises and clashing tones. In fact, soundbleed was an issue for all the works not accorded their own viewing rooms. Although considerable effort was made to place speakers directionally so that visitors sitting on the viewing couches could discern elements of each audioscape, several works dominated the entire aural space. This is an ongoing problem in screen-based exhibitions, and while many seem to accept the inevitability of it, the compromised audio element of this audiovisual medium should not be underestimated.

Even though the placement of works is seriously problematic for the sound, it is the fact that the works rub up against each other—each piece sharing some element of the works placed near it creating sympathetic resonances—that makes World Without End such an enjoyable exhibition providing many possible pathways to explore and possible worlds in which to lose yourself.

World Without End, curators Alexie Glass and Alessio Cavallaro, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, April 14-July 17

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 38

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

Naree Vachananda, Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour

Naree Vachananda, Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour

When we discuss choreography which deals with a specific subject, we say that it explores, investigates, addresses. It never explains. It never defines. If we dance ‘about’ something, we do so in the sense of dancing ‘around’ it, circling, approaching and retreating. Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour is a solo dance about death, perhaps the most unapproachable topic of all. Heavily supported by recorded music and voice tracks, lighting, set design and multimedia projections, the work is a rich and meditative one that tackles its chosen theme with a contemplative leisure. Naree Vachananda kneels, an intricately tailored gauze shirt pulled over her head. She struggles to escape, but doesn’t remove the garment, wearing it instead. The fraying hood elicits thoughts of a shroud or winding sheet, the first intimations of mortality to arise in the work.

The evocatively titled piece purports to have been inspired by the September 11 attacks in New York, but any history presented by the work is entirely personal. Projected upon the walls are images of the former funeral parlour which faced the bedroom window of Vachananda’s one-time home, and we return to this site repeatedly (including, near the work’s closing, a fascinating video tour through the boarded up building). A recorded monologue blends Vachananda’s musings on the parlour and death with texts from Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Persephone.’ Throughout, the dancer enacts a series of recurring routines, including an extended piece encased in a transparent coffin-like structure.

Vachananda’s choreography is striking—her movements frequently return to figures of circularity, sweeping limbs leading to larger rotations of her body, and this circling comes to signify much, be it the cyclical nature of life or the difficulty of escaping this eternal return. A novel phrase sees her head acting as a heavy weight, rolling from hand to hand and appearing in danger of toppling to the floor. The increasing pace of her attempts to support it eventually makes her head appear to detach itself from her body, a powerful yet playful suggestion.

Though the ostensible theme of Opposite My House is death, there are also strong undertones of birth and reincarnation here, perhaps not so surprising considering Vachananda’s Buddhist faith, as well as the texts she recycles through the work’s sonic components (the Persephone myth, Buddhist chants). The shroud-shirt could equally represent a caul, the membrane covering infants at birth; the glass coffin’s clear walls and warm glow could suggest an incubator. The long, loose thread hanging from Vachananda’s shirt and winding its way across the stage echoes the silver thread supposed to link the body to the wandering soul, while an umbilical cord is another inevitable association.

The aural aspects of the work are not without problems. The excessive mixing and layering of Vachananda’s speech sometimes obscures the content and becomes a distraction rather than complementing the physical work. Since such a large amount of text is presented as part of the performance, much of it intriguing, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t emerge with the same attention to detail that marks the rest of this piece. These objections aside, Vachananda is a daring, able choreographer with a strong presence and this work offers a provocative glimpse of the kinds of sustained solo work that can still exist outside the larger streams of dance in Australia.

Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour, choreographer-performer Naree Vachananda, sound composition Edward Kelly, multimedia Yeap Heng Sheng, installation Naree Vachananda and Matt Crosby, costumes Esshoshika; fortyfivedownstairs, June 9-12

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 39

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

In May 2001, Tess De Quincey’s Nerve 9 premiered at Performance Space. A multilayered, intensive collaboration with visual artist Deborah Petrovich, poet/performer Amanda Stewart and writer/new media artist Francesca da Rimini, Nerve 9 was hypnotic, gloriously abstract and curiously sensual. Solo dancer/choreographer De Quincey moved as if on a different plane to audience mortals, her elliptical trajectory intersecting with projected images and texts and aural worlds. Nerve 9 is making a very welcome return with a national tour through the innovative Mobile States program.

In her review for RealTime, Eleanor Brickhill wrote: “Nerve 9 is hybrid in essence…creating an intellectual arena within which all its ideas can grow and mingle. It synthesises some quite rarefied elements—Stewart’s shimmering sonic and visual poetry and De Quincey’s enduringly watchable portraits of attenuated human frailty. The different sounds (both text and soundscapes) and movement are entwined, as if De Quincey’s body can be shot through with those textures, human and electronic, structured and hanging on shafts or webs of sound, animated sometimes entirely by those vibrations (RT 44, p35, “Nerve 9: a body called flesh”).

Tess de Quincey is a unique performer. Eleanor Brickhill wrote, “She seems to work with ideas, particularly internalised and embodied, rather than with overt and consciously planned movement. It’s possible to see a physical narrative unfolding through the work—the flowering of a peculiarly acute register of human sensibility, the medium through which a person experiences the world.”

The tour of Nerve 9 presents a rare opportunity for audiences intrigued by contemporary performance and dance to witness a seamless integration of movement, image, text and sound in the work of these 4 leading artists. RT

Tess De Quincey, Nerve 9, PICA, Performance Space, Salamanca Arts Centre, Arts House (North Melbourne Town Hall), Brisbane Powerhouse, Darwin Entertainment Centre, Sept 28-Nov 23 (see advertisement for venue dates)

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 39

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

Linda Luke, FIVE short solos

Linda Luke, FIVE short solos

Linda Luke, FIVE short solos

“It’s like paying to visit a madhouse”, muttered a satisfied customer with a smile at the end of De Quincey Company’s Five. Witnessing one of the 5 15-minute performances while hearing those already experienced and others to come, all at the very same time, all repeating themselves as the audience moves in small groups room to room, yields at times a delirium somewhere between reverie and nightmare. The performers embody intense states of being, but they’re mostly talkative, reaching out to us with words even if the bodies sometimes, fascinatingly, seem to be somewhere else. This shared tension between body and voice and the simultaneity of and the overlap between performances generated a palpable sense of one work, more than the sum of its 5 parts.

Of the performances that most appealed to me, one did not employ the live voice and the other worked the voice from a point of duress. Victoria Hunt’s Flying Backwards to Meet the Future… is a physically intense evocation of the impact of a death in the family. The performer’s body is wracked against a soundscore that includes readings from a Coroner’s Court record. Projected images of a Maori kite taking flight suggest some kind of release. Adroitly designed, lit and constantly transformed, Flying Backwards… is multimedia performance with the body at its centre while the soundtrack and projections do the talking. In contrast, Linda Luke’s Death of A Wall is kin to performance art. We enter the room to find the performer pinned beneath a heavy rock suspended by red threads from the ceiling. The power of this performance is not in the multiplication of theatrical means but in the essence of the weight of a rock on a naked body. Even after she frees herself we feel its presence in her relationship to the walls of the room, to herself, and in the sudden burst of leaping and laughing. The words from Cafavy and Kazantzakis spill from her, quavery, tense, unleashed. There is no sense of recitation—the challenge common to most of Five’s performances is their melding of literary quotation with intensely focused physical performances. Here the performer is weighed down by but is part of the rock, of the buildings and architecture around which the work appears to pivot.

The title of Narelle Benjamin’s new work, Out of Water, suggests that its protagonists are displaced; certainly they don’t appear to be of the natural order of things as the light reveals their odd shapes—human but not, and bottom up in more ways than one. They look like life forms, emerging from water perhaps, or some fecund soup of incipient life and unfolding later into something human. Of their tautly curled bodies we first see only back and buttocks. Even when standing the bodies shape themselves strangely, as if joints could angle whichever way, and move as if gravity doesn’t matter. After Kathy Cogill unfolds into full height, her extended arms waver as if beating with new found life. Kristina Chan and Lina Limosani duet with exquisite precision like twin organisms before separating into fine solo flights, one as if failing to find the point of gravity that will bring rest, the other as if finding gravity inverted. Restless sleep and a return to life are followed by a (too) long, collective entropy (reinforced by the sound score’s mechanical, musical wind-down). Perhaps a life cycle has been completed. Out of Water is a great advance on Benjamin’s first choreographic outing with Inside Out (RT59, p 31) in 2004. Here the choreography is sustained rather than episodic, the yoga influence finely absorbed, and, best of all, Benjamin refuses to work from dancing feet to realise her vision. The points of origin for movement are everywhere in the body and they work the floor and re-work gravity to give us a new sense of our bodies at a moment in history when we are reconsidering the importance of our biological selves.

For Grounded on Air, Dean Walsh has created a strange, even scary persona, that looks us in the eye, demands we dance (we do), and expects us to play silent confidante to tales of an empty life and hints of inner demons. He manages to do this with a cool, quiet delivery sparely scripted with a deliciously calculated naivety (earlier works reveal a more poetically inclined Walsh). The symbolism is laid on deadpan from the beginning, Walsh sitting to the side, at a desk, head in a cloud of balloons. Dance too becomes a motif, not only indicative of the waste that comes of weeks of partying, but of an exhausting, trivial battle of styles, including snatches of balletic and contemporary dance, until they manically merge. A huge swing centre stage suggest pleasure as Walsh arcs towards us but also represents the failure to communicate (a to and fro phone exchange of vacuous consolation and a cry for help) and sheer helplessness, when trapped beneath an instrument of pleasure that could take off your head. Such is life. Many balloons are burst or let fly, elegant dancing is attained, and the final swing-ride is satisfyingly sideways. Walsh’s persona in Grounded on Air is wonderful for not being loveable, reminding me not a little of the infinitely frustrating characters from the the creations of UK’s Forced Entertainment. But Walsh allows his stage alter-ego some redemption, and us the pleasure of a finely constructed encounter with a strange beast.

De Quincey Company, FIVE short solos, director Tess de Quincey, performers Peter Fraser, Victoria Hunt, Linda Luke, Tom Davies, Kristina Harrison, lighting Richard Manner, Performance Space Galleries, June 23-July 3

One Extra, Out of Water, choreography Narelle Benjamin, composer Huey Benjamin; Grounded on Air, performer-choreographer Dean Walsh, sound Drew Crawford; lighting for both shows Neil Simpson; Performance Space, June 29-July 10

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 40

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

Buzz Theatre, Pre-Tender

Buzz Theatre, Pre-Tender

Buzz Theatre, Pre-Tender

Modern cinema, especially in the US, has long see-sawed between representing the office as an efficient, homogenizing institution, antithetical to the individual, and as a site of play within which individual subjectivity bursts forth, often with chaotically creative results (Playtime, Desk Set, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Working Girl, Broadcast News, Secretary). Director Felicity Bott has created a new theatrical exploration of this dynamic with her Buzz Dance production, Pretender.

Relative to these rich, cinematic precedents, Bott and theatrical advisor Monica Main have opted for relative simplicity. Bott’s dramaturgical palette is highly suggestive yet essentially static, with characters quickly identified through movement (the pneumatic robotism of Paul Blackman, the solid finality and easy weightiness of Simon Stewart), complementary pairings (the rival office leaders Katrina Lazaroff and Glenn Lo; the flirtatious couple Simon Stewart and Rachel Usher), and costume (Blackman and his complement Rachel Hare having a vaguely Goth-industrial look, distinguished by red and black, versus the others’ dominant greys).

As a dance theatre piece expressed via mime and movement, Pretender lacks the linguistic sophistication of, say, His Girl Friday, but verbal virtuosity is replaced here by an equally exhibitionistic sound score from Michael O’Brien. Each character is accompanied by a distinctive aural palette drawn from particular sound worlds—air-driven machines for Blackman; a trumpet with sneezing for girly Leanne Mason; a motorbike revving for Stewart. New elements are added (tech-disco, hip-hop vocal sampling, drum’n’bass) as the characters’ flights of fancy become increasingly abstract, and acrobatic dance takes over from mime.

Like screwball comedy, development is less within characters than in the form and the theatrical environment which they animate. They enter the space, take to their desks and then explode the office structure. Tables and other objects are constantly arrayed to create a sense of order before being spun about the stage, the office transformed into a space of dreaming—dynamic, contingent, playful, noisy and musical. The sounds of office time-keeping or email arrivals come to underwrite an exuberant dance in which fittings act as stages for a martial duel, or as racing cars, or, heaped together, make a ludicrous assemblage representing nothing but its own creative excesses, a liberation from the structures of the office and commerce, and even those of theatrical signification. The performance ends with this weird, lopsided tower: a crazy aggregate of desks, print outs, chairs, masking tape, writing pads, Texta scrawls and a blizzard of shredded paper.

Aside from its accomplished execution, Pretender is commendable for avoiding the banalities typically directed at youth audiences. Here is the joy of the unfettered imagination, giving birth to images comprehensible only according to their own bizarre, abstract logic.

Buzz Dance Theatre, Pretender, choreographer, director Felicity Bott, performers Paul Blackman, Rachael Hare, Katrina Lazaroff, Glen Lo, Leanne Mason, Timothy Rogers, Simon Stewart, Rachel Usher, dramaturg Monica Main, sound Michael O’Brien, lighting Nicholas Higgins, costumes Anna Serna, Toby Whittington. Perth Playhouse, June 1-4

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 40

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



A unique event coincided with the latter stages of the 2005 Amsterdam Arts Festival. The DasArts Festival was organised to celebrate the 11th year of DasArts. For the first and possibly only time the festival put on display in a public venue (the Frascati in downtown Amsterdam) work from this year’s graduates as well as from a number of previous graduates invited to participate. The work itself, whilst never boring, varied in quality from startling to obscure, from disturbing to interestingly pretentious, from media-savvy to simply human. But the energy that drove the festival and that elevated it above the familiar collection of student work was the dynamic energy of DasArts itself—the school, the program, the congregation of artists committed to a way of developing.

Ritsaert ten Cate, the former Director of the Mickery in Amsterdam, created DasArts in 1994. His aim from the start was, as he said to his daughter in a letter written in 1993 when he was still in the preparatory stage, to “design a practical model that (as far as I know) does not yet exist.” The focus was not to be on “training” but on “evolving an extremely select group of participants who are given the opportunity to develop themselves as persons.” The school would offer “a large number of tools that he or she will be able to start using as desired.” But the basis of the contract with the participant would be reciprocal: “Call it a different sort of professional mentality mainly aimed at developing an awareness that you yourself will in the first place have to be able to offer something if you want to be interesting for the contact with specialists we will be providing for the program.”

The focus, in other words, would be on the development of the artist rather than on the work that the artist produces. In the words of the statement of purpose that ten Cate and his associate Marijke Hoogenboom wrote in 1995: “DasArts is a unique laboratory for development, wherein the artist is the product…and the work the artist creates in this laboratory period is only a signal of the development of the artist him/herself.” They summed up the objectives of DasArts as follows: “First, it is always about what is brought to it, and never what any one person can get out of it; second, each student is listened to and talked with by specialists with an eclectic range of knowledge and experience; third, although it is a full-time program, the rhythm of this program will be adjusted on an individual basis in such a way that each student may immediately apply his or her own findings; fourth, the program uses theatre as we know it now only as a tool to define what our students, the artists of the future, may make out of it; and, fifth, ideas executed are not considered valuable unless the consequences of those ideas are understood as being of first priority.”

The strength of DasArts, its success and its reputation as a leading international school of performance practice, lies implicitly in this clearly provocative list of objectives and explicitly in the unique way in which it puts them into practice. What I wish to do here is to outline aspects of the program that may stimulate thought in our Australian training centres.


DasArts is a small school and seeks to keep itself that way, despite increasing governmental pressure to increase numbers. It is affiliated to the Amsterdam School of the Arts but works with complete autonomy in its beautifully but simply adapted buildings in what was a school for handicapped children on the outskirts of Amsterdam Centraal. Permanent staff are kept to a minimum so the focus can go onto the “extremely select group of students” and the “specialists” who run each Block. Currently the school is headed by performance artist Moniek Tobosch; the administrator is Lieve Baert who worked with Ritsaert ten Cate at the Mickery and came to work for DasArts a couple of years after it began; and the key advisory role of Dramaturg has been shared until recently by Jan van den Berg, Director of Theater Ad Hoc, and video artist Harko Haagsma. There are 3 other administrative and technical staff, integral to the operations of a school that never stops working. But the money is spent not on a large support staff but on the program that is the truly unique aspect of a DasArts experience.


The participant enters a 4 semester program. The first 2 semesters each consist of a 10 week Block of work guided and curated by a mentor and guest teachers. Then follows 6 months of an Individual Trajectory (IT), an individual research project arising from prior artistic development. In semester 4, the Final Project (FP) is an autonomous work created in collaboration with a co-producer or venue. The IT and the FP are guided dramaturgically by the artistic staff of the school and additional mentors are chosen by the student. The focus in the FP is upon individual projects rather than collaborations. A student graduates with a diploma.

Artistic Encounters

Each Block encountered in the first 2 semesters has a theme proposed by the mentor. The workshops, lectures and presentations therein emerge as a response to that theme and the students’ interaction with it. The mentors chosen are all professional artists and have come from many different countries and continents. Past artist mentors have included John Jesurun, Anna Koos, Anne van Delft, Stuart Sherman, Moniek Tobosch, Richard Gough and Janine Brogt. Ong Ken Sen was a mentor in 2004 and earlier this year the Dutch group Discordia ran a Block. Needless to say, the drawing power of particular mentors is huge. To ensure that students enter the program and do not come simply to encounter a particular individual, it is a rule that the mentor and theme for a Block will not be publicised until after students have applied and been accepted.

Focus of the Learning Encounter

At DasArts they are not bothered about the acquisition of technical skills; the student should already have those when he arrives, or else they can be learnt elsewhere. The emphasis…lies entirely on the individual student’s personal artistic development.
Marianne Van Kerkhoven

The Student Body

DasArts is an international multi-disciplinary program. It is conducted in English to deal with international diversity. Although there is an informal understanding that there be some Dutch students each year, in fact the majority of participants are always non-Dutch. In the graduation I witnessed, there were students from Mexico, Japan, Germany, Lebanon and the Netherlands. Up to 75 applicants apply from all continents. This year, 12 were accepted for commencement over 2 Blocks. The usual number of ongoing students involved is around 30. Artistic background ranges across theatre, dance, video, music, visual art, design and installation art. Applicants have to travel to Amsterdam for their interview but once they are accepted the program is free and they are supported with an allowance that sits just above the poverty line in the Netherlands. For many international students this is a real incentive.

These facts are but a poor indication of the human, humane, interrogative, risky, brave power of DasArts. Two factors need to be mentioned in relation to this: humanity and interrogation.


In his letter to his daughter in 1993, ten Cate wrote: “Insight into the self in relation to the other, also to read the other as though from a different culture, should always be highly esteemed.” This emphasis on the quality of humanity, implicit too in number 5 of the list of objectives, is reflected in the comment of a past student published in What is DasArts, a book produced during the recent Festival. “Block 1 to me was RESPECT, respect that was threatening…It made me think that art, no matter what the object or event, is about human relations and interaction…”


In his reflection on the program in 1998, quoting Plato’s dictum that “an unexamined life is not worth living”, ten Cate commented: “An unexamined institution is not worth the powder it would take to blow it to hell…The basic structure of DasArts enforces ongoing examination.” He is right. The Block structure ensures that a new curriculum is introduced every 6 months. That curriculum is completely the responsibility not of the permanent staff but of the guest mentor(s). This in its very form places the entire system under constant scrutiny.

But once this spirit of interrogation is allowed in, it turns in a healthy way upon its host body. In an inspiring address at the recent festival, Marijke Hoogenboom, in her paper, “Who is afraid of (art) education? Undecent proposals for an uncertain future”, put up for questioning not only the base structure of DasArts but the very concept of an arts education itself. (This from one of the foremost contemporary arts educators.) I don’t have the space to reproduce her argument here (it is something I wish to return to in a future piece on the challenges facing arts education in Australia), but will conclude with one of the opening salvos in her act of deep self-interrogation: “One of the crucial starting points of DasArts was and is, to suggest that with every new Block the school would be questioned and reinvented; but after 11 Blocks that I have been part of, I started to wonder if we really had kept our promise. Or—what was really needed to not just expand our system once again, but knock us out of our own territory forever.”

Quotations in this article are from: DasArts, edited by Jan Brand and Ewan Lentjes (Amsterdam 2000); What is DasArts, collated by Hein Eberson (Amsterdam 2005) and “Who is afraid of (arts) education?” by Marijke Hoogenboom.

With thanks to everyone at DasArts for their hospitality.

DasArts Festival, Frascati, Amsterdam, June 14-18

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 42

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

Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess

Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess

Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess

Forced Enterainment, arguably one of the most important and groundbreaking theatre and cross-artform companies of the last 20 years, will be returning to Australia from the UK in October to present their new work, Bloody Mess, as part of Kristy Edmunds’ Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. Their first visit, with First Night and the durational improvisation And on the thousandth night…(RT 60, p27) at the 2004 Adelaide Festival, was received by audiences and critics with a combination of rapture, confusion and anger. For me it was the most exciting theatrical import since Romeo Castellucci’s Giulio Cesare in the 2000 Adelaide Festival.

According to the dictionary on my laptop, “entertain” can mean “to engage a person or audience by providing amusing or interesting material”, “to offer hospitality, especially by providing food and drink for people in your home” and “to turn something over in your mind, looking at it from various points of view.” ‘Forced’ is defined as “not natural or spontaneous, but produced by an act of will”, “not done voluntarily but out of necessity” and “done because somebody who has power requires it.” These definitions offer 9 permutations of what “forced entertainment” might stand for as a concept. Rehearsing (or entertaining) each one in my mind as a possible description of the work of Forced Entertainment, the performance company, each rings true. Necessary amusement, coerced hospitality, wilful contemplation, and so on. Crucial to the project of the company is a constant flipping between these definitions, and the uncertain status of the audience and performer within it (who is forcing whom? what is being entertained?). It’s an exciting field of possibilities, made so by the expertise with which the company gives these ideas a living, breathing form, in performance, in discussion and on the page.

There’s a lot I would like to say about Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess—the fraught space between the doing of performance and the theorising about it—at the same time, I don’t want to reveal too much. It is an experience best entered into without too much prior knowledge. A wild, awkward, noisy, seemingly anarchic yet very carefully constructed pastiche of performance art, bad comedy, melodrama, high school physics lecture and rock concert, it is an engaging, hilarious critique of the act of performance and, at the same time, a nostalgic evocation of adolescence. I saw Bloody Mess last year as part of a 2-day symposium celebrating and reflecting upon 20 years of work by Forced Entertainment, hosted by Lancaster University’s Centre for the Advanced Study of Contemporary Performance Practice and held at the Nuffield Theatre. The title of the symposium, a typical combination of artistic idealism and critical clarity, was “We are searching for a theatre that can really talk about what it’s like to live through these times.”

The conference had the feel of a family gathering, with a small attendance of theatre makers, academics and students, many of whom had a long history of engagement with the company. Mathew Goulish and Lin Hixson, of Chicago-based performance ensemble Goat Island were present. The companies have collaborated extensively and Goulish and Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director, Tim Etchells, are the creators of the web-based Institute of Failure.

David Williams of Dartington College of the Arts gave the standout paper of the weekend. Williams influenced a generation of Australian theatre makers and students through his years teaching at the University of Western Australia and the Victorian University of Technology in the 90s before returning to the UK. His performance-presentation, titled “Welcome to Paradise (You’d Have Loved it) or, in that failing is your heartbeat” was prefaced as both “a meditation on memory, fiction, lies, maps and their gaps, and the productive limits of knowing,” and “a love song to Sheffield and Australia, and to our animal others.” It was a beautiful, rich, emotionally raw evocation of an individual audience member’s relationship with a theatre company over time. It was particularly powerful for me, as it was through witnessing David Williams’ lectures and being part of workshops and creative processes with him in Perth while an undergraduate student at UWA that I first was turned on to the idea of theatre as a site of enormous possibilities. Listening to him reflect on discovering the work of a company in a far off land by reading journal articles and seeing snatches of blurry single-camera VHS documentation, was vivid articulation of my own journey in relation to innovative work in Europe and North America, as well as the work of now defunct companies in Australia such as the Sydney Front.

Another memorable paper was given by Tim Etchells, Artistic Director of Forced Entertainment, the morning after the UK premiere of Bloody Mess. Still recovering from major heart surgery, there was a sense of deep tiredness, as if Etchells was carrying the previous 20 years on his shoulders, not with resentment but with a kind of weary, nostalgic contentment. The previous day, a speaker on a “failure” panel had quoted the great Charlie Rich—“I’ve tried, I’ve failed, Lord I feel like going home” as a kind of mantra for the company—and I felt this in Etchells’ talk. His work has always been about failure, the failure of performance, the failure of language, the failure of human decency, the failure of the Left. In Etchells talk, I realised just how much he means it. The company started out in Thatcher’s Britain, and after 2 decades of political performance finds itself in Blair’s Cool Brittania. In Etchells talk, I had the feeling that there is never any home to go to, only more trying and more failures as in the journey charted in Samuel Beckett’s famous advice, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I first encountered the company’s work as part of the brilliant Kunstenfestival des Arts in Brussels in 2000. Scar Stories was perhaps not one of their more successful experiments. In the show, 2 actors—Terry O’Connor and Richard Lowdon—recite a list of stories about being scarred, pointing to non-existent marks on each other’s bodies as they do so. The audience surrounds them on 3 sides, very close to the stage due to an incredible seating rake. There is no embodiment of character, no mediation through performance forms, no narrative build, very little humour, very little levity. Afterwards it was as if nothing happened at all. I left that show with a very particular, and in hindsight, skewed idea of the company’s vision.

Seeing First Night and And on the Thousandth Night… in Adelaide 4 years later, I was able to really get a sense of the dystopian, excessive, brutally beautiful aesthetic which is central to the company’s long term project. Recurring motifs include bits of cardboard, lists, miniature stages-within-stages, words hand-written in paint, pantomime animal suits, beer, mess, British music hall entertainment, tits and lo-fi multimedia. Props, costumes, texts and ideas are often recycled from show to show. The company tends to pick over ideas that may have been left out of previous shows, or to develop ideas in one show which had begun in an earlier production. In terms of content, the company is obsessively interested in the rules of play which govern theatre, what is meant by “performer” and “audience” and what happens if these rules and categories are deliberately broken.

An aspect of Forced Entertainment that is not often written about is how strongly they are rooted in a particular culture—that of white, middle class England. The founders moved to Sheffield 20 years ago, because the beer and rent were cheap and they were able to be lost among the millions of people drawing unemployment benefits in Thatcher’s Britain while quietly going about creating theatre. They talk a lot about beer and football and drunken nights on tour. The forms most often referenced (and deconstructed) are music hall, amateur nights, pantomimes and school plays. Forced Entertainment picks over the bones of British culture—perhaps this is what gives the work such force, the underlying pathos of a great empire in decline.

Bloody Mess is the most user-friendly of the 4 shows I have seen by Forced Entertainment. Closer in form to First Night than their durational or metatheatrical experiements, it is a collage of overlapping theatrical experiments, ‘what ifs’, centering on the idea of ‘performance.’ If First Night was an investigation of the idea of an audience, then Bloody Mess turns the mirror back on the performers themselves.

Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess is part of the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 6-10, The CUB Malthouse

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 43

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

version 1.0, Wages of Spin

version 1.0, Wages of Spin

version 1.0, Wages of Spin

The Wages of Spin is ethically immersive. Sydney’s version 1.0 toss you in the moral deep end. At the show’s conclusion you come up, if not gasping at, then certainly contemplating your complicity in Australia’s reign of terror at home and abroad. Version 1.0 make it perfectly clear where they stand politically but, true to form in an already impressive body of work for a young company, their position is nuanced, blending blunt politicking, wicked satire and, pervasively, subtle inversion of expectation.

You enter a simulated TV show, passing a blindfolded man being interrogated by the media as he walks between upturned nails—but he’s not an Iraqi in Abu Ghraib, he’s our Minister of Defence. Shortly, with your fellow audience members, you are video-taped ‘pre-show’ applauding wildly for nothing in particular only to see yourselves later rapturuously framing an electorally victorious John Howard. Not me, you want to say, but too late. As with the election, we let it happen.

The power of The Wages of Spin resides in the totality of its vision and its expert realisation. Performance Space becomes a TV studio replete with mobile TV monitors, a control bank of screens, sound desk, musician, studio staff and a huge dominating screen that completes the sense of actual broadcast. The version 1.0 Wages of Spin logo turns beneath outsize images of the action played out before us, mixed with footage of warmongering and scrolling death statistics. The 3 performers play a range of politicians, TV presenters and Delta Goodrem, rarely resorting to direct mimickry (the John Clarke model of focusing on the semantic weaponry the politician wields as opposed to Max Gillies’ too precise imitations).

The studio setting amplifies how totally media frames the presentation of politics as bites, as entertainments, as half-baked debates helping ever more adept politicians spin their webs of deception. Characters are wheeled into position, switch on attitudes in an instant, exit out-of-frame like puppets, disappear as screens move past them or box them in, and look more impressive, more monstrous, on the big screen than as the small humans flailing about immediately before us. It’s not long before you are giddy with spin, even though you’ve heard it all before—but not like this. It frees you from the web to hear the all-too-obvious lies repeated, but moreso when a smug politician like Robert Hill cracks, caught in a loop of his own inept weaving.

version 1.0’s previous success, CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident), was similarly based on verbatim materials, but for the most part drew on one document and one event—the record of the Senate inquiry into ‘the children overboard affair.’ For most of its audience the material—the verbatim moral illogic of parliamentarians—was revelatory. There was also a sense of something monstrous, which for all of the Labor senators’ efforts to break through the web of lies and obsfucation, could not be breached—with a sense of ensuing moral exhaustion, relieved only by the comedy of the senators’ personalities and wranglings. The Wages of Spin is framed as an anchor-less TV news program, a series of media vignettes in which reporters report, politicians babble and writhe before Ray Martin and Kerry O’Brien, and Delta Goodrem plays victim while Iraqui war-dead are ignored, Major-General Peter Cosgrove talks over a box of yawling kittens and right-wing columnists prattle on about the failure of the opposition to the war. An angry, if ironic voice from Newtown angsts over the Howard victory, despairing over feeling alienated from the majority of Australians.

David Williams excels as the voice of dubious authority in various guises (miming a John Howard speech at one point); Stephen Klinder is wonderful as an unhinged Robert Hill and also as a rattled reporter working from cue cards to deliver a quickfire recent history of elections, war and terror; and Deborah Pollard does a funny, giggly Goodrem (cruelly intercut with Iraq war images) as well as grim, defeated Labor voter (although her ‘everything is fucked’ speech would have benefited from the detached style she so successfully exploited in CMI).

The focus on 3 transforming performers, the hightly integrated TV broadcast setting with its constantly inventive screen reframings (with a hyperactive but adroitly low profile studio staff) and a galvanising live guitar-driven score from Gail Priest, give The Wages of Spin cohesion. So too do the recurring litanies of spin, images of torture, the rolling out of statistics and various ‘media magic’ stagings strengthen a structure that threatens to fall in to skit-ishness. In its first realisation The Wages of Spin is not quite as taut, consistent and powerful as it could be. Oddly, the show’s most potent images come early on, first as we enter the studio to encounter the blind-folded man walking through nails and secondly when we are videotaped. The first image, played out as the audience is being seated, is sustained, anxiety-making and complex in a way that nothing else is that comes after. The second image has Klinder preparing us for the taping, but instead of facing us, he’s at the other end of the studio talking to the big screen version of us—the effect of the inversion on the audience is palpable with the realisation that we’ve been ‘mediated’, mere cyphers of ourselves, and, as it turns out, dupes. Thereafter we’re just an audience,

The Wages of Spin is an immaculately realised hybrid of performance and electronic media, and one of the best I’ve witnessed, with much of the credit going to video artist Sean Bacon. My only reservation is about the show’s ending surrendering to the filmic side of the hybrid, with a list of the war dead rolling down the screen. Sure, the point is that this information should defeat the spin we’ve heard iterated across the show, but it’s like watching a documentary in a cinema rather than feeling the power of integrated live action and video that’s worked so effectively to this point. It’s feels like a doco cliché and it belongs with the performative cliches that occasionally infect The Wages of Spin—like litanies and running. They should go the way of unadorned Suzuki stomping, old bathtubs, piles of shoes, suitcases and dead leaves, into the bin of performance history unless you can do something very special with them.

The Wages of Spin is a bizarre, self-lacerating entertainment, where you have to be prepared to laugh and grimace in turn at the lunacy of brutally effective spin and its perpetrators, at yourself if you’re taken in, or for letting them get away with blatant untruths. As a reminder of how we’ve arrived at this most culpable of moments in our national history, where there are no excuses, and as a model of multimedia performance, The Wages of Spin is mandatory viewing.


Suzan Lori-Parks is a major American playwright. Even her overtly didactic In the Blood is driven by wonderful dialogue, populated with idiosyncratic characters and blessed with suspenseful construction. Director Tanya Denny has realised Park’s grim vision of an embattled black mother and her children with a poetic intensity that rises above the comforts of naturalism, a fine cast who get the American accents and rhythms right in a way the big theatre companies invariably don’t, and a superb central performance from Candy Bowers (of Sista She and a NIDA graduate, 2001). One of 2005’s best in Sydney as well as part of a strong B Sharp program

Emma J Cooper and Kiruna Stamell are engaging performers (see page 47). They make the most of the opportunities offered by Genet’s The Maids (director Paul Barry) to play out the permutations of a power fantasy with spontaneity and an acuity of interpretation. Less convincing is the relationship with their mistress (Beccy Iland), who, save a physical facility to aptly treat her short-statured co-performers like children (dragging them along, picking them up, tossing them onto the bed), lacks the psychological power to kick the drama onto another level—it’s as if nothing is happening to her. As well, the heavy-handed underlining of each of the maids’ role-playing scenes with music unfortunately undercuts the performers’ vocal reach. Nonetheless there is something eerily right in the ‘dance’ that comprises the relationship between the maids. Cooper and Stamell are performers to watch out for.

Louise Fox’s This Little Piggy updates Animal Farm into the early 21st century. The farm has become a clinic and some of its more-equal-than-other inhabitants are experimenting genetically on one another, until the plug is pulled on the project. Although adroitly directed (Benjamin Winspear) and visually realised (Ralph Myers, Gabriela Tylesova) and with some fine performances, the play’s a bigger problem than the issues. Too much of the first part is wearyingly expository, the next (a shadow play) re-enacts the Animal Farm story that inspired it (why?), and the last part withers away just when we thought that Matthew Whittet’s fine ‘Pig’ would get the opportunity to do battle with Nicholas Hope’s under-written executive, ‘Eagle.’ But, no go.

version 1.0, The Wages of Spin, devised & performed by Stephen Klinder, Deborah Pollard, David Williams, dramaturgy Paul Dwyer, outside eye Yana Taylor, lighting Simon Wise, video Sean Bacon, sound Gail Priest, producer Harley Stumm; Performance Space, May 20-June 5

Atypical Theatre/Two Hour Traffic, Fig Tree Theatre, UNSW, June 1-18

Sydney Theatre Company Blueprints Program, Wharf 2, from June 15

Belvoir St Downstairs, May 19-June 5

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 44

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

Snuff Puppets, Nyet Nyet’s Picnic

Snuff Puppets, Nyet Nyet’s Picnic

Snuff Puppets, Nyet Nyet’s Picnic

The Snuff Puppets have always been a daring, maverick outfit. What could be more audacious than scheduling an outdoor show in Melbourne in late May? Nyet Nyet’s Picnic ran for 3 nights in Birrarung Marr, drawing crowds of people to the park, out along the river under the moon in a clear cold sky. All the elements of a storytelling space were there: a traditional cleared circle, a mound of sand, a dead tree and a fire. Also, a non-traditional green garbage bin. Peering into this circle, we see images derived from versions of bunyip stories collected from Indigenous communities all over Victoria and used with permission of Boonerwrung elder, Carolyn Briggs.

Bunyips are a natural subject for the Snuff Puppets. For years they have imagined and assembled huge animated things that give life to the creatures of dreams and nightmares. These visions are made to walk amongst us, inviting themselves into our unguarded childhood fascination with puppets. But once we let them in, Snuff Puppets behave in unexpected and disturbing ways, touching on fear, bizarre fascinations and sickening transformations. So, there are plenty of brown, big-footed, hairy, goggle-eyed folk. Endearingly cute but a bit scary. A big white hairy dog-like creature is stuffed into the garbage bin. Pale, hollow-eyed devouring things with beaks float around. Then a huge gorgeous vision: think of a Chinese dragon. She is vast, pink and orange and she eats flowers much as the Cookie Monster eats cookies, with chewing, gurgling and burps. But Snuff Puppets are Muppets gone feral. She is no vegan. Her real passion is to eat a Yorta Yorta man. The poor soul who does the wrong thing and drifts into her path is chewed greedily into her orange and pink beard. He struggles valiantly and is spat out again. Poor old girl—back to the flowers.

It turns out that a number of the monsters are female and often old as the earth herself. The Nyet Nyets trap people—not to eat them but to feed them. They suckle their wayward victims from old, droopy green breasts in order to possess their spirits. An interesting inversion of vampire stories where men with sharp teeth feed on the necks of innocent girls.

There are sections of this work where the grandeur of vision leaves the structure as a whole looking underdeveloped. If you can, picture an entire paddle steamer, with people on board, navigating onto the sandy mound. From underneath, a vast green Mulgawonky unfurls itself. Ignoring the Indigenous knowledge that if you harm the Mulgawonky you die, the foreigners dismember the monster whose body parts float off in several directions. And then they die a terrible death. The creation of such an image encapsulates the visionary way in which Snuff Puppets work. Text and internal linking are thin by comparison and at times get in the way of what we are seeing. This may be because Nyet Nyet’s Picnic started life as a part of Melbourne’s 2003 Moomba Parade, hence the emphasis on engaging visual storytelling.

A Red Neck Ranger character wanders around the site doggedly trying to enforce his ‘No Camping’ rule where the Indigenous kids have settled for the night. Visually impressive but somewhat aimless, his character really comes into its own when his head catches fire. Snuff Puppets have always excelled at capturing moments such as this—grotesque, eccentric, flamboyant and faintly nauseating.

In all their forms, these stories show bunyips are active in a kind of ongoing moral policing role. If you leave them alone and behave yourself, you’ll be okay, but if you are caught in the wrong place, alone or doing the wrong thing, out too late, then they’ll get you. These are bunyips as part of the land and the natural order of things. More than myths, they are a real and dangerous presence. I think of the Yarra (Bayrawrung) running quietly past this performance in the background. From its pristine state, Bayrawrung has been gradually made into a sewer, a tip, a storm water run-off. In recent years we find strange things might be emerging from its depths to make people very sick. Who’s been naughty, then?

Nyet Nyet’s Picnic, presented by the Snuff Puppets and Indigenous Artists; director Ian Pidd, performers Nick Barlow, Tony Briggs, Corleen Cooper, Jania Charles, Gary Donnelly, Dennis Fisher, Daniell Flood, Jason Jai, KT Prescott, Earl Rosas, PJ Rosas, Naretha Williams, designer Andy Freer, choreographer Earl Rosas, musical director, James Wilkinson; Birrarung Marr, May 20-22

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 45

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

Bell In the Storm,

Bell In the Storm,

Thunderstorms, the brain, oceans and love.

This by-line for David Buchanan’s new play, A Bell in the Storm, at the Planetarium in Perth promises a heightened theatrical experience. Simon (Luke Hewitt) steps on stage. He probes the audience about our relationship to pain. Who of the audience is in pain right now? How long has this pain lasted?

From these questions, and from the way he inhabits his body, we understand that Simon is a troubled man. And it is a sad story that he tells us. One night driving home, he stops at an intersection. As he waits, chatting idly to his wife and kids on the mobile, headlights loom in the rear vision mirror. A car careers into the back of Simon’s vehicle.

Down the track, Simon is in trouble. He suffers chronic pain as a result of his accident, and has lost his job as a teacher. His marriage has collapsed, and his only support is clinical psychologist, Sally (Rosemarie Lenzo). When Sally visits pain specialist Andrew (Steve Turner) to seek a sympathetic referral for Simon’s pending insurance case, she recognises the doctor as the man she loved nearly 20 years before. Sally solicits Andrew’s support, and tells him that, to date, medical specialists have found no physiological basis—no proof—of Simon’s pain. Hence Sally and Simon fear that his damages case will be dismissed and he will lose everything.

With romantic business temporarily on the backburner, Simon and Andrew have a testy meeting. Luckily for Simon, Andrew is interested in pain, and has studied the effects of trauma on victims of war. Simon eventually opens up to Andrew. While most of Simon’s life is spent barely containing his acute state, he had discovered a way to externalise and manage his pain through photography. While taking photographs of electrical storms, Simon feels no pain. The Planetarium becomes the screen for impressive projections of thunderstorms, which Andrew recognises as a vivid and apt visual metaphor for neuropathic pain. But Simon’s managing of his pain threatens to be his undoing; the insurance company has film of him, able-bodied and limber, out at night with his camera in the storm. Meanwhile, as the court case comes closer, we learn that Sally has kept something hidden from Andrew…

A Bell in the Storm is driven by a passionate desire to critique dominant paradigms of pain which, since the 18th century, have been dominated by the Cartesian mind/body split. As we all know, pain is now largely the property of science and the pharmaceutical industry. We have no trouble dismissing something as ‘all in their heads’, implying that real pain is wholly and incontrovertibly in the body; hence locatable and curable. As the characters in the play explain, Descartes’ theory of pain was encapsulated in an image of a naked man putting his foot in a fire. An outside stimulus (fire) causes pain to travel in a single direction up a nerve/bell-rope, to a bell which rings in the brain (response).

Undoing this mechanical model, the characters here speak of neuropathic pain, such as occurs in ‘phantom limb syndrome.’ We learn that even minor pain can make some people sensitive to further pain; that the effects of shock can be multiple, complicated, and fluid.

In the writer’s program notes, Buchanan tells us that the concerns of the play are directly linked to his having had a car accident, and that the ideas and insights in this play were the subject of a PhD. However, there is an uneasy gap between the powerful ideas that form the core of this author’s play and the character-based mode that is employed to embody the concepts. Most of the time, the script is busy attending to the boggy needs of plot, while the performers are beholden to the clunky demands of melodramatic realism—a genre of which no one on stage seems particularly convinced. While the domed screen of the planetarium enables an epic expression of pain through the metaphor of the lightning bolt and the storm, it disables the performers’ movement, restricting them to a small podium with the audience raked steeply above them.

It is rare to see theatre take the subject of pain and the body as its subject, and to be brave enough to create a narrative that can express the lonely and disabling experience of inhabiting the body in pain and attempt to illuminate the issues in a popular and accessible way.

Simon does not kill himself, and Sally and Andrew are re-united. Such rigid attention to the demands of a certain kind of story-telling undermines one of the key insights of the play: for Simon there is, was, and will be no easy way out.

I was left longing for a more poetic, elastic form; a form that could leave endings open, and that could unbind rather than bind.

A Bell In the Storm, writer David Buchanan, director Angela Chaplin, Deckchair Theatre, The Planetarium, SciTech Discovery Centre, May 12-28

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 45

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

Moira Finucaine, Gotharama

Moira Finucaine, Gotharama

Moira Finucaine, Gotharama

Non Parlo di Salo

Monstrous and breathtaking, Melbourne Workers Theatre’s Non Parlo di Salò is also one of the most ruthlessly philosophical pieces of theatre to emerge locally in recent years. It could too easily have taken the notorious Pasolini film Salò at its centre as an excuse to shock, or make a one-sided anti-censorship plea. And to be sure, there is much here to unsettle even the most jaded of viewers, including sexualised violence, nudity, sodomy and shit-eating. But the honesty of the writer’s intentions, as well as a remarkable commitment by all performers mean that rather than turning off, the audience cannot help but be convinced of the integrity of the piece. Pasolini himself, played with great depth by John Francis Howard, is an iconic figure in his tinted dark glasses and sharp suit. Provocateur and political rebel, artist and antihero; we are offered a constantly shifting perspective on a profoundly contradictory character. Most of the play takes place off set during the filming of Salò, with a brief, but compelling sidestory of a young present-day Australian filmmaker, who is inspired by Pasolini, in confrontation with his despairing mother.

Director Andrea James mentioned to me after the show that she’d not fully appreciated the power of Christos Tsiolkas and Spiro Economopoulos’ script on the page, and that it was only when given life by actors that Non Parlo di Salò achieved its disturbing resonance. Certainly, the play provides a more visceral understanding of the sort of cinema Pasolini strove to create than anything I’ve read on the subject. Salò was his nightmare, and we learn much of what kind of mind seeks to recreate such a nightmare as art.


Nightmares of a different order are in no short supply in the latest “cabaret bizarre” by cross-genre artist Moira Finucane. Finucane’s works merge elements of cabaret, dance, storytelling and sideshow, often playing on imagery equally grotesque and beautiful. Gotharama’s near-dozen short vignettes betray a fascination with the Gothic in all of its definitions: from the trashy page-turner of the 18th century to the industrial-edged Goth subculture of today. But while the term has almost come to signify a repository of cliched tropes, a kind of shorthand for creating suspense and the thrill of fear, Gotharama manages to reanimate the corpse of the Gothic through inventively reinterpreting the standard types of the form. There are moments of Gothic intensity in which Finucane’s performance approaches the sublime, in the philosophical sense: tableaux which cannot be assimilated through any frame of reference except their own heightened, hysterical brilliance. They are savage and erotic spectacles such as the Frankenstein-like “fair maid” who jerks manically to life, all bloodcurdling screams and erratic spider-walking, limbs flailing to a shattering industrial throb; or the closing vision of a Carrie-style figure spouting showers of blood and revelling in the carnage. But equally, Finucane’s more measured and subtle moments of storytelling create uncanny and disquieting effects. A disembodied head upon a bed explains how a series of unfortunate events led to her present state; a young girl recounts a boat trip with a sinister older man bent on her destruction. There is much humour. In Buried Alive!, the victim cries, “I’m not dead! I’m not dead! I was just bored!”

But the most eerie and understated piece, in my opinion, is A Sunny Day, in which a bikini-clad woman sits contently in the sun, which slowly disappears leaving her shivering with an increasing violence. Over the course of several minutes, and with not a word spoken, Finucane suggests a world of personal terror through the simple, natural process of growing cold. Finucane is able to switch from sledgehammer to slow-acting poison in a heartbeat, and in Gotharama she has created a show worthy of comparison with her best works of the past decade.

The Wall Project

Despite the self-imposed restraints demanded of participants in The Wall Project, a quite remarkable triptych has been produced. Three writers were given a short period in which to develop a series of 5 scenes centred on the theme of the Wall, and over a period of only a few weeks, performers and director Chris Bendall workshopped the disparate scripts into a somewhat uneven whole. The 3 pieces which make up the project are only tenuously connected, and the dramatic core of each is not necessarily the wall of the overall piece’s title.

Ben Ellis offers us an imagined nation which could be the product of Kafka writing on contemporary terrorism: the absurdity of the bureaucratic state is juxtaposed with the story of a retarded boy sent on a suicide bombing mission. A foreign visitor is subjected to absurd interrogation, and then introduced to a vain and worn out actor as ironically symbolic of the republic’s great character. It is the actor, of course, who brings about the explosive climax. Ellis is here in a territory in which he can confidently write, expanding on earlier plays which interweave the political with personal dramas, all presented in a sly and ironic fashion.

Tee O’Neill’s piece, too, is a powerful take on contemporary global politics, in this case the miseries of international sex trafficking. A Sex and the City-styled heroine waits for her boyfriend in a leafy city park, but comes upon the ravaged figure of a Russian sex slave buried in the undergrowth, shackled by a leather chastity belt with a counter to tally the number of men by whom she has been brutalised, and accompanied by a child whose mental scarring is quickly apparent. Our protagonist’s own involvement in the scenario slowly emerges, and a murderous conclusion leaves audiences with a series of powerful and indelible impressions.

Tom Wright’s is the least successful work in the context of the larger project. Set aboard the Second Fleet and focusing on a trio of prostitutes sent to the colonies, the drama is articulated in the kind of guttural archaic language which has recently enlivened works like Anthony Crowley’s The Frail Man and Wright’s own adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (RT 67, p29). The story told is ripe with allegorical possibility, as one of the women is raped and miscarries a shrunken Christ child, a sacrifice resonant with the aborted dreams of Australia’s history. But the voices of these characters require a different kind of engagement to the more accessible pieces they abut, and this creates a jarring effect when we shift from scene to scene. It’s not that diverse styles of theatre should not be presented alongside one another in this way; it’s just that Wright’s piece is exponentially more ‘difficult’ than the others.

Catastrophe Practice 1: Skylight

Skylight possesses an air of the historical, of revealing a moment when something was blowing in the wind. One of only 3 pieces for theatre written by renowned British author Nicholas Mosley, the production at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre was in fact also the world premiere—decades after the work was written. Despite Mosley’s marginal status in the British theatrical revolutions of the 1960s, we can still see here correspondences with contemporaneous work by Pinter or Brook and, across the Channel, Handke or Grotowski. Mosley’s plays are perhaps less confronting than the key works of these formidable theatremakers. However they are more playful, silly even, and generous towards an audience’s desire for narrative.

The play opens as a kind of Noel Coward social comedy gone wrong. A small group of loosely defined aristocrats are raising the roof in the seclusion of a mountain top castle, while some kind of unrest rumbles in the town below. There are intimations of desire and betrayal, familial problems and perhaps even deadly sabotage. But from the outset, these conventional devices are cut up with the “non-acting” explicitly espoused by Mosley. Actors handle lighting changes themselves and operate a pair of CD players loaded with nostalgic melodies; at times they appear to fudge lines and even show a reluctance to enter the stage, requiring others to drag them on. David Bailiht’s Ariel is especially entertaining, pulling ridiculously histrionic grimaces and amateurish balletic poses, to the disgust of his fellow players. Individual audience members are frequently addressed (“Is it you?”) and a long fuse connected to explosives is planted amongst onlookers. It’s the kind of fourth wall breakdown which has itself become somewhat dated, but the non-serious way in which it is presented keeps things from growing mouldy.

Non Parlo di Salò, writers Christos Tsiolkas, Spiro Economopoulos, director Andrea James, dramaturg Patricia Cornelius, design Emily Barrie, lighting Marko Respondeck, sound Jethro Woodward; Melbourne Workers Theatre, Trades Hall New Ballroom, July 13-30

Gotharama, Keep Breathing Productions, text by Moira Finucane, performers Moira Finucane, Carolyn Connors, director Jackie Smith, design Anna Tregloan, costumes David Anderson, lighting Paul Jackson, sound Carolyn Connors, Darrin Verhagen; fortyfivedownstairs, July 6-24

The Wall Project, writers Ben Ellis, Tee O’Neill and Tom Wright, director Chris Bendall; Theatre@Risk, fortyfivedownstairs, June 1-5

Catastrophe Practice 1: Skylight, writer Nicholas Mosley, director Bob Pavlich, lighting Luke Hails, designer Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman, sound Previn Naidu; La Mama, Carlton Courthouse, July 13-30

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 46,

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

Emma J Cooper and Kirüna Stamell, Atypical Theatre Company, The Maids

Emma J Cooper and Kirüna Stamell, Atypical Theatre Company, The Maids

Emma J Cooper and Kirüna Stamell, Atypical Theatre Company, The Maids

In The Myth of the Mainstream (Platform Papers No 4, Currency House, April 2005), Robyn Archer argues that under Australia’s conservative government, a “superficial, smoothed-over public domain” provides less and less space for the making of challenging art. The weight upon emerging artists to wrestle with this world, as well as to step into the well-trodden genres of performance making is a heavy challenge. And yet, those who are ‘emerging’ into this murky domain are stoic and clear about what they are trying to achieve. I spoke to several Sydney-based groups in various stages of training and development about the issues they face and how they go about identifying themselves in the contemporary performance landscape and broader political sphere.


The term ‘emerging artist’ is problematic. Some artists consider themselves as ‘always emerging’ as a matter of principle, while some resent discriminatory distinctions implied between established artists with bodies of work and those without. Others comment on the age bracket that defines the category—up to 26 years of age for an Australia Council grant under the Young Artists’ Initiative, up to 35 years for a new writers’ program run by Griffin Theatre. While there is necessary discussion to be had on age bracket strictures—on how and when one has ‘successfully’ emerged—there is also debate around the contexts in which emerging artists are supported and trained.

The performance community in Sydney supports emerging performers in a number of ways. Both PACT Youth Theatre and Urban Theatre Projects have ensemble programs designed to bring younger and established practitioners together. The Universities of New South Wales, Western Sydney and Charles Sturt University provide contexts for artist-led productions, and the national mentorship program Spark enables relationships between established and emerging artists. Such intergenerational activity plays an important role in developing a supportive performance community with a common aesthetic and outlook. The shift however, between younger artists merely imitating the knowledges that are shared and inventing newer practices in more self-driven contexts is particularly tricky, especially when access (such as creative development funding) is bracketed by age.

Reflecting on her experiences on the way to professional status, Michelle Outram says that negotiating the gap between being “seen as young and emerging but too senior for some opportunities” was difficult. For her, this involved the shift from her work with Teik Kim Pok and Gavin Sladen as Shagging Julie, whose caravan installation Better Than a Blow-up Doll! (RT60, p31) toured to the 2004 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, to establishing herself as a solo artist with various ongoing collaborations. Michelle’s strategy was to garner “support from a range of people and places—not generally monetary support.” She formed relationships with Performance Studies at Sydney University and PACT, and also participated in Time_Place_Space which introduced her to performance networks. There was also, of course, “lots of knocking on doors, lots of applications.”

My Darling Patricia

My Darling Patricia’s Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan, Katrina Gill and Halcyon Macleod recently completed their season of Politely Savage (RT 67, p32). Their impressive collective resume includes Visual Arts degrees from Sydney’s College of Fine Arts, training with PACT Youth Theatre’s ImPACT Ensemble, an apprenticeship with Erth Theatre Company, an international classical dance career, training in circus arts and a Production Crafts degree from NIDA. What is noticeable about the Patricias’ expertise is that it incorporates development in professional contexts—“constructing and performing and doing street theatre and corporate gigs”—as well as formal education in generating visual and performance languages. For them, this has meant that the gap felt by emerging artists between artistic dreaming and its actual realisation in production has been skillfully managed, with their latest triumph, the large scaffolding structure housing Politely Savage, being designed and constructed solely by the artists.

Halcyon explains that Politely Savage grew out of “an ongoing interest in the lost or damaged child” and from a conversation Katrina recorded between her 2 grandmothers for Kissing the Mirror, an earlier work. “We had these characters who were old women, and we were interested in what they were like when they were young.” The striking nature of the work stems from its very delicately built interplay of subconscious and conscious worlds—a step outside current performance trends which seem to offer more direct discursive, spatial or physical interventions into the political sphere and to avoid image-based terrain. Interestingly, the Patricias acknowledge numerous mentors as contributing to their work, suggesting that they learn from artists who have been influenced by “the great innovators in Australia, people like The Sydney Front.” Rather than having direct experience of those glory days themselves, they note that back then “we were probably still at primary school.” Ex-Sydney Fronter Chris Ryan consulted on Politely Savage.


Lara Thoms and Kat Barron are spat&loogie, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Media Arts Production students working at Performance Space to develop Shopping Games, a performative installation exploring notions of consumerism and marketing overdrive through creating a hyperreal supermarket. Shopping Games is funded by Next Wave’s Kickstart program. Lara explains that she and Kat are “trying to create a sensory environment through design and new media and scanner [barcode] technology” which “comes up with your retail-consumer fortune: an analysis of what you’ve bought.” They suggest that what drives them is equally their political objection to “increased corporate power and increased marketing strategies” and their interest in form, where they are “really trying to make very hybrid work, giving things like video and performance and installation equal weight.”

The primary influences for Lara and Kat are to be found in communities “who put on short work nights, or visual arts exhibitions which use interactive media” outside established performance territory. However, making their subcultural practice visible in Performance Space testifies to the fine line emerging artists hedge between negotiating funding expectations and being able to experiment. Lara explains, “There is a lot more pressure. We have time to create a process and experiment, but at the same time, we have the Next Wave festival in mind. We’re also just really lucky to have this opportunity.”

Atypical Theatre

A different kind of politics is being investigated by Kirüna Stamell and Emma J Cooper with the establishment of their Atypical Theatre Company, a company invested in positioning the disabled body centrally within theatre and performance practice. Both Kirüna and Emma are short-statured performers and their recent co-production with Two Hour Traffic of Jean Genet’s The Maids exposes the discrimination that inadvertently absents disabled bodies from mainstream roles. “We’re taking a traditional work and making alternative casting decisions”, Kirüna explains. “For the majority of scripts there is absolutely no reason why somebody doesn’t have a missing limb, it’s just assumed they don’t. Emma and I are constantly seen as performing artists not as actors.”

The challenge Emma and Kirüna put to both performance and theatre communities is to shift the way relationships between disabled and able-bodied performers are perceived and to alter expectations around what those bodies can do in terms of form. They met while one was working for the Sydney Theatre Company in Volpone and the other in Macbeth. Aside from classical theatre work, Emma’s recent performance with the Urban Theatre Projects’ and Branch Nebula’s co-production Plaza Real saw her “suddenly become a physical performer, something that just emerged.” Placed alongside Kirüna’s background in dance, the duo offer a vision of theatre that does not discriminate between canonical texts or contemporary devised scores, with future projects including a possible commission for a writer. Their work also offers an important vision of partnership centre stage. Kirüna explains, “For the first time I am not an anomaly and people are saying, “There’s 2 of them… oh my God… maybe there’s more”.”


My Darling Patricia are currently looking to tour Politely Savage, Emma and Kirüna each have Australia Council grants to pursue, and Michelle has initiated a new collaboration called The Plimsoll Line, “a group of artists who come together for research and development.” Lara and Kat want to get some serious skills under their belts, such as welding and new media programming. Their vision for a further work: “performance in true life, adopting fake identities and invisible theatre scenarios.”

So, is there a slow burn of common ideas and forms among emerging companies building towards the creation of major players as in years gone by? Or more recently, in version 1.0’s successful bringing together of several generations of performers after careful emergence? To paraphrase Clare Britton, maybe if we look back in 20 years’ time, then we’ll see the patterns we are drawing together now.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 47

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

Sarah-Jane Pell, Hydrophilia, BEAP04 Perth, Video Still

Sarah-Jane Pell, Hydrophilia, BEAP04 Perth, Video Still

Sarah-Jane Pell, Hydrophilia, BEAP04 Perth, Video Still

Walking With Water offered a retrospective of work by performance and installation artist Sarah-Jane Pell, in what she calls “aquabatics.” Although she draws on the poetic and performative potential suggested by aquatic environments, her body of work is best described as an aestheticisation of life support systems. The body in water is dialectical, at once in communion with and conflict with water. Aquatic performance offers the possibility of an ecstatic release into the enveloping weightlessness of an azure world, yet nevertheless the body gags in the face of this fantasy, as the need for oxygen reasserts itself.

The most successful of Pell’s live works documented in Walking With Water is Under Current (2003-4). It did not, however, involve any external water source, rather the body became watery: a tortured, twisted, physical object, vacuum-sealed beneath a plexiglass dome, dragged across the floor while water vapour condensed on the shell over Pell’s increasingly distressed form. For 16 minutes, the sound of her laboured breathing was amplified to the audience as she crawled about, all but consuming the available oxygen. Like the tremulously beautiful performances by butoh master Kazuo Ohno of the 1970s, in which he depicted the ghost of his “dead foetus” alter ego, or the childhood recollections of his peer Tatsumi Hijikata of holding himself beneath a deadly whirlpool while undergoing multiple deaths and rebirths, Under Current is a violently sublime work, playing on the sadomasochistic beauty of our fragile embodiment.

Pell’s other works engage more directly with water. Second Nature: Second Skin (2003) and Revolutions (2004) are video installations of actions performed on or under the ocean. In Second Nature, Pell is shown silhouetted by an aureole of light, suspended in deep blue water, her arms adorned with wing-shaped, steel and perspex armatures based upon Leonardo da Vinci’s speculative designs for human flight. In Revolutions, however, Pell is shown spread-eagled (as in da Vinci’s Ecce homo), rolling across a bay in a German wheel, her smile periodically submerged as she turns upside down. Videoed in the warmth of sunset, Revolutions suggests a joyful game with water, while Second Nature is more meditative, the human form surrounded by dark liquid recalling Bill Viola’s more arresting installation, The Messenger, at the 1998 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Pell’s most provocative and innovative practice is that in which she is also most tentative. Hydrophilia (2004) and Odyssey (2005, performed alongside the retrospective) both employ clear plastic headpieces partially filled with water, air being visibly provided to the audibly breathing performer via valves. Hydrophilia is a fascinating durational work using a heavy, spherical helmet, in which the water distorts Pell’s physiognomy and spittle pours from an external valve, dramatising the affinity between water inside and outside the body. Although visually attractive, this helmet proved dangerously heavy and was replaced by the flexible casque of Odyssey additionally fitted with an external air-cleansing unit, moulded in the shape of a heart and lungs. While this externalization of internal life processes was intriguing, the mechanics of Odyssey eclipsed this conceptual focus.

Pell cautiously entered the gallery, engaged in complicated hand signals with her support staff, laboriously positioned herself in the German wheel before standing for a minute, breathing loudly, then inverting herself in the wheel to allow for the equally involved removal of the helmet. To safely establish the body within such a framework proved so fraught that the logistics themselves became the form, audiences becoming absorbed with watching Pell’s semaphoring, or in trying to determine what was happening.

Pell taps into a rich vein and her video installations are highly accomplished. However, her recent live performance primarily served as a fascinatingly tragic enactment of the overwhelming complexities involved in designing safe life support systems. By focusing her attention on minimizing the dangers inherent in her process, Pell loses the visceral affectiveness inherent in live art works such as Joseph Beuys’ residency with a wild coyote (I Love America and America Loves Me, 1974), in favor of an aesthetic which gestures towards the eventual taming of these dangers via a thoroughly technologised aesthetic. Whether such an art would be compelling, once rendered streamlined and safe, remains to be seen.

Walking With Water: An exhibition of underwater performance research, Sarah-Jane Pell, Western Australian Maritime Museum, June 17-22

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 48

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

Jacques Soddell, 24 gestures (for giussepe chiari) from The Piano Room

Jacques Soddell, 24 gestures (for giussepe chiari) from The Piano Room

undue noise began in 1999 as a forum for local experimental underground/electronic musicians in the central Victorian town of Bendigo and surrounding areas. This year’s Remembrance of Things Past was organised by Jacques Soddell at the Allans Walk artist run space.

The Walk was named after the Allans music store that once occupied the building. It comprises neglected arcades, their stained glass windows painted over, a false ceiling installed over the balcony, and balustrades and staircase removed to a storehouse. Bendigo once boomed as an outpost to Melbourne and still shares similarities with it from the infancy of their commercial growth. Although now a large urban regional centre, Bendigo strangely juxtaposes past and present. undue noise’s 4-part exhibition reflects this schism in various ways.

Soddell’s exhibition, The Piano Room, originated in the history of the store’s piano room. In a partly archival presentation it documents the movement of the piano from its status as a universal domestic object through to its modernist reworkings. The Piano Room references John Cage’s 4’33”, prepared piano and the Fluxus movement (especially George Macuinas, La Monte Young, George Brecht, Giuseppe Chiari). Documents of the Fluxus movement are accompanied by a small video work which shows Sonic Youth dismembering the keyboard of a piano, and the immortal image of the little boy playing in the Dr Seuss tale 5000 fingers of Dr T. These capture the theatricality and anxiety that a piano can generate as a monolithic instrument that has to be mastered, even defeated.

In another section of the space a delightful work engages the audience. As an interactive tribute to Baranoff-Rosine’s Piano Opto-phonique (1923), Soddell has created a synthesiser keyboard that, when touched, manipulates projected computer generated images. These were based on the visuals from the first exploration by the opto-phonique, a tool to explore the relationship between sound and light.

In a corner, music faintly emanates from a shopping bag containing baguette and book. Soddell’s Deconstruction of Claude Debussy’s hommage to Rameau is a captivating, quietly, poetic sound installation that demands attention to the internal nature of music and the way it travels with us in the everyday. The subtle interplay of sounds throughout Sodell’s exhibition brought past and present together, our understanding of music today heightened by echoes from the past.

Paul Fletcher’s Time Decomposing, was a subtle and evocative installation using sounds (including the recollections of a retired worker) and images (on video) from the building’s past. Fletcher describes the work as “a decomposing time capsule.” The other works in the undue noise festival were midden me thus and other dreamings, an installation with loungeroom ambience combining optigan (for ‘optical organ’, a 70s home keyboard based on film soundtrack technology) and artworks by double other (Justin Bull, Kenneth Gordon and Mark Else); and Jason Waters’ engaging Organization of Transport & Exchange with its reflections on the impact of the synthesizer with apt historical reference to Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1969).

The sound works in undue noise invited interaction and encouraged contemplation, exploring the building that housed them and the many ways in which sound plays a role in an everyday built on the past and its dreams of tomorrow.

Remembrance of Things Past: undue noise festival, Allans Walk, Bendigo, May 11-June 14

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 48

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

Beta Erko

Beta Erko

Beta Erko

While it has been consistently growing over the last 6 years, taking in Brisbane and associated events in Sydney, it was clear this year that Liquid Architecture 6 had pulled out all stops with a massive program of concerts, screenings, installations, workshops and talks spanning 14 days in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns and Canberra. Ramping up the publicity there were regular email updates, major media interest and even a give-away CD in Wire, that elicited in many of us a twinge of Australian soundculture patriotism. Liquid Architecture did hype—and from what I experienced of the Melbourne and Sydney events, lived up to it.

Director Nat Bates describes Liquid Architecture as a “sense-specific” rather than a genre-based festival. This distinction allowed for dynamic and eclectic programming.

There were 3 main concerts in Melbourne, 2 at the North Melbourne Town Hall and a party-based gig at the Public Office. The opening night concert set the tone for some variegated programming, with 7 acts approaching sound and music making from very different perspectives. Scott d. Cotterill (Tasmania) opened the evening with a gentle guitar and laptop set which straddled textural and melodic explorations and augmentations, tones lingering, looping and distorting to build up the body of sound. Antediluvian Rocking Horse (Victoria), a DJ outfit, collaged their record collection, moving between exercises in ambient soundscaping and tune spinning. Alex White (NSW) gave us fat oscillations, tweaking and shaping, growing them into multilayered fabrics of pulsing noise. Clinton Green/Undecisive God (Victoria) looped his guitar manipulations, sometimes losing himself, resulting in a predictable delay effect, but sometimes pulling all the elements together to create a wall of highly detailed timbral play. Will Guthrie (Victoria/France) played all manner of objects—striking, tocking, thwacking and vibrating them to bring out their secret rhythms and resonances, which he then deftly shaped into a considered composition, covering the spectrum of frequencies, density and space. And that was only the first half!

The second half of the concert was broadcast live on ABC Classic FM, which created a slightly disturbing disembodying effect—the focus shifting from an experience to be shared by live bodies in a room, to one projected onto an anonymous other, with slightly more conservative tastes. DJ Olive (US) opened, revealing infinite potential for the turntable as instrument. Olive collaged snippets of vocal text, some garbled, some George Bush, his whole body engaged in the process of spinning, holding, carving the rhythm of the voices. His skill is so refined he can catch a breath, reverse it, catch it again. Moving from the turntables to a computer he flooded the space with a dreamy fullbodied wash of warm tones. The sense of composition was strong in this improvised work and the political narrative added satisfying gravitas.

The final act was Essendon Airport, (David Chesworth, Robert Goode and Graham Lee). An interesting inclusion, the ensemble played selections from their re-released recording from 1979 Sonic Investigations of the Trivial. These compositions are keyboard centred melodic minimalism augmented by electric and lap steel slide guitar. Although this offered good contrast, and a relieving simplicity, neatly divided into songs, the fact that it was programmed at midnight and the seventh act for the evening, made it challenging for both performers and audience. Perhaps the live broadcast placed too many restrictions on content and timing that actually impinged on the overall event.

The highlight of the Melbourne program was the audiovisual performance by Wet Gate—a San Francisco trio of filmmakers/sound artists who use 16mm film loops to create both visual and sonic material. The 3 stand in front of the audience and ‘play’ the projectors, threading and discarding film, raising telescopic hooks to accommodate the loops. Moving the image around from small framed screen to large cyclorama, they blurred, colourised and shattered images with filters and mirrors held in front of the lens. The content is mainly drawn from old educational films along with techniques such as drawing, rubbing and scratching the surface of film (including the optical sound strip) so that both image and sound is generated by the resulting pattern. The audio is also manipulated subtly using samplers while keeping the loops as the focus of the composition. (Several people suggested that Wet Gate and Sydney’s Loop Orchestra would make a great double-bill.) The found footage collage aesthetic can so easily degenerate into shallow irony, but in manipulating the relationship between sound and image, their synchronicities and slippages, Wet Gate transcends content to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Sunday evening performance at the North Melbourne Town Hall was presented in impressive 16 speaker surround, with the performers in the middle of the space and the audience divided into 2 blocks facing each other. James Hullick presented a composition for various instruments, vocalists and soundscape. The piece had a radiophonic feel, as acoustic instrumental explorations skittered around the room, accompanied by barely discernible voices, snippets of text floating to the surface above surging field recording atmospherics. This nicely crafted and spatialised piece took on an even more impressive dimension, when at the conclusion the stage curtain opened to reveal the musicians and actors who had in fact been performing live.

Alan Lamb played a particularly imposing work, based on his investigations with long string instruments and wind organs creating sheering crescendos and shifts of thick, heavy noises and soul shaking bass. The gloriously rich bridge recordings of Jodi Rose were also well suited to the grandeur of the sound system, her spatialisation indicating the exciting potential for multispeaker presentation of this material. Particularly impressive was Slap Shot, a pre-recorded work by Eric La Casa and Jean Luc Guionnet (France) ‘diffused’ through the space in collaboration with Philip Samartzis. Based on field recordings of an ice hockey game, there was an interesting separation and reintegration of sonority and source material through the work—moments where sound was purely sound—just texture and movement loosened from its meaning. The spatialisation was incredible with waves catapulting across the room, horizontal sheets of audio descending upon, washing through you. The improvised final work was not quite as impressive, perhaps because once again, it came at the end of a long program, but also as the trio never seemed to quite establish a relationship.

In order to mobilise nationally Liquid Architecture works closely with promoters in each city. For the last 3 years the Brisbane leg has been organised in collaboration with room40/Lawrence English. In 2005, after a few years of associated events with impermanent.audio, Liquid Architecture 6 formed a firm partnership with Alias Frequencies (Shannon O’Neill and Ben Byrne) and Performance Space to bring an impressive program to Sydney.

Taking a slightly different approach to the eclectic programming, each night in Sydney had a different focus. The opening night was noise-based madness, the second had a calmer, deep listening focus and the third concentrated on the much maligned beat. The diversity of acts programmed within these thematics attracted different, perhaps new audiences, particularly the beat night featuring the international pop and techno artists TBA and Thomas Brinkman.

A real highlight was Thembi Soddell (Victoria). Her sound is like sand—seemingly one mass, one colour, but actually made of thousands of particles constantly shifting to form new temporal landscapes. Playing from behind the audience, her work is immersive and her acute control of dynamics, like hitting turbulence, creates not just dramatic tension, but also an uneasy sensation of loss. Also on the same evening Rik Rue and Julian Knowles brought out their Social Interior collaboration (after an 8 year break) to present a shimmering set of manipulated field recordings. Like La Casa & Guionnet, the everyday sounds floated into conscious recognition then played themselves out of naming, accompanied by some beautifully tempered video work. The vision was perfectly pitched for simplicity and rhythmic cohesion, so rather than distracting from the sound or adding another layer, it simply resonated with it.

The ultimate act that had the crowd vibrating with anticipation was the debut performance of Beta Erko. This supergroup of sound art includes Martin Ng on turntable destruction, Robin Fox on digital evisceration, Anthony Pateras on mixing desk, voice spasms and more, and MC Vulk Makedonski from the hip hop phenomenon Curse Ov Dialect on trilingual alien channelling. Together they created the most spectacularly invigorating noise onslaught I’ve ever heard (noise not generally my genre). Each artist was so adept at the detail of their destructiveness that the combined energy of the group literally blew a light and set off the fire alarm. Hopefully the evil posse will find time amongst their other sonic pursuits to reprise this astounding combo.

In both Melbourne and Sydney there were also audio visual screenings and artists talks (with disappointing attendance in Melbourne perhaps due to weekend daytime programming) and, in Melbourne an exhibition component including the results of a residency by French guest La Casa and Guionett, and a new mobile phone installation by WA artists Cat Hope and Rob Muir. Add to this all the other interstate events and it is clear that Liquid Architecture 6 is now a true celebration of the aural sense, with a fearless drive and ambition, aiming to shift expectations, challenge and develop audiences and to take the idea of a soundart festival to the next level (perhaps like Mutek and early Sonars). We can only hope that the funding climate warms to allow this scale and approach to be maintained.

Liquid Architecture 6, artistic director Nat Bates, Sydney co-directors Ben Byrne & Shannon O’Neill; Melbourne July 1-7, Sydney July 13-16

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 49

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

Tony Conrad, Bowed Film

Tony Conrad, Bowed Film

The Anthology Film Archive in New York is central to America’s avant-garde film tradition, its history closely bound to successive generations of ‘visionary’ filmmakers, critics, artists and outsiders. Opened in 1970 by Jonas Mekas, Anthology played a major role in establishing recognition and critical engagement for avant-garde film and 35 years on is more vital than ever, housing the world’s most important collection of avant-garde film material, ultra-rare film prints, negatives and fragments of work, plus prescribed and unprescribed medications, record collections and personal ephemera left behind by inspired artists like Harry Smith, Jack Smith and Maya Deren. At 82, Mekas is artistic director, with much of the running passed on to inventive and informed young cinephiles who help negotiate Anthology’s ongoing place in the contemporary New York cultural scene.

Over 3 weeks in May and June, Anthology hosted Eye and Ear Controlled, curated by Andrew Lampert and Jim O’Rourke and featuring artists who infiltrated both the avant-garde film and music camps, making compelling contributions to both. These included Tony Conrad, Alvin Lucier, Mauricio Kagel, Phill Niblock, Michael Snow and Charlemagne Palestine. This article focuses on Conrad who is now well recognised in both worlds, and Mauricio Kagel and Alvin Lucier who are primarily considered composers. All the artists were, in fact, moving freely and frequently between any number of forms. As Fluxus artist Dick Higgins wrote in ‘Statement on Intermedia’ (1966), “A composer is a dead man unless he composes for all the media and for his world.”

Conrad conceived of The Flicker (1965), his first film, as alternately a science fiction film (“but not the kind where people dressed as robots fall in love”), a “disruption of abstract art” and as “ideosensory phenomena”, an intrusion into interior spaces “where totally different rules apply.” Essentially The Flicker is a series of alternating pure black and white film frames projected in sequences of rapid acceleration and deceleration. Conrad wasn’t the first to explicitly explore the approach, Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Dwinell Grant’s Colour Sequence (1943) are earlier examples. But where these are objects of ‘cool’ minimalist contemplation, Conrad’s Flicker is deliberately aggressive and confrontational, specifically setting out to attack and distort the frame, which he associated with abstract art. A faintly satiric epilepsy warning, stating that a physician should be in attendance, was Conrad’s tactic for weeding out squeamish, uncommitted spectators. In fact, very few have suffered the much feared fit, although ‘photogenic migraines’, lasting a week, have apparently been more common.

For all the fighting talk and mythologising, experiencing The Flicker today is comparable to listening to Conrad’s minimal music of the same period. It’s mesmerising, complex work examining the minimum perceptual register, but hardly violent, dangerous or even as irritating to the senses as might have been intended. The Buchla Synthesiser piece on the soundtrack was directly inspired by Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1960). A stream of stereo pulses shift in pitch according to the ear’s proximity to speakers and the geometry of the listening environment. Conrad applied complementary structures to sound and image producing a kind of ‘phantom’ synchronicity, a feeling of ‘transsensoriality’, the senses as connected channels or highways rather than isolated territories or domains.

Straight and Narrow (1970) untangles the 2 senses into clearer isolation. A raucous Terry Riley/John Cale jam accompanies Conrad’s second flicker piece, “structural film gone funky”. Just like a mobile Bridget Riley, Straight and Narrow uses black and white stripes to produce spinning shapes and colour bursts, and they are amazing indeed. The soundtrack gives the film a euphoric edge but also stamps it psychedelic, something the morse code austerity of The Flicker happily bypasses. Conrad’s other abstract films are less known but equally interesting. Film Feedback (1972) is an experiment in instant filming, developing, projecting and refilming, all on a continuous 14-minute strip. The technical process is barely fathomable but what results aesthetically is a particularly fragile meditation on re-recording, degeneration and time, a silent companion to Alvin Lucier’s piece for voice and tape recorder I am sitting in a room (1969). Eye of Count Flickerstein (1967) is another silent study of TV static in wiggly microscopic detail. Projected large in a new luminous print, it is stuning.

The highlight of the Conrad series, however, is Coming Attractions (1970), his only feature film. Conrad’s filmmaking start came through Jack Smith; he soundtracked Smith’s Scotch Tape (1962) and worked on Normal Love (1963). In Coming Attractions, Conrad borrows Smith’s trademark unhinged aesthetic delirium and his actor from Flaming Creatures (1961), Arnold Rockwood. Conrad is credited ‘producer’, his wife Beverly Grant directorial duties, however who did what is impossible to discern as the film is so completely manipulated, bizarre, and manifestly incoherent. Ostensibly an exploration of the relation between extreme formal and narrative devices, Coming Attractions consists of hysterically trashed ‘stars’, filmed in ‘Tantacolor’, rambling, screaming and writhing through a set of radically skewed orgiastic ‘trailers’ (ie coming attractions). Conrad physically altered the footage so much that he saw Coming Attractions not as a film, but rather as many fragments of film in various stages of preparation. The sound is brilliantly collaged from unreleased pieces ‘commissioned’ by Conrad and performed by LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, John Cale and Charlemagne Palestine amongst others, particular highlights being Young’s slow-motion vocal impression of a lonesome cowboy and the bleating group performance, ‘sacred shriek’ symphony.”

Conrad’s characteristic irreverence is on full display for the disarmingly charming and entertaining lecture/performance, Filmmaking as a Critical Intervention. Sitting cross-legged on stage amidst papers, projectors, food, and cooking utensils, he reflects insightfully on the development of ideas on film, music and culture, acknowledging the early influence of Henry Flynt’s anti-cultural activism at Harvard and in New York, through to the ‘domestic’ qualities of life at the Media Lab in Buffalo, where Conrad moved in 1972 along with filmmakers Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton. Creative ‘domestic’ life is demonstrated in Curried 7302, a beautiful film made in the traditional Indian manner. The faded orange hue of the print suggests it might have been a mild Korma. In Bowed Film, a piece of film loops around Conrad’s head. Inside the loop, he experiences a private screening. The effect is enhanced with vigorous violin bowing, the film apparently dances, and the sound is a monstrous multiphonic wailing. Whilst speaking Conrad also prepares a Sukiyaki, a Japanese noodle dish, today mixed with fragments of antique film. Sukiyaki is ‘projected’ according to the Latin meaning, ‘to cast forward’. The anthology screen ends up splattered with vegetables, noodles, sauce, and various length fragments of film. Conrad apologises profusely to the staff whilst everyone applauds.

The Dr Chicago films, directed by George Manupelli, have been whispered about for years, but rarely seen. Manupelli and Alvin Lucier, with Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, were key players in the Once Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Manupelli also founded the Ann Arbor Film Festival) and although the associated music has been widely circulated, not so Manupelli’s films. The prints screened at Anthology are in fact the only ones in existence, having been rescued, thankfully in fairly decent condition, from lab storage. Lucier, uncannily resembling a young Dennis Hopper, is a revelation as Dr Alvin Chicago, a charismatic but deluded sex-change surgeon running from the law. Dr Chicago (1968), the first film, is all luscious black and white cinematography, full of subtly ludicrous monologues delivered by Chicago to his mostly drowsy and silent entourage of troubled young women. Ride, Dr. Chicago, Ride (1970) sees the doctor and his gang befriending itinerant nomads (including composer Pauline Oliveros) in the deserted wastelands near the Mexican border. The third instalment, Cry, Dr. Chicago (1971) takes place in a Riviera villa, with Chicago repeatedly poisoned by his nemesis, a confused and bad tempered French playboy. Remarkably the bugged black jellybeans have no effect. The pace of the films will be familiar to those who appreciate Lucier’s music, a slow creeping logic and humour built upon the placement of gestures across the mostly empty space of the narrative. Indeed, Lucier’s whole delivery is intensely musical; he feints, stutters, pauses and picks his way through sentences, flirting with resolution, establishing an unstable, hypnotic logic. The gentle cumulative absurdities of the films make them enjoyable on multiple levels; almost Jacques Tati-like in tone, they are intensely funny without ever being directly comic.

Mauricio Kagel’s anti-establishment pedigree as a composer is well recognized in avant-garde circles, however surprisingly few people realise that he has also made over 20 films in which his signature themes—absurdist physical theatre, psycho-religious reverie, and the gleeful parody of high cultural seriousness—are explored in abundance. Solo (1967) features 3 deranged orchestra conductors staggering aimlessly amidst the rubble of an abstracted classical theatre. The only sounds are their demented humming, the swish of frantic baton waving and the inadvertent impact of collision with percussion objects and discarded instruments strewn across the set. Duo (1967) is more complex and reflexive, a meticulously conceived surrealist play on chance, nonsense, fragmentation, and improbable synchronisation, strung together with detuned scrapes, plucks and thuds from various instruments and non-instruments. Duo culminates with its characters wandering into a theatre in which Solo is screening and wildly improvising along with it until the 2 films merge and collapse in hallucinatory flashes of light and ripped celluloid. If Solo and Duo possess their share of abnormality, they pale in comparison to Hallelujah (1968). Beginning inside an open screaming mouth, the camera lolls outward into a psychotic world of ritualised hysteria. This might be Kagel’s grand statement on the disintegration of meaning, an advocation of animal impulses and mass incoherence. Kagel constructs spectacles of perverse choreography between bodies, spaces, and objects (often musical instruments). In the end, it is hard to describe them as anything other than serious cacophony.

Eye and Ear Controlled presented an extraordinary opportunity for audiences to experience significant but rarely screened work, in an environment rich with history and mystique. Conrad, Lucier, Manupelli, Ashley, Michael Snow and Phill Niblock all attended and helped generate an atmosphere of relaxed intimacy without any of the unnecessary formal pretension that a museum or major institution would undoubtedly have brought to the event. Very few cities would have the resources to stage an event like this outside of the institutional scene, and, as always, New Yorkers are the infuriatingly lucky ones.

Eye & Ear Controlled, Anthology Film Archives New York, May 19-June 11

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 50

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

David Chesworth

David Chesworth

David Chesworth

Although he’s been hard at it with music theatre (Cosmonaut RT64, p37, and the forthcoming revival of Recital for Malthouse) and sound installations (through Wax Media, his partnership with Sonia Leiber), it’s been a long time between recordings for composer David Chesworth. Badlands, a tautly constructed exploration of theme (inspired by the Terence Malick film of the same name and its use of the music of Carl Orff) and the distinctive instrumental palette of the David Chesworth Ensemble, appeared in 1998. Now the composer is releasing 2 CDS, one of new works for his ensemble, Music to see through, with a bonus disk of experimental pieces, and the other a collection of miniatures from 1978: 50 synthesizer greats.

In Music to see through long compositions alternate with short more or less ambient creations. It’s the larger works that grab attention, sustained compositions with that characterful Chesworth ensemble sound. The immersive, gentle 9-minute Panopticon conjures something organic for which growth is eternally incremental, building on itself over and over like something out of Chaos theory. The title doesn’t seem to fit, unless it’s something to do with the circularity of vision and the quiet insistence of the piece. In the engaging Passage des panoramas the trombone alternates between droning and hitting the high short notes against a piano-led rhythm section. A second theme cuts loose from the formal pacing of the first section with lyrical piano moments and a cello-violin exhange against a marimba pulse. Eventually, the string duo sing their way out on their own. The opening steady piano line of Floating Worlds breaks into hesitancy which, with strings, becomes the second strand of the work, then alternating with the first theme. A gorgeously sighing violin dances in counterpoint with the marimba, and then takes off with the cello in a wonderfully sustained reverie. Then it’s back to the lone piano and we float off again. Will is markedly less lyrical, comprising short, chugging phrases from piano, metal percussion, strings and trombone. The discrete units come together and break apart before a long violin line briefly takes over from the beat and against a substratum of liquid piano and watery electronics before the return to propulsion.

Among the shorter works are 2 songs (not to my taste) and tracks with a movie soundtrack feel. Persuade kicks off like a thriller score with strings riffing briskly before settling into something more mellow as violin, cello and trombone take alternate leads. The drum-driven Perpetual presence is textured with odd shufflings, creakings and seems to have nowhere to go until its riffs run together in a mad, accelerating rush to a conclusion. The shortest works generate quiet ambience with spare, bell-like percussion against warbling strings, or a low pulse against vibraphone musings. Or they suggest something a little more urgent as in Soft skin tutti which alternates delicate moments with outbursts of rapid drumming, mad piano, cymbal clashes and high violin cries. Surveillance evokes an aural world built from grinding strings, bell crashes and an eerily indeterminate sonic substratum.

The album concludes with the dancey Bland flaneur: classic Chesworth ensemble sound, trombone leading; and Wait a while: vibes and piano against a muttering sound bed before the arrival of a langorously cool Hot Club violin. It’s a good album for programming into the order you prefer.

The bonus album, The Disk of Idioms, is also blessed with some fine tracks and some intriguing electronics, although with much less sense of ensemble. The 12-minute Oceanography is a consumate sound world inhabited by data flow, electronic twitterings and distant rumblings and overlaid with a delicate vibraphone reverie that almost resolves into the deepest of its notes. In the droll Aspirational, a voice trills and then races against a fast electronic shuffle and acoustic rattlings. There are snatches of song, gasps, wheezes and an exhausting dash. Funeral sentence is a fascinatingly distorted 5-minute choral piece, male and female voices and phrases stretched and sucked away against a clanking of chains and a shifting stream of electronic noise. Music to see through reaches many high points, best experienced in its major compositions, but encountered here and there in works of intriguing brevity.

David Chesworth Ensemble, Music to see through, w.minc, distributed by Shock, WMINCCD034

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 51

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

Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin might be considered an odd inclusion in this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival. However, she is no stranger to cabaret and in her student days performed in Cabaret Conspiracy alongside luminaries such as Boom Boom La Verne, Fifi L’Amour and David da Most. Subsequently she worked to pay the bills in the Red Hot and Blues Cabaret show in Berlin while studying at the height of German compositional pedagogy under Helmut Lachenmann at the Hochschule. Kats-Chernin’s career has always trod parallel paths—one serious and one fun.

Kats-Chernin’s appearance at this year’s festival follows her performance as band-member in her own work Mr. Barbecue, at the 2004 Cabaret Festival. The inimitable Lyndon Terracini featured as ‘everyman’ performing the great Australian barbecue ritual. Kats-Chernin was invited back for this year’s event, in obvious recognition of her entertainment value, with Elena Kats-Chernin and Friends, a show originally developed for the 2004 Barossa Music Festival. It was not the usual cabaret fare of stand-up or the crooning of old torch songs, but drew a long bow with the same tradition. Long time friend and associate Christopher Latham on violin stylishly accompanied the relaxed, charming and radiantly good humoured Kats-Chernin at her piano. The other friends in her show were the people in the story of her life that she announced at the outset included “some facts, some half-truths and some complete lies.”

Kats-Chernin’s keyboard virtuosity was beautifully complemented by Latham’s daring violin, in turn haunting, lyrical and always wonderfully evocative. Latham obviously has great empathy for Kats-Chernin’s music and she in turn demonstrates great faith in his translation.

The mood shifted from elegaic to whimsical and at times magical. Popular mid-20th century dance forms dominated the music: tango, waltz and blues peppered with a good smattering of rags—one of her favourite forms as player and composer.

Kats-Chernin’s narrative moved from her earliest memories to a dedication to her Barossa patrons from the first incarnation of this show. Her musical experience of a blind violinist performing in Bucharia, where her mother was posted as an eye specialist, translated to the exotic Bucharian Melody, while Slick Back Tango is derived from the memory of the smell of her aunt’s hair cream. Kats-Chernin’s compositional method of building a work from one or two notes was candidly demonstrated in Blue Rose, an ultimately complex work characterised by a series of time shifts. Chopin was acknowledged as the inspiration for the blues movement of her second piano concerto (written while her mother was dying) and quoted liberally within to melancholic effect, while a reworked quotation from Satie’s Gymnopédie became the building block for Naïve Waltz.

Economy Class Blues was inspired by long flights between engagements in the most dreaded airline class affordable to concert presenters. Birthday Rag was dedicated to her co-performer and his way of splitting the day in 2 parts: not awake and awake. Augusta’s Garden Waltz is named after the first vintage from the vineyard of Barossa Music Festival impressario John Russell, and the piece that she called a “swizzle stick”—Cocktail Rag—was dedicated to Barossa Festival host extraordinaire Peter Lehmann. The uplifting Get Well Rag was written for one of her sons when he became very ill, and the encore piece Peggy’s Rag was dedicated to one of Australia’s great composers, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and written during the time that Kats-Chernin spent at Peggy’s Paddington musician’s retreat when she returned from her studies in Germany. Russian Rag, another encore, was the oldest piece in the show, dating from 1996, and one that has subsequently appeared in many arrangements including the version that frames Radio National’s Late Night Live, hosted by Phillip Adams.

The musical and emotional depth of a show that displayed both compositional and performance proficiency, contradicted all the quaint titles and facile dance forms. The music was at once challenging, but postmodern references to popular styles and western musical tradition made it highly accessible and enjoyable. It was a privilege to hear newly devised material in The Maiden and the Well Spirit, based on Russian folklore. But the highlight was the music from Wild Swans that emerged from one of Kats-Chernin’s most fruitful collaborations to date. Her piano adaptations from the full orchestral score of her ballet music for Wild Swans, choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 2004 by Meryl Tankard, gave glimpses of the rich musical palate of the ballet.

The inclusion of Elena Kats-Chernin in this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival is less curious in terms of genre than is speculation about what drove a highly successful mid-career composer to strut and fret upon the cabaret stage. Fortunately for those able to attend, the show provided a rare and engaging insight into the workings of an inspired and incandescent musical mind.

Elena Kats-Chernin and Friends, composer & pianist Elena Kats-Chernin, violinist Chris Latham, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide Fesitval Centre, June 10-25

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 52

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

Candice Breitz, Mother, 2005, video stills

Candice Breitz, Mother, 2005, video stills

The Venice Biennale vernissage is experienced in a sort of blur, moving between hundreds of artworks, in and out of ‘countries’ (pavilions), making polite conversation with remote acquaintances in a state of caffeine-fuelled exhilaration. It’s an environment conducive to hype and spectacle, best suited to admiring the designer shoes of the international art elite rather than reflecting critically on the art. Indeed, one of my strong, if obscure, impressions of the 2005 Venice Biennale was the prevalence of wood. Quite aside from the woody memento mori carvings of our own representative, Ricky Swallow, this most traditional of media featured in a whole range of artworks filling the Giardini—the gardens where the ‘old’ countries and a few newcomers like Australia and Korea have their national pavilions.

In the Israeli pavilion, Guy Ben Ner’s brilliant Treehouse Kit presented an ‘instructional video’ on how to create various items of furniture, IKEA-style, out of the disassembled parts of a strange looking Hills Hoist-like wooden tree, also on display. In his cartoon style performance, the artist appears in his underwear sporting a huge Jewish beard. Hans Schabus completely reconstructed the Austrian pavilion into a huge artificial mountain with his work, The Last Land. An elaborate web of wooden beams and staircases are covered with stone coloured canvas. You could enter and climb to the peak for a view of Venice. Icelandic artist Gabríela Fridriksdóttir similarly transformed her compact national pavilion, covering its outer walls with tree roots. The inside was a multimedia cave-like lair, with primal performances by actors (including Björk) in furry suits whom you watched while seated on log stools.

If these works were more hybrid and conceptual than Ricky Swallow’s low-tech melancholy austerity, they felt equally original in their imaginative use of ‘old media.’ By contrast, the most prominent ‘new media’ artwork in Venice appeared positively old-fashioned. Fabrizio Plessi’s Vertical Sea is a boat-shaped light-emitting structure on the water in front of the entrance to the Giardini, and is aptly described as a “big technological totem of steel.” Promoted as “a metaphor of the journey towards [the] unknown but also symbol of artistic creation”, it looks more like kitsch corporate art and is, unfortunately, permanent. A more subtle, though easily missed, instance of public new media art was the nearby Games Machine installed by Anika Eriksson. This temporary amusement arcade on the otherwise stately or tourist-mobbed, and eminently bourgeois, waterside was promoted via posters to local youth.

Given it doesn’t present itself as a media art festival, it’s hardly surprising that very little of the art at the Venice Biennale reflected on, say, its electronic or digital status. To be sure, contemporary art exists for the most part in a post-media condition, while strong examples of new media art take some searching out. In addition, digital media are often incorporated into contemporary art practice in invisible ways. This is literally the case in South African artist Candice Breitz’s twin video installations Mother and Father. This work recasts well known Hollywood actors Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Steve Martin and Dustin Hoffman among others, their ‘cut-out’ portraits carefully strung together against a black background, constantly regurgitating carefully selected sentences from their movie appearances to form a narrative investigating the idea of motherhood and fatherhood.

Of course there were screens at every turn, some displaying impressive film-based narratives. These included a room of animated films by South African William Kentridge, a homage to Georges Méliès’ experiments, with the artist often drawing in reverse from within his jerky stop-motion and charcoal landscapes, and a very elaborate new black and white film by Stan Douglas, Inconsolable Memories, about a young black man in Cuba. In the Dutch pavilion, De Rijke/De Rooij presented a half-hour 16mm film, Mandarin Ducks, in the tradition of avant-garde cinema meets contemporary soap opera, laced with biting irony about the lives of the very rich.

There were many good works at the Biennale, needless to say. Of the many video installations—including new ones by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Mark Wallinger and others—the most sensual was surely Homo Sapiens Sapiens by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, projected onto the entire vaulted ceiling of the Baroque Church of San Stae on the Grand Canal. Limited numbers were allowed in, to recline on plump mattresses and be treated to close-up erotic, psychedelic visions of women, flowers and ripe fruit. Kitsch, pornographic and sublime all at once, its edenic imagery was certainly compelling in this context.

I have mentioned only a variety of single artworks that stood out. Some of these were included in the two major curated exhibitions of the Biennale, The Experience of Art, curated by María de Corral, and Always a Little Further, curated by fellow Spaniard Rosa Martinez. The better show, The Experience of Art was a more or less conventional survey of recent practice held in a museum-style space. Always a Little Further—at the Arsenale in a series of old warehouses once used to make rope for the Venetian shipping industry—ostensibly looked to the future, but felt retrograde. A lot was made of the fact that it’s the first time female curators have been at the helm, and also the fact that they chose artists from a broader geographical spectrum than usual (with an inevitable Latin bias). But overall, the show lacked structure and the work felt flat. It opened with a display of large spoof hoardings by the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous New York cooperative formed in 1985 to condemn the art world for the low numbers of women and artists of colour then exhibiting in galleries and museums. Their statistical reflections on the history of the Venice Biennale felt strained, the method now a little tired, even if it is still shocking to learn that this is the first time in a hundred years that the French pavilion has had a solo show by a female artist.

Unfortunately, much of the art chosen to politicise the Biennale was heavy-handed. Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos presented a work called The Bride made up of a chandelier, 5 meters high and over 2 meters in diameter, composed of thousands of tampons. Regina José Galindo was named best young artist for her gory film of a “hymen replacement” operation, and a film record of her ritually shaving and flagellating herself, dipping her feet in a bowl of blood and leaving footprints in the street to protest the violence against women in her native Guatemala. If these works made you feel queasy, or just sleepy, you could always lie down on a bed in a work called Swansong by The Centre of Attention and request the song you’d like to be played at your funeral—promptly downloaded from a massive online playlist.

Outside the main Arsenale-Giardini axis, the narrow streets of Venice become a treasure trove of ancient spaces temporarily transformed into national pavilions by newer exhibiting countries. After the worthy seriousness of Always a Little Further, the idiotic humour of Kuang-yu Tsui in the Taiwanese pavilion (The Spectre of Freedom) was refreshing. In a series of short video performance works, the artist is seen headbutting vans and cows, and trying to guess the objects being thrown against the back of his head. At the Turkish Pavilion, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, Hussein Chalayan’s intriguing multiscreen video installation, The Absent Presence, features Tilda Swinton attempting to link genetic identity with clothing. These items are also displayed as the transformed sculptures they become in the narrative (Chalayan is best known as a fashion designer).

Four small, unrelated concluding points. First, many people—attested both by the long lines and the Golden Lion award for best national pavilion—liked the French Casino by Annette Messager, which achieves magical effects with billowing red silk. I was unmoved. Second, there was almost no photography at this year’s Venice Biennale, with the grand exception of Thomas Ruff’s pictorial pixels. Third, the national pavilions easiest to make fun of were the Romanian European Influenza, a literally empty space with the doors open to the ‘outside world’ (artist Daniel Knorr has been making “invisible” artworks since 2001), and the German, where actors dressed as museum guards simultaneously break into song: “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary” (after which you are supposed to want to talk to them about contemporary art!). After all of this, Andrea Blum’s assemblage of outdoor metal furniture, plant holders and drinking fountains in the café garden provided welcome relief.

2005 Venice Biennale, Venice, from June 12

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 54

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

Siri Hayes, Lyric Theatre series

Siri Hayes, Lyric Theatre series

The Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) recently reopened in a new building in George St, Fitzroy, with exhibitions ranging across photographic styles and visual and cultural agendas. The Centre’s 5 exhibition spaces unfold in a spiral from a small, central room to larger galleries, and there’s a window onto which projections are cast after dark for viewing by passers-by. The CCP has a seminar room, a shop selling new and second-hand books, and an image bank, and it offers public programs including lectures on the history of photography. Director Naomi Cass is concerned that the CCP should be a resource for artists as well as a showcase for contemporary work.

The second season in the new space includes solo exhibitions by Cherine Fahd and Siri Hayes, and the exhibition Black on White, a collection of works by Aboriginal artists. The central room is occupied by Simon Disler’s new work 1:1, including a series of photographs of blackberry plants, the scale, positioning and low lighting of which subtly create simultaneous feelings of sensuality and enclosure. His Hay Bale is a photograph of the side of a roll of hay, printed on a round, waist-high sheet of colourbond, questioning 2-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional objects. And on a high shelf, a very small TV camera shows Disler’s Untitled, a DVD including a long shot of a tree, challenging the definition of the moving image.

Cherine Fahd’s The Chosen, shown in Germany in 2004, comprises 13 type C photographs that extend Fahd’s contemplation of the individual. Her photographs are of various people pictured against the same high stone wall. Placing of her subjects in this setting emphasises the similarities and differences between them: children, young and old adults, male and female, of various ethnic origins, in casual clothes or bathing suits, each in isolation from others. They appear to be standing under a water sprinkler—passers-by cooling off in summer heat. Their attention seems turned inward, as if in prayer and oblivious to the camera. These works recall ethnographic documentary, but the personality and preoccupations of each person emerge through expression, posture and attire. The ambiguity of the action and the evidence of a common humanness in this disparate group generate much appeal.

Siri Hayes’s new exhibition Lyric Theatre, a series of 10 large-scale photos of a creek setting in the suburbs, posits a kind of suburban sublime. As Phip Murray notes in her catalogue essay, the composition of these photographs references classical painting, Poussin for example. But Hayes’ photos are far from Arcadian scenes of classical heroism, and instead ironically reveal endemic environmental degradation. Merri Creek is polluted and choked with exotic plants. Intrusive suburban dwellings replace the classical ruins of decayed antiquity. Hayes’ images establish the viewer as unseen observer surveying nature’s grandeur and mystery as one might observe a theatre stage, but this play is a tragedy. Various individuals are visible in these scenes. In one, a woman in business clothes holding a clipboard looks back at the viewer, challenging our complacency. In another, the presence of a child recalls McCubbin’s Lost Child, but this loss is of a different order. The kind of epiphany experienced by the everyman in Caspar David Friedrich’s work is now unattainable.

Occupying the main gallery space is Black on White, where curators Maree Clarke and Megan Evans have assembled a disparate body of recent and past work by several Aboriginal artists that turns the lens back on white society. Gayle Maddigan’s photographs are documentaries of contemporary life—domestic habitation, the country fair, and two panoramic prints nearly 4 metres wide, one of a tram outside Swanston St Station and the other of children in an asphalt school ground. Journalist Mervyn Bishop’s work includes his 1975 image of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam ceremonially handing back the soil of Dagu Ragu to Vincent Lingiari, an historic moment in the Land Rights movement. Also included is Bishop’s 1971 image of a nun carrying a sick Afghani child, an image of considerable resonance today, especially as it is displayed as originally published, in a newspaper front page. Brook Andrew shows several photographs of signs pinned to trees bearing texts such as “opinion as crime” and “select your invader”, questioning economic and cultural power in Australia. Lisa Bellear’s single work comprises dozens of photographs grouped like a collection of snaps Blu-tacked to the fridge, except these are larger scale laser prints and cover half a wall. They include prominent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people shown together at public occasions, and shots of Burke & Wills memorials and settlers’ graves, aggregating to a kind of family album of post-colonial history. Dianne Jones shows a series of colour portraits of subjects of mixed race, pondering the collapse of the black/white divide by emphasising her subjects’ individuality. And there is Christian Thompson’s video of a young man ceremonially dressing up in a fetish costume representing the fox, the cunning invader, and offering a complex metaphor for the origins of Australian art. In addition to mapping an alternative Australian cultural perspective, Black on White questions established constructions and sources of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity, and invites the dissolution of that divide.

Finally, and most spectacularly, Annie Wilson’s 4-minute DVD Suspense is projected onto a tall, narrow, glass wall on the CCP’s George St frontage. Intended for viewing from without, it shows people apparently flying through the air, out of the building, evoking, she says, the feeling of falling that can occur in dreams. Coincidentally, Suspense seems emblematic of dramas depicted within.

A theme emerging from this absorbing CCP season is that of reconsideration: the reconsideration of social division; of the environment as distinct from the landscape; of the sublime in the 21st century; of the impact of documentary photography, undimmed by technical innovations in image manipulation; of the origins and nature of Australian art, culture and history; and of the power of the photograph generally. Naomi Cass suggests that the CCP had considered calling itself the “centre for the still image.” Though there are moving images on show, the CCP’s primary concern is with the still. However produced, the photograph remains central because of its ubiquity and dominance in our visual culture.

Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy, June 10-July 16

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 55

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

Bill Viola, Silent Mountain 2001 Kira Perov

Bill Viola, Silent Mountain 2001 Kira Perov

The prospect of sensual and emotional immersion in an exhibition of recent works by Bill Viola will have many planning pilgrimages to Canberra in the Spring. Memories of The Messenger, which appeared at various arts festivals here, should be enough to prompt these journeys. And it’s the first large scale exhibition of Viola’s works to come to Australia.

Viola’s slow motion imagery hovers dynamically between photography’s stillness and cinema’s fluidity, allowing for both intense contemplation and a sense of transformation. The colouration, framing and positioning of his subjects suggests a latterday Renaissance vision (sometimes inspired by works of the period) replete with religious overtones that never lock down suggested meanings.

The show is a touring exhibition of the J Paul Getty Trust. It includes the monumental The Five Angels of the Millenium (2001): 5 bodies on giant screens in a darkened room, moving through water, but impossible to tell if they are rising or falling, save for moments when the surface is strikingly broken. The other works in the show range from large works to intimate portraits.

In the meantime we can fantasize witnessing the Peter Sellars-Bill Viola collaboration on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde for this year’s Salzburg Festival: it gloriously graces the pages of many international art magazines. Or if you want to read about Viola, there’s an excellent interview, which includes an account of Viola’s dysgraphia (a condition which privileges images over words and which was passed on to his eldest son), in John Tusa’s The Janus Aspect, Artists in the 21st Century (Methuen, London, 2005).

Free Viola or $5 Viola

If you’re a tertiary student and you have your card with you, you could be one of the first 2000 students to gain free entry to the exhibition. Or you might prefer Viola by Night. For $5 you get the show, a film, a lecture and cocktails and refreshments are available. RT

Bill Viola: The Passions, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, July 29-Nov 6; www.nga.gov.au/Viola

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 56

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

The artwork as thesis

A major transformation of postgraduate degrees in the arts has been taking place over the last decade. We’ve witnessed a growing number of artists, many of them entering mid-career, going back to university to do postgraduate degrees. But they’re degrees with a difference: Masters and Doctorates of Creative Arts. The major component in each is the creation of a work of art. As soon as we announced our theme we found ourselves in the midst of a debate about the viability of artworks as theses. The work is usually accompanied by a written thesis, but even so the issue worried at over and over is whether or not the artwork can do the same things as a thesis. Or should it have to? Can it be seriously explanatory? Can the creation of an artwork in itself represent genuine research?

Like the Creative Industries phenomenon, the creative postgraduate degree could be seen as adaptive in financially and ideologically challenging times. Universities search out new means of securing funds (from either fees or government subsidy) by targeting vocation if in very different ways. Similarly, artists often look to these degrees as part of their survival strategy as arts grants and contract teaching diminish and production costs increase. Without a doubt, the postgraduate creative degree represents another way to make work. There are advantages to be had from access to resources, expert advice and networks, and occasionally, teaching jobs.

However, as you’ll see from the interviews in this edition with dancers, musicians, theatre artists, filmmakers, new media artists, a visual artist and a novelist, their postgraduate creative degrees have meant much more than short-term opportunities. Most see the degree work as regenerative, an opportunity to deepen their work and their understanding of it, and to expand their thinking. We’ve also included a few artists who have chosen to write theses rather than make works.

There are considerable challenges to be experienced in the areas of supervision and assessment (see the articles by Helen Lancaster and Jo-Anne Duggan in particular). Richard Vella, himself a practising composer and academic, outlines the issues of supervision and how to address them. For more on the teaching and supervision of experienced artists (if outside a degree structure) see Richard Murphet’s report on his recent visit to DasArts in the Netherlands (p42).


University arts half-Nelsoned

As John Howard moves relentlessly into ‘big government’ mode on industrial relations, security, health and the environment, Education Minister Brendan Nelson leads the way for him on university education. The board of the Australian Research Council will be “retired” and replaced by one person reporting to the Minister. University unions will be banned from collecting compulsory fees from students. The negative impact on theatre in the universities has been widely argued, that on university galleries less so.

Nick Vickers, who provided the half-Nelson metaphor, writes that the Sir Hermann Black Gallery he directs for the Sydney University Union “has hosted exhibitions that have featured the works of over 700 artists within the 9 years of its existence. Some of these artists are well known but others have been represented at an early stage in their careers and that support has enabled them to find significant positions in Australia’s arts industry. Many student galleries will show the same statistics, many student union theatres will have the names of actors, directors and producers that have gained their first experiences on student stages. Similarly, most student newspapers and publications can boast a history of first steps for our country’s top journalists, editors and writers. The prizes and awards that are annually dispensed by student unions, the collections of the works of emerging artists that are, after all, the encouragement awards that, in many cases, have assisted in the confidence building that is required for survival in the arts industry in Australia.

“The introduction of VSU (voluntary student unionism) is not a political triumph, it is an artistic catastrophe. This has been tested and verified by the abolition of some student unions in Victoria and Western Australia whose experiences will be outlined in the submission to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee for the Inquiry into the provisions of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front union Fees) Bill 2005” (“VSU and the Visual Arts”, press release, July 28, n.vickers@usu.usyd.edu.au). For more information about the Senate inquiry go to: www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/eet_ctte/highed_unionfees/index.htm

Protest now before the grip turns to a deadly full-Nelson!

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 3

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

Innovation. The word is over-used, appropriated, wrung-out. And not all of it is good. Phillipe Vasset’s prophetic Script Generator©®™ (Serpents Tail, London, 2004) is a wickedly droll, satirical novella doomed to its own appropriation by an innovative new software aimed at cost–effectively eliminating writers. Corporations can be innovators. Tyrants too. But let’s not get depressed. What we need is principled innovation. But it’s the unpredictability of innovation’s destination that requires open minds and the braving of risk. Being principled often has to come after the event.



After reading Alain Badiou’s Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (trans Peter Hallward, Verso, London/New York 2001), I attempted to summarise the French philosopher and political activist on the subject of innovation. He describes an innovation as an event, a break with the past or an extraordinary modification of what has become ordinary; the unleashing of a truth at the expense of mere opinion and the realm of established interests and differences. The innovator is implicitly or overtly a militant who lives with the consequences of their innovation. Their fidelity to their invention is critical, as is that of those who enjoy, fund, promulgate and write about it. This is innovation as a tall order but worth debating in future editions of RealTime. In the meantime, let’s look at the event.


The event

Innovation is of course about creativity, conscious or unconscious–the not uncommon surprise at finding something new in one’s work, or having someone else take it up. Innovation can be invention, pure and simple. But more often it’s about the application of an invention: what you do with it, with the tools, the hardware or the software, with the transformation or perversion of an established form (which is often the way it’s received–are you fucking with our art? Our truth?). It’s all innovation. Even the copying of innovation as trend, as fashion: it’s innovation’s way of dispersing itself. And innovation, it has been argued, is one way we provide feedback on our capacity to adapt.

RealTime has focused for over a decade on innovators in the arts, seeking them out and urging them on. But we’re cautious about using the word. Our writers use it rarely. Innovation has to discerned. The plaudit has to be earned.

Unusually, however, the word does crop up frequently in this edition of RealTime and the way it is used is revealing. A recurring theme is that it’s not the tools, not the technology, but the artist’s vision that is key.


Vision first

Melbourne Festival Director Kristy Edmunds says of her own creative work that she chooses the medium (film, photomedia, choreography) that will best realise her vision: the idea comes first. Theatre director Wesley Enoch likewise admires Tracey Moffat for seeking out the tools that will best express her vision: “…it’s about purpose first, not the form or the medium…Purpose is the driving thing…it might mean one day wanting to make a film, or writing poetry.” Roy Ananda, a visual artist himself, says of Thomas Buchanan that his work (a dynamic fusion of performance, drawing and video) is “a powerful assertion that artistic innovation lives in the attitude of the artist, not necessarily in the advance of technology.”


Innovating tradition

The relationship between innovation and tradition is another recurring theme. Ananda observes that innovation can engage with the past as much as it breaks with it: “…by colliding [representational drawing] with performance, video and animation, Buchanan manages to work both at the edges of drawing practice and within a traditional idiom.” Gallery director Gitte Weise, when quizzed about her aesthetic and her choice of artists, answered: “I suppose most of the artists I take on are informed by art history. And you can see it in the work, they can transform that into something new.”



John Bailey draws attention to an innovative break in the representation of the dancing body in Lucy Guerin’s multimedia dance work, Aether (in collaboration with new media artist Michaela French): “Contemporary dance frequently invokes a mechanicist philosophy to present the body as a machine, whether idealised or problematised; Aether offers us bodies as networks, nodes, radiation and flickering signals. These are bodies as frequencies, variable rather than immanent…What Guerin offers here is an impressive and successful way of imagining the body mediated by technological forms” (p14).

Sometimes formal innovation is admired, but is valued ambivalently when the ideas underlying vision are not evident. In his review of Malthouse’s new program, when commenting on A Journal of the Plague Year (p29), Bailey writes: “There is a sense that the real theme motivating directorial choice is simply the theatre itself as a vehicle for the production of wonder. If this is the case, Plague Year is an unabashed success. However, I find it slightly (though thrillingly) problematic that this production relies on an apocalyptic vision to achieve its effects.”



Current attention to innovation is often on the hybrids emerging from cross-artform and multidisciplinary practices. Sandy Cameron reports that “director Liu Jiayin won the Asian DV prize for…Oxhide (2004) at the 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival this year; the jury commended her for ‘demonstrating the new possibility of cinema, and radicalising the process of filmmaking…’ Oxhide manages to bring together the traditions of conceptual artwork with domestic drama and comedy…Liu obviously enjoys blurring the line between documentary and fiction” (p22).



Dan Edwards finds much to admire in Australian documentary filmmaking in his survey (p17), but sees it as often radical in content, but rarely innovative in form. However, he comments that Indigenous filmmakers show a greater willingness than their peers to work across media and forms. Wondering at the constraints on documentary form he quotes producer Michael McMahon: “There is a core of wonderful people who constitute a very real and vibrant documentary sector but there is that fundamental problem of having so few opportunities outside the broadcasters to actually push the form, the way stories are told and the stories that actually get told” (RT61, p15). This is a reminder that innovation is not the realm of the lone inventor, but of support networks, collaborators, producers and audiences, all required to be receptive to innovation.


Experience design

Greg Hooper, reviews transmute collective’s interactive installation, Intimate Transactions, singling out an unexpected innovation, not just in the work but in new media art in general: “The pragmatic upshot of [Keith] Armstrong’s ethical position is the development of work that requires prototyping, interviews with people about their experience of the work, and further prototyping. Perhaps that is the contribution of new media: the introduction of user testing in the arts…” (p26).

In our culture, innovation is increasingly tied to the prospect of profitable outcome, the scenario satirised by Phillipe Vasset. In this edition of RealTime, new media art watchers Hooper, Lizzie Muller, Melinda Rackham and Garth Paine describe works that are hard or impossible to commodify, though, ironically some have commercially viable spin-offs from the software and hardware innovations demanded by artists’ visions. More important though is the innovation that interprets the world for us, or takes us beyond it into the realms of speculation.

Hooper writes that “Intimate Transactions isn’t a game, there is no sense of moving to an outcome or nearing the end. It’s a piece of experience design, an opportunity to enter a world like ours but different.” Lizzie Muller makes a like point in her overview essay on interactivity, describing key new media art works where, “We are not shown the effects of new technology; we experience them, living through them in all their complexity.” Muller goes a step futher with a semantic twist that reveals the particular importance of new media art: “Interactive artworks reveal the way new technologies ‘innovate’ human existence, the ways we are re-made by our inventions. They offer us opportunities to inhabit and reflect upon revolutions in human experience before they engulf us and we are no longer able to see their effect” (p24).


Artists first

While Muller allows that in new media arts “there is a degree of technological fetishism at play, the image of an art form following like an eager puppy at the heels of ICT development misrepresents interactive art’s role in driving technological innovation. Artistic visions can often only be achieved with software and hardware created specifically for individual artworks. Such ambitious productions require collaborative relationships with developers at the cutting edge of technology.”

Sound artist Garth Paine makes the same point: “I believe the arts drive a lot of these [technological] developments because somebody has got to be out there making the vision. Industry is often driven by the fact that they can now put all this on this little chip, but what are they going to do with it? They have a whole team thinking up applications but it’s driving it from the technology rather than need” (p12).

Muller reports on the work of a group of scientists working with artist Mari Velonaki on Fish-Bird, which comprise a pair of communicative, robotic wheelchairs. The scientists feel that “realising Velonaki’s imaginative vision so completely without aesthetic compromise is the work’s great achievement. Interestingly it was the exacting nature of the artistic vision and its real world requirements [the user-testing that Hooper refers to] that drove a great deal of the technological innovation.”



New media artist Melinda Rackham surveys network art, wondering why Australia, an early innovator in the field has paid it less than due attention and in doing so draws attention to the broader needs of innovation and to the network as a medium. Rackham shows how programs at Colorado University and RMIT are creating “students multi-literate in network and software, utilising blogging, podcasting, videoblogging, and conducting collaborative research…The crucial innovative factor is that students learn to operate within a network rather than learning to design work for networked display. These focused but flexible environments encourage experimentation, and most importantly acknowledge failure as a crucial part of the innovation process.” Of course, these days failure is rarely a creative option, but we need to reminded of its importance in the process of innovation.

Rackham reports that networked art is thriving overseas, but not in Australia. She thinks that the reasons for this are that “funding bodies and commissioning organisations often profoundly misunderstand the media” and “that networked art challenges the very foundations of the commodification of art, as it defies conceptions of uniqueness, stability and collectability. It is a practice that has never slotted neatly into existing institutional and cultural establishments.”

In Australia, as we know only too well, new media arts are suffering various forms of dimunition and erasure. Network art needs to be clearly acknowledged so that it can be properly supported and funded. Rackham argues that “When network art is positioned as a discrete discipline…innovation can be recognised and fostered.”


Recognising innovation

The Australia Council’s decision to eliminate the New Media Arts Board and distribute new media artists to the Visual Arts and Music Boards represents a profound failure to engage with innovation, with new works and audience experiences both independent of and entwined with commercial media. Audiences are being engaged in ways hitherto unimagined, as interacters and, not least, as co-creators of works that can be constantly remade, that are, in effect, never finished. Lizzie Muller provocatively claims that, “Unlike a book, a painting or a video installation, an interactive artwork is an open field, which means in effect that every instance is an innovation.”

While there is an emphasis in this edition on the artist’s vision as primary and the tools for its realisation a matter of choice, the very tools are often the stimulus for creation, not least in new media arts where the technologies are increasingly accessible and an integral part of the everyday, and the distinctions between their form and content significantly hard to make. The Australia Council’s scoping review of new media arts will soon commence: it is to be hoped that it will acknowledge, as Melinda Rackham has argued, that the formal recognition of new media arts practices is vital to their well-being and their continued capacity to innovate.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 2

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

Gitte Weise in front of Cherine Fahd’s Looking Glass, Rotorua

Gitte Weise in front of Cherine Fahd’s Looking Glass, Rotorua

Gitte Weise in front of Cherine Fahd’s Looking Glass, Rotorua

Gitte Weise has been director of her eponymous Paddington gallery for 13 years and in 2004 opened a space in Berlin to promote her Australian program internationally. Originally from Karlsruhe and then Heidelberg, she migrated to Australia after meeting Australian artist Christopher Snee while holidaying in Greece. In Germany, she practised as a social worker, although even then she was surrounded and intrigued by art, sharing her communal house with several art students (many of whom are now well known contemporary artists). On arrival in Australia in 1981, she settled in Snee’s home town on the Gold Coast, but the couple soon moved to Sydney, where Snee began a visual arts degree and he and Weise produced and sold silk screened shirts.

It was not until Weise enrolled in COFA’s Masters of Art Administration that her arts career gained focus. During her first practicum with the 1986 Biennale of Sydney she worked with mentors Nick Waterlow and Ann Flanagan. Upon graduation, she worked for a small commercial gallery, before landing the exhibition manager’s position for the 1988 and 1990 Biennales. Here she gained invaluable experience overseeing the transformation of industrial sites into exhibition spaces at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay and the Bond Store, and working with her ‘mentor of mentors’, Berlin-based curator René Block. In the early 1990s, an opportunity came up to take a lease on an Oxford Street shopfront with a small, sunny room upstairs. There was just one proviso: that Weise set up and manage a deli-cafe downstairs! She fulfilled the brief, and in 1992 Kunst opened its doors with a show by Bill Seeto.

When you first opened your gallery, how did you select your artists?

I followed the program of artist run spaces, especially First Draft. And I followed my own aesthetic, what I responded to.

How would you describe that aesthetic?

I find that always very difficult. I suppose most of the artists I take on are informed by art history. And you can see that in the work, they can transform that into something new. I look for something that’s solid, that’s got a background, that’s anchored in art history. There’s a certain aesthetic, a certain strength that goes through each artist’s work that brings it together.

Do you think your artists share a conceptual base?

Yes, but…that’s what they’re looking for in Germany. There, they love it when you say “I just show concrete art.” But I have always resisted being put in a drawer like that. The artists have to experiment and I always welcome that. I like that there is constant change, evolving with the material. I would never say to them “You have to stick with that because that sells.” Maybe from a commercial point of view one should do that, but I don’t fit into that mould. My accountant thinks I’m mad.

There’s often quite a poetic sensibility in your artists’ work.

Maybe a philosophical sensibility too, I respond to that.

And the work is often quite beautiful and materially sensitive.

I love beauty. We all do. What I get excited about is the ability to transform a concept into a beautiful object.

What do you think is the role of a commercial gallerist in Australia today?

That is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the last year, because I feel that things have totally shifted. My idea was, and still is, that the role of the gallery director is to look after the careers of a particular group of artists. I’ve never had more than 12-13 artists in the program, that’s all I can really do. In a philanthropic way, what I want to do is find people who support and nurture these artists’ careers, like I do. But that hardly happens any more. That whole notion of art as decoration has changed everything. Art’s become very fashionable, so that a gallery now is almost like a restaurant: when a new one opens, everyone flocks there. So I am questioning my role. I don’t want to be a shop. If I wanted to be a shop, I’d go back to selling sausages! But this idea is very idealistic, and I don’t know whether I’m actually able to sustain it. Can I really do enough for the artists in this context? You have to be quite pushy and aggressive, which has never really been me. You do as much as you can: you send out information, you try to educate. But it’s not enough anymore. More and more you get people who come in and say, “I’ve bought a new house and I need something to hang above the green couch.” You might sell something to them, but then they may never come back to see what the artist is doing. I find that quite depressing.

Do you think it’s also part of the role of a commercial gallery to put great art out there, to nurture ideas, to contribute to the broader discourse of art?

Yes, I hope so, definitely. I also love to have my artists in international exhibitions. One has to go beyond the Australian boundaries. My main objective in going to international art fairs is to meet curators and writers. Once an artist gets into an international show, it’s a snowball effect. Most of the host institutions have money to produce a catalogue, so the art gets seen again.

How do you see arts writing supporting your role as gallery director?

It’s a fantastic supportive tool, and very necessary. Each of the artists I show would now need a comprehensive catalogue, but it is very expensive to print in Australia. I can do small booklets which document the exhibitions, but this doesn’t compare with the European standard of a glossy catalogue that even very young artists use as their calling card.

What is the profile of the typical contemporary art buyer?

They’re mostly 40 plus, professional couples who may have been in contact with the artist, or who are members of Contemporary Benefactors; a lot of gay clientele, academics, lawyers, doctors. Amongst them there are passionate people who come back to see the next exhibition, but there are just not enough. There are some corporations and institutions, such as the AGNSW, NGA, and some regional galleries, but sales have been affected by their budget cuts. I’d say about 80% of my clientele are individuals.

How do you see the role of Room 35 [an exhibition space downstairs that artists can lease]?

To encourage more experimental work and media, and offer artists the experience of showing in a commercial setting. We provide hands on advice, installation, publicity and we look after the show. It’s also fantastic for us: the artists come to us, and it can be a great way of developing talent. Three artists—Cherine Fahd, Maria Kontis and Sarah Robson—have joined the stable after showing at Room 35, while others such as Dani Marti, nell, and Tim Silver have been taken up by other commercial galleries. It costs money for the artist, but it’s an investment in their career. We put on 8 to 9 shows a year, and I have up to 60 applications. I select the artists again using my own aesthetic, but also taking into consideration the proposal itself; whether it shows commitment. I always put decorative works aside, seeking out more edgy or confrontational things. I have also built up a great private collection by buying works from Room 35.

How do you choose an artist to join your stable?

I can only take on a new artist when another leaves, and I have to consider very carefully, “Can I really offer you a future, a career?” People approach us all the time: I may advise them to apply for Room 35, which gives me a good idea about whether they are committed and serious about their work, and whether I can work with them. It’s never been the case that I’ve taken on an artist after they’ve cold called. And then there are people who stalk you, which means they’ve got completely the wrong idea. But then again, with some artists, I’ve stalked them, such as Sarah Ryan, whose work I saw at Primavera [an annual show profiling young artists at Sydney’s MCA] and whom I followed up after the opening. I still go to First Draft, other artist run spaces, and grad shows at the art colleges, or sometimes will respond to an artist’s booklet/catalogue if it intrigues me.

What gives you the biggest thrill as a gallery director?

An artist winning a prize, or getting into a prestigious group show, or placing work in an institution or fantastic private collection. Also, seeing an artist evolve, like Cherine Fahd, who first showed at Room 35, and now has shown in Berlin.

Tell me about your Berlin gallery.

The Berlin gallery opened in January 2004, and is now into its 9th show. The gallery came out of doing international fairs, like New York, Madrid and Berlin: I wanted something a bit more permanent. The fairs can be very political affairs, and whether you’re included can depend on whom you schmooze on the board. Also, an art fair can cost you anything between $40-$80,000, so you have to sell a lot of work just to make that back. The gallery is in Mitte, in the former East, in a gallery precinct with hundreds of other galleries. Kunstwerke [a public contemporary art space] is just behind, while major museums are between 10-15 minutes’ walk away. You get so many people coming through, including curators, from all over Europe. And people like to engage with the work at openings. There’s been quite a lot of interest in the gallery director being a German who has come back. And we’ve gained a good reputation for being a unique space that shows Australian art—even though the work is totally international [Weise’s stable includes Renate Anger, Berlin; Micah Lexier, Canada, lives in New York; and Pip Culbert, London.] So far, the response has been terrific, with some artists like Maria Kontis already included in some great international shows. The only drawback is that some of the Australian collectors would like me to be more here, in Sydney. So I’m talking now with some other Australian galleries about having the Berlin space as a joint venture, as a way of profiling Australian artists to an international audience on a more permanent basis, without having to spend as much time there myself. I would like to keep that Australian focus, as it’s worked very well in developing an identity for the gallery.

The Australian artists represented by Gitte Weise Gallery are Aleks Danko, Cherine Fahd, Helga Groves, Maria Kontis, Jude Rae, Sarah Robson, Sarah Ryan, Paul Saint and Christopher Snee.

Gitte Weise Gallery’s current exhibition is Looking Glass, photographs by Cherine Fahd, May 18-July 2, www.gitteweisegallery.com

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 4

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

Credo, The Innocence of God

Credo, The Innocence of God

Credo, The Innocence of God

Lyndon Terracini is as excited and voluble about his third and last Queensland Music Festival as he was about his first in 2001, but I sense a restiveness, a desire to move on to new terrain. Already at work on his first Brisbane Festival for 2006, Terracini has firmly established an innovative and successful statewide Queensland Music Festival. No token shows travelling to regional centres in the Terracini model: towns across Queensland invest in the festival and in local performers joining in collaborative works with visiting artists from around Australia. Each year more towns come on board, there’ll be 23 in 2005. Each year more festival events become integral to local cultures, whether in installations, instrumental groups (the Barcaldine Big Marimba Band, this year’s Winton Musical Fence Band), or a repertoire of new works involving local musicians (Elena Kats Chernin’s symphonies for Townsville musicians in 2002, 2003; Sarah Hopkins works for Childers, 2003, 2005). Terracini has always wanted communities to own their creations and to be inspired to incorporate music-making into their lives beyond the festival timetable. Meanwhile in Brisbane the festival ranges from big concerts of major works (Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony in 2001; Heiner Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities, 2003), packed-out world music shows, cutting edge new compositions (from Liza Lim and others) and events with a socio-political commitment (St Mary’s Church in 2001). I spoke with Lyndon Terracini just prior to the launch of the 2005 program, first asking him about the scale of this year’s event.

Credo: music theatre by satellite

It’s a 17 day festival this time rather than the 10 days of last time. It’s grown enormously. It allows us to have longer seasons for some shows in Brisbane and other centres and we’ve been able to invest in some big productions that I thought were important to do, that reflect the philosophy of the festival. The biggest of these is Credo, The Innocence of God, produced in partnership with Fabrica in Italy. It’s live out of the Concert Hall in QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre) via satellite with Jerusalem, Istanbul and Belfast. Three big screens will hang above the stage so that you can see the musicians in those 3 cities. The Queensland Orchestra accompanies them live at various times. It’s a very powerful piece about oppressed peoples.

Credo’s been done before in Germany [produced by Fabrica with Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe], but this is virtually a new production. All the actors here are Australian, half of them Aboriginal women, including Justine Saunders and Rachael Maza. The works played by the musicians in the different cities are traditional, or based on traditional music, with fantastic singers. Andrea Molina who is conducting–he did Heiner Goebbels’ monumental Surrogate Cities for the 2003 QFM–also wrote this monster of a piece. Some of it is also quite extreme music. Vocal experimentalist David Moss is singing again–he was in Surrogate Cities–with 2 singers from his Institute of Living Voice, one of them Icelandic. When she starts to sing you would swear she is whistling, it’s that high. There are also 4 Brisbane instrumentalists–3 percussionists and William Barton, the didjeridu player and composer–who have gone from Brisbane to Musica Fabrica where Fabrica offers 40 fellowships each year to young artists in Treviso. They’ll come back and be soloists in Credo.

Fabrica is the Benetton Creative Research Centre. Benetton have invested $160m in it. Fellowships, travel and accommodation are paid for, and there’s a fee for the artists to live on. They get full use of all the facilities there, including a film studio and the Colours magazine office. Some of the Benetton campaigns have been devised by these students.

When people buy their tickets to Credo they’ll receive a full libretto by email prior to the show. It’s tough material. Andrea interviewed the parents of a Palestinian bomber and then the mother of the Jewish child who was blown up. The Palestinians don’t know why their son did it and why he hadn’t come to them first, and the Jewish mother hates the Palestinians. It’s confronting to see these juxtaposed images. When they arrive, the audience receive a booklet with the text, photos and transcripts of the interviews–they play in the foyer on monitors and also in the body of the work.

Credo is about serious content with the support of technology. We decided to give the audience as much background information as we could, so that when they’re in the concert hall–I’m starting to call halls and theatres ‘communication centres’–they’ll have a complete experience.

Is Molina inspired by the work of Heiner Goebbels?

They are very close friends and think about making a work in much the same way, though Andrea’s musical language is a bit more extreme than Heiner’s, more in the Italian modernist vein, which is exciting in the incredible justaposition, say, between a folksong from Ireland and his music that jars you into the ferociousness of the piece and subject matter.

On the same program…

We have the Leni-Basso contemporary dance company from Japan with Finks, another multimedia show. I saw them in Tokyo. The dancers are incredibly skilful and they dialogue with the screen and with the sound score. The Glass House Mountains installation is an IMA-Elision collaboration between composer Liza Lim, visual artist Judy Watson, cellist Rosanne Hunt and sound designer Michael Hewes [described in the program as “inspired by Queensland’s Glass House Mountains, featuring sculptures, video, floor and wall pieces made with volcanic soils from each of the 10 mountains, standing next to topographical drawings, environmental sound recordings, spatially manipulated electronics and live cello performances.” QFM Brochure].

Liquid Architecture will present soundscapes in 3 city malls, transforming the usual urban sonic experience into something new. [The QFM program also includes Ed Kuepper’s Music for Len Lye, the New Zealand experimental film innovator from the 30s; and Tyrone performing with Topology in a program of Weill, Radiohead and others.]

On the jazz front we have Omah Sosa, a Cuban pianist but with a distinctive African flavour which I find really exciting. He’s looked to as a new leader in the jazz world. And we’re doing Ruby’s Story with Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach with arrangements of their songs by Paul Grabowsky in the Brisbane Powerhouse and then in Cherbourg for the Aboriginal community.


Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, where all new music began, is almost sold out. It’s a concert version with Lisa Gasteen; Brisbane’s her home town. John Treleaven sings Tristan, he’s Cornish–he sings it in Hamburg and then he comes here. I heard him do it in Amsterdam; he’s the best Tristan in the world at the moment. The Australian Youth Orchestra will be conducted by Richard Mills. It’s a 6 hour experience.

We’re also doing Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Schubert’s Die Wintereisse and his Der Schwanengesan with a great young Canadian baritone, Phillip Addis. He’ll do the complete 3 cycles in one week. These days you rarely hear one of these cycles live. He’ll be performing at St Mary’s Church where, in the same series, Lisa Moore will be playing Janacek piano music; Stephen Savage, John Chen and Ian Munro are playing Tippet over 3 nights; and Erik Griswold will play his own remarkable compositions. This series will be at 6 o’clock every evening for a week.


Twenty three centres are part of QFM. Around the state there are about 12 world premieres: a big new piece in Mt Isa that writer Sven Swenson and composer John Rodgers are creating, called Bobcat Magic [building on the great success of 2003’s Bobcat Dancing]; a new piece in Charters Towers with 200 local performers, text by Janis Balodis and Shenton Gregory writing the music, called Charters Towers, the Musical; a huge event in Cooktown with the Huli Wigmen from Papua New Guinea and the Narasirato Are’Are Panpipe Ensemble from the Solomon Islands. They’ll live in Cooktown for a week, build a village and, with local Aboriginal and South Sea Islanders, will eat together and have ceremonies nightly and a big corroboree, Gunbu Gunbu on the final night.

Sarah Hopkins is writing a new piece in Childers. After the success of the work she created for the town in 2003 for massed community choir, orchestra, didjeridu and percussion, they want to call the new subdivision there after the piece, Childers Shining. There’s a mosaic in the footpath with parts of the score.
Michael Haskill is writing a new piece for the drumming community of Caboolture, called Caboolture Drumming, with Taikoz and djembe expert Elliot Orr. In Moranbah, we’ve commissioned The Musical Railway Line, a permanent installation by Steve Langton using old railway materials and played by locals along with leading percussionists from around the world.

To market…

With the assistance of the Australia Council and Arts Queensland the Australian National Music Market has been considerably expanded, with more concerts and artists from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Mexico. They include 29 artists from the Northern Territory–including terrific Indigenous bands. There are Mexican DJs. And there’ll be international presenters and representatives from Germany, US, UK and Asia.

Moving on…

Terracini is happy to be moving on from QFM, “it’s time for someone else to do it.” He thinks the festival is in very good shape. It has raised $4.1m of its budget itself, “It’s grown and people have confidence in it. It’s been adventurous–Tristan is the most conservative thing we’ve done–and the people of Queensland have come on the journey. QFM will continue to be biennial and in the other years I’ll be able to focus on theatre and dance in the Brisbane Festival.”

Queensland Music Festival 2005, July 15-31;

See also preview of the Australian Computer Music Conference

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 5,6

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

“In an age where everyone’s got a laptop what are the implications for the computer as musical instrument?”, asks the 2005 Australian Computer Music Conference. To find out, be there, listening, talking and workshopping.

The conference will be held July 12-14 in Brisbane as part of the Queensland Festival of Music with 9 concerts over 3 days featuring Garth Paine (see page 12), Gordon Munro, Donna Hewitt, Jeremy Yuille, Robin Fox and Cat Hope. Works commissioned for Queensland new music ensembles Topology and Elision can also be heard. The concerts will incorporate multi-speaker surround sound playback systems, so audiences are in for a substantial aural treat.

Among the sounds will be words of wisdom and vision in papers delivered by, among others, Ross Bencina, the renowned audio software innovator and AudioMulch creator, and Katharine Neil, a leading game sound designer and programmer for Atari. Conference topics include artificial life, software development, instrument building, performance practices and psychoacoustics.

Bencina graduated as a specialist in electroacoustic music composition and moved on to sound design, performance, and software development. In 2002 with composers Steve Adam and Tim Kreger he formed Simulus, an improvising electroacoustic ensemble. He is the creator of AudioMulch Interactive Music Studio, software for music composition and performance (www.audiomulch.com). Bencina is currently a visiting researcher at the Music Technology Group, Audiovisual Institute, University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

Katharine Neil has been game sound designer and programmer at Atari Melbourne House since 1998, creating the sound for 7 published game titles on various platforms while producing audio-based ‘demos’ for game console hardware in her spare time. Neil has written on the subject of censorship for RealTime.

For hands-on pleasures, Friday July 15 is dedicated to workshops hosted by leading computer music practitioners.

ACMC05 will be hosted at QUT’s Creative Industries Precinct, Kelvin Grove, with some off-site concerts at White House Art Space.


2005 Australian Computer Music Conference, July 12-14, workshop
July 15.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 6

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

Wesley Enoch

Wesley Enoch

Wesley Enoch

The work of leading Australian theatre director Wesley Enoch is focused on the Australian Aboriginal culture of which he is a part. His productions range from The Sunshine Club and The Sapphires, rousing entertainments with a socially critical edge, to the sad and angry intensities of Black Medea (see review) and The 7 Stages of Grieving, created with performer Deborah Mailman. Significantly, these creations are Enoch’s own–as writer or co-writer as well as director. The 7 Stages of Grieving and his production of Jane Harrison’s Stolen have played to acclaim around the world

I met with Enoch during the recent Sydney run of his Black Medea at Belvoir Street. Originally staged as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2000 Blueprints season, it has been re-worked for Melbourne’s Malthouse, premiering in Sydney before opening in Melbourne in May.


How do you write?

I like writing with groups of actors. I was talking to Wayne Blair about this, about relationships–that’s where the best work comes from. It’s not about the lone writer working in isolation. And now the actors can argue with me to get the best results in the writing–at the beginning they were much more respectful of the text. They tell me what’s not working and we shift things around.

Did this play originally come out of workshopping and improvisation?

I’m not a great improviser. I prefer to talk through some ideas, get some inspiration, draft some stuff up and then hear it in the actors’ mouths. Improvising is too unstructured for me.

It interests me that a number of key works have emerged from writers and sometimes directors working with performers, shaping their words with them, especially for solo shows–Angela Chaplin and Robyn Archer with Ningali Lawford, Louis Nowra with David Page, Neil Armfield and Reg Cribb with Gulpilil, Scott Rankin with Leah Purcell.

The issue of the authentic voice is very interesting, especially now in verbatim theatre which is playing everywhere, and as we look for the true representation of something as opposed to believing in a fictitious world. While news and current affairs have become so editorialised, creative types are being drawn to the issue of authenticity as a way of connecting to an audience. Is it our response to reality TV?

Why did you employ the Medea story?

It was a starting point. My body of work involves a fascination with women, so the idea of a woman who goes against her maternal urges and can kill a child attracted me. And she’s from another culture. It was something that came up when I worked with Simon Philips on the MTC production of The Tempest with Caliban and Ariel as Aboriginal inhabitants of the island. It’s a way to comment without having to do a capital P political thing–’we poor blackfellas.’ And it goes back to when I was working at Contact Youth Theatre 15 years ago. We did a version of Romeo and Juliet with Aboriginal kids. The basic story can be assumed; the audience know enough about it so that you can twist it and look at form, at issues, parallels…

Your Jason is a miner.

Looking for his golden fleece.

How would you describe your body of work?

It’s over-used, but the concept of story-telling theatre is fascinating for me. An older actor approached me and said “Your actors are storytellers”, as if that was somehow different from acting. It’s interesting how people sense storytelling as a dropping of pretence, of the layering on of character.

In Black Medea, your chorus [Justine Saunders] provides the direct storytelling. My favourite moment is when she quietly gives voice to the silent Medea’s anticipation of death.

That’s part of the narrator’s framing of the story where she often says things like, “He’s thinking…” or “You think she’s thinking such and such, but…”, as if she’s inside their heads. So at the end she can say “When my time comes…” for Medea. The work is about the integration of all the artforms–acting, story-telling, the sound and the visuals. This will sound awful: the work is not actor-based. Of course it is, but the other elements are just as important, they’re more than background–they come into the foreground. The story-telling can happen through lights and set as well.

Is your collaborative approach part of this integration?

It’s about how working relationships have developed over time with particular actors, for example Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza, Margaret Harvey, Wayne Blair, Ursula Yovich and Luke Carroll. We feed off each other a lot. For me The Sapphires was a coming together of all these people, and Matt Scott, the lighting designer, and Richard Roberts, the designer. Things start to mature in a different way. This year there are new relationships: it’s my first show with Aaron Pedersen and with the sound designer Jethro Woodward, and my second time this year with the designer, Christina Smith. Rachel Burke, who did the lighting on the original Black Medea, has also done it this time. Our discussions are great–it’s a matter of not pigeon-holing our roles too early in the process. Stage manager Tiffany Noack’s role is a creative one for me: I think this is about our 7th show together. Doing Conversations with the Dead with Wayne Blair came from discussions where he said he wanted to challenge himself, and it grew from there.

What kind of writer are you? Where does the writing fit for a director?

The question, I guess, is what kind of director am I too. I work almost exclusively on new work and I’m not a great fan of the dramaturg. The dramaturg is this country’s way of buying more time by getting another brain in that wouldn’t be needed if you had 8 weeks rehearsal time, or the writer and director could work together on the script for 2 years. Directing for me is a form of writing: you watch, you edit, you make changes and there’s a point where I’m working with a writer when I treat them like they’re dead. I say, “You can make it work on the page all you like, but unless I make it work here on the stage…” My own writing is a natural extension of my relationship with the work on the floor. I’m more of a director than a writer. It’s a matter of time too, most plays take at least a couple of years to write.

In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald you spoke about not having a cultural adviser on Black Medea.

I’ve worked with cultural advisers before but in this show the performers are much more empowered, and there are multiple generations on stage. So we’ll talk. Perhaps it’s a form of arrogance on my part: I know the story I want to tell and I don’t want someone telling me I can’t say it. This goes back to a conference where we were discussing something like domestic violence and I was told it was women’s business and I couldn’t talk about it and I shut up and sat down. It’s a matter of finding the right adviser; the wrong person will toe the line, they’ll be scared of where you can go. They want to stay in the celebratory as opposed the critical mode. To be an artist you have to go into the critical mode.

How important is film culture to Indigenous art? A small group of filmmakers is really making a mark.

The Australia Council’s gotten into a rut about how it supports what I would call contemporary Indigenous work. It’s a multi-artform board with limited funds that has to work right across the whole nation. But the Australian Film Commission has found a way of saying, we’re going to do these initiatives and they’re exclusive. And you have to have done this and this and this to qualify, so that you get really interesting people ‘filtering up’, thanks to Wal Saunders and now Sally Riley [previous and current directors of the AFC Indigenous Film Unit], who’s from a theatre background. The best writers and other talents have been drawn to film and television, especially writers. Meanwhile we’re still caught in the whole ‘genre’ of the first-time writer in Indigenous theatre. The first-time writer is everywhere. The second-time, third-time writer is so rare and someone who has written 5 or 6 plays is rarer.

If a dance company like Chunky Move thinks about its work in terms of dance productions, film, installations, interactivity, then perhaps Indigenous performing arts companies too need to broaden their brief–perhaps take on film projects, given that’s where directors, writers and producers are going.

Do you see a lot of work by other Indigenous artists?

There’s some really interesting, talented artists around but there is not a great volume of talent. And there’s a lack of confidence among Indigenous artists.

Well, on the surface, there seems to be a lot of confidence.

Expectations are so high for a small population of artists that you can get burnt. And you need to be able to take criticism and not as an affront, which stops artists from growing. They are so willing to hit the racism button. Peers might want to engage in discussion about the quality of a performance, but some Aboriginal artists will say “they’re white, they don’t understand.” They evade criticism. We’re still in that phase where we’re supposed to look after each other, be soft and gentle…In fact we can be a lot more robust and engaging.

I heard you saying this in the mid 90s.

[LAUGHS] Well I’m still saying it because people haven’t heard it so much. I feel confident about where I am now so I can demand it from others. How else do you have a career unless you think of yourself as an artist. We still engage in a lot of discussion about community values and sometimes that means lowest common denominator. Case in point: talking to the cast of Black Medea about it not being a community show. We did not have a community preview in Sydney, because I did not believe that it was for or about the Aboriginal community. If they want to come, they can come. The Sapphires was a totally different story, that’s the nature of that play. With Black Medea I wanted to say it’s about us as artists wanting to work in a particular way on black-on-black issues. At the end of the show I don’t want to be responsible for people’s feelings–I’m not a counsellor.

What about visual arts?

[For me]…visual arts have always been at the forefront, including contemporary art. The artists don’t go around saying that they’re Aboriginal or Indigenous artists, their work does that–the way Christian Thompson puts a ruff on his neck and picks up a boomerang.

Does Indigenous stand-up comedy have a role to play?

I don’t see enough of it. In the Melbourne Comedy Festival it involved different ways of telling. It’s cheap: a string of 5-6 performers for an hour, with Lou Bennett doing Captain Cook on trial! After the heaviness of Stolen and Conversations… there has been a bit of a switch to let’s get some fun stuff out there, so you get The Sapphires. Bitin’ Back, the farce I’m directing next for Kooemba Jdarra is adapted from her book by Vivian Cleven. It’s about a woman whose footballer son starts wearing a dress: eventually we find out it’s about him getting in touch with his feminine side. It’s set in a small regional town, so what he does has to be hidden and then what does it mean?…It’s a farce but it makes interesting observations about people in small towns.

Aboriginal performers are really at ease with comedy.

It’s part of a charm mechanism as well, what I call ‘the smiley blackfella’–’I’ll charm you into liking me…into giving me what I want…I’ll beguile you with stories.’ It’s an empowering position.

And the performers can gently mock their white audience…Ningali, Purcell, Gulpilil…

In something like The Sapphires, it’s a bit cheesy to say, but there’s a sense of the more heartache you have, the louder the laughter. It’s interesting that the Stolen Generations narrative has subsided after becoming the dominant one. Not everyone doesn’t know where their family comes from. I let go the original production of Stolen 3 years ago, Rachael Maza took it over, and now Wayne Blair is doing it for STC.

Is innovation an issue for you?

There is less innovation and less engaging in debate about it in Aboriginal theatre, and maybe that’s because overall there’s less contemporary performance than there used to be. It’s shrinking. The supply-demand rhetoric that came through from the Australia Council a few years back has meant that instead of thinking of the key theatre companies as the keepers of technique, practice and history, they’ve become more and more geared, in an awful way, to audience development–instead of thinking that audiences need to be kept hungry for what’s coming next. Michael Kantor is working on what’s coming next at Malthouse. I saw The Ham Funeral with a mix of school kids, who I thought might not get it, and older people, but there was something really going on between all of them and the performance.

Many Indigenous artists seem to work across forms and media. In film Ivan Sen will write, direct and compose; Wayne Blair acts in theatre and directs film; Warwick Thorton is a cinematographer, now he directs and he provides the imagery for the Marrugeku Company’s live performances.

That’s where Tracey Moffat is fabulous. I saw her retrospective: the medium doesn’t stop her. She’ll go wherever she wants, wherever the story takes her.

Is that what’s innovative about Indigenous art? A fluidity between forms? You have a vision that’s your own but, as you’ve described it, you work very integratively.

Yes, there’s a real energy around it. But it’s about purpose first, not the form or the medium. Purpose is the driving thing…it might mean one day wanting to make a film, or writing poetry.

See review of Black Medea

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 8,9

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

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Justine Saunders, Aaron Pedersen, Clive Cavanagh, Black Medea

Writer-director Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea is an uncompromising account of tensions between urban and traditional Indigenous cultures, represented by a woman caught between the two. This Medea lives on the land with her clan, falls in love with an Aboriginal man, Jason, who works for a mining corporation, and leaves her traditional life behind. Jason, haunted by his father’s failures and terrified of his own, soon wants to banish Medea to clan life, but not their son. Meanwhile an older woman from the clan arrives and demands Medea return to her cultural roots. Medea’s thwarted ambition, the loss of her husband’s love and the threat of being forced into a cultural abyss yield the inexorable logic of psychosis that drives her to murder her loved son rather than surrender him to the violent Jason.

As ever the grafting of contemporary fable onto mythology-cum-classic drama is a tricky business, especially given the very different cultures of origin. There are times in Black Medea when it works, the resonance between these disparate worlds pulses deeply; at other times the connection feels slight, or facile–Jason, in a miner’s helmet, as the raper of the land. Then there’s the matter of tone. Given the mythological foundation of the play, Enoch boldly eschews the characteristically engaging naturalism of many Indigenous productions for something almost operatic. This means that for Margaret Harvey (Medea) and Aaron Pedersen (Jason) much of the text is delivered white hot: states of being are immediately entered, the words intoned or belted out, bodies vibrate with frustration and anger. Harvey sustains this admirably. Pedersen (a fine, intimate screen actor) wavers, though when he hits his note his Jason is aptly both pathetic and frightening.

In counterpoint, the old woman (Justine Saunders) speaks quietly, conversationally, insistently arguing her case for Medea’s return, but also addressing the audience directly. She is the chorus, providing narration, speaking on behalf of a society and, at times, eerily voicing Medea’s thoughts when the distraught woman is beyond words.

The action is tautly choreographed and each scene framed as an image: in fact, the show opens impressively with a series of quick-fire still images sketching out the tragedy that will ensue–a potent, wordless chorus. Compounding the power of bodily images throughout the work is the sheer beauty of Christina Smith’s set as Rachel Burke’s lighting transforms it from enveloping cave to over-arching night sky and distant spiritual space. Inspired by Dorothy Napangardi’s painting Salt on Mina Mina, the set’s apparently metallic surface is patterned and punctured with holes through which light glows or radiates suggesting the otherworld of myth.

Jethro Woodward’s sound score works evocatively in its quieter moments, it too producing a sense of ominous otherness, but its heavier underlinings of the play’s climaxes sometimes pushed the production perilously close to melodrama, denying the requisite sense of interiority and consequence.

Reactions to Black Medea were extreme. The set and its deployment were uniformly admired, while the boldness of the play’s conception was debated, and the operatic inflection of the work seen as out of kilter with Indigenous theatre (including the director’s own)–Enoch’s version of Conversations with the Dead certainly unleashed intense pain and anger, but balanced outburst with introspection. When the fundamental premise of playing out a Greek myth with an Australian Aboriginal story is already a hard call, and when that tension is duplicated in big acting versus the chorus’ intimate naturalism, a subtle stage design and an overwhelming soundscore, not all of your audience is going take the trip to catharsis with you. For me there was much that was exciting and memorable about Black Medea, passages of fine writing that rose above the less inspired, striking imagery that fused body, set and wonderful lighting, and acting that, if variable, reached moments of wrenching intensity.

See interview with Wesley Enoch

Black Medea, writer-director Wesley Enoch, performers Margaret Harvey, Aaron Pedersen, Justine Saunders, Clive Cavanagh, Kyole Dungay; set Christina Smith, lighting Rachel Burke, composer Jethro Woodward; Malthouse at Company B, Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, April 13-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 8

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

Roland Goll

Roland Goll

Roland Goll

Roland Goll is a man with a mission. As Director of the Goethe-Institut Sydney he has eagerly explored the Australian cultural landscape, scheduled numerous exhibitions, performances, forums and masterclasses, created partnerships, fostered artist exchanges and initiated the successful Festival of German Films, now in its fourth year. Nearing the end of his term as director, Goll reflected on his almost 6 years in Australia in a discussion with me at the Institut. His enthusiam, energy and insights, peppered with generous good humour, are tempered with some frustration, a sense perhaps that he could have achieved more during his tenure. The reasons for this are complex and not a little to do with Australian attitudes to art, and to Germany.

Even after its 30 years in Australia, says Goll, the Institut is still often misunderstood as being either a marketer of German art or a funding body for Australian artists or organisations. He is emphatic that “ours is not a mission, like a coloniser, to export a Goethe-Institut vision. The first approach for the Goethe-Institut is to look at the framework of art production in a country, and the levels of operation and development in the different artforms. We have some comparative ideas in terms of what’s happening in Europe, although it’s very difficult to talk about standards. Through discussion we hope to develop ideas in Australia about how the circumstances for the arts can be improved.

“It embarassed me on arriving here that we were only being approached as a kind of sponsor. We don’t have huge budgets. We have different resources, other tools we can use, like sending people to Germany [on language-learning and familiarisation trips]. But the centre-piece of our work here is negotiating partnerships and it can be very hard work.”

Goll explains, for example, that the Goethe-Institut has sent Australian arts festival and theatre company artistic directors to Germany, “just to let them know what a broad range of theatre styles there are in German speaking countries.” There has however been little in the way of outcomes, although he acknowledges the efforts of Sydney Festival Artistic Director Brett Sheehy. This has not been an attempt by Goll to sell German work to Australia but part of his vision to present an expanded vision of what is possible in theatre, a subject we return to later in a discussion on dramaturgy. Once Australians have seen the range of German theatre, he says, then the discussion about partnerships is much easier.

German-Australian theatre

He recalls, “I arrived in Sydney at the time that Benedict Andrews was commencing his series of productions of German plays at the Sydney Theatre Company. It was the beginning of close cooperation over some years with Stephen Armstrong [then Associate Director at the STC] and together we developed a program of rehearsed readings of new German plays, and later, through Tony MacGregor at the ABC, produced some of them on radio. Later this year we have readings of plays by Falk Richter, probably at the STC in the Blueprints Literary program run by Nick Marchand, and then on the ABC.”

The presentation of a handful of German plays on the Australian stage that still looks to the UK for its imports has been a breakthrough if occasional rather than continuous. “My experience,” says Goll, “is that if something is happening in the UK, it’s much easier to get it to Australia. The Royal Court Theatre focus on German playwrights doubtless assisted Benedict Andrews’ project. Marius von Mayenburg’s Fireface was an STC program choice, but then I proposed other playwrights like Igor Bauersima (norway.today) or Roland Schimmerpfenig (Arabian Nights) for rehearsed readings. We invited David Gieselmann here for a very sophisticated production of his Mr Kolpert by Benedict. We translated several of these new plays to English.”

It’s interesting that the directors whose work Goll has most admired in Australia, Barrie Kosky (for his Oedipus) and Andrews (for his STC years), both direct from time to time in Germany. The Goethe-Institut has supported Chris Bendall, Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Theatre@Risk, who has included German plays in his programs. Goll explains, “He did the language course in Germany and then joined the International Forum of Theatre Pratitioners at Theatertreffen 2004 in Berlin, for which you have to speak pretty fluent German. He’s now doing another Roland Schimmelpfennig production in Melbourne (The Woman Before) after doing his Arabian Nights in 2004 (RT60, p39).

Although Goll also thought Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen another theatre highlight, he was less impressed with the recent showing of Democracy: “Some of the figures are still living, and it’s strange, because there is no similarity to them on stage. The play serves an educational purpose, for example about East German spying, but the role of Brandt is not convincing. He was pretty charismatic and very good with rhetoric but in this play his language is limited and repetitive. Australian theatre needs to grow away from this kind of English conversation piece.”

Comparison & cooperation

Goll finds the constant focus on developing Australian playwrights wearying and the Australian perception of world literature limited. “There are so many good plays from around the world. The approach to theatre here is often antique: a void, without dramaturgs. Companies don’t really work the text, don’t invent a new story from it, develop a new subtext; they don’t explore the relationship between the play and our society. This common dramaturgical work is just not happening. In the 80s in Germany very good production teams emerged with directors, designers and dramaturgs, and focused together on the play, not fearing to edit the text. If a play here is 157 pages, then it is 157 pages on stage–I couldn’t believe it. What I’ve been missing here is theatre used as a tool to explore society.”

Goll admits that he knows the circumstance for these limitations: “the low level of public funding and the search for sponsors. These have a huge influence on productions, but aesthetically you can still explore different ways of working, different styles, but there are not enough directors who meet the challenge. All you can do is ask politicians for more money for the theatre and foster directors who have vision. Generally the artistic conditions for development towards international standards are pretty good with so many gifted actors and designers in Australia.”

Among the other “deficits” (as he calls them) in Australian theatre that Goll elaborates on are: the delegation of challenging productions to the secondary programs of large companies; “young directors losing focus, doing what they like”; and the loss of Bogdan Koca’s Sydney Art Theatre which provided “a lot more inventive work than many big productions.” He has also been horrified by the casual attitude towards the translation of plays, where the adaptor of the work does not speak the language in which the play was written! At the 2005 Australian National Playwrights’ Conference (ANPC), courtesy of the Goethe-Institut, playwright-director Roland Schimmelpfennig will present a reading of his play Before/After in English and participate in a discussion dealing with the challenges of “Translation, Transliteration and Adaption” (Newcastle, June 29, www.anpc.org.au).

Geoffrey Milne in Theatre Australia Unlimited (Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York 2004) has detailed the diminution of Australian theatre over recent decades, and Julian Meyrick has described the erasure of the theatrical middleground in Trapped by the Past (Platform Paper No 3, Currency Press, 2004). Roland Goll argues that, “You create a theatre culture only where there’s a lot of work and competition. The flagships can’t do that.” He is loathe to compare Sydney and Berlin, but does Sydney and Munich as capitals of NSW and Bavaria. The latter has a population of 1.5 million, less than half of Sydney’s, but has “a state theatre, a music theatre, the ballet, 4 or 5 other theatre stages and 15 supported small theatres. This generates a lot of competition, a lot of employment, work on new theatre styles and developing aesthetics. Munich is smaller than Sydney but the differences are unbelievable.” And this despite cuts in arts funding in Germany since reunification.

One of Goll’s contributions towards developing an expanded vision of theatre in Australia has emerged from his discussions with the ANPC, and again it’s based on partnership and cultural exchange. He explains, “I’ve talked with the ANPC about creating relationships between theatres in Germany and Australia through dramaturgs. But this will not be with the Schaubuehne as the point of reference, because it is not the equivalent of a state theatre company here. What you have to look for is a kind of well-run city theatre in Frankfurt, Cologne or Munich, and start creating awareness of the different production systems involving dramaturgs. This is what we will do next year, send an Australian to Germany on a language course and a work visit at a theatre and, vice versa, send a German dramaturg to Australia to work on a production over a long period, using the Australian National Playwrights Conference as a focal point for their visit.” Schimmelpfennig’s visit signals a starting point.

Visual connections

The Goethe-Institut’s visual art program includes its own projects, like ArtconneXions, German artist tours and masterclasses, and involvement in a range of exhibitions and major events like the Sydney Biennale. Through the work of 9 of its centres in Australia, Asia and New Zealand, 18 individual artists and subsidised and commercial galleries, the Goethe-Institut has created ArtconneXions, a major regional photomedia event. ArtconneXions, bringing together Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam in an exhibition later this year at ACP and including Australian artists Leah King-Smith (see p38) and Shaun Gladwell.

The Goethe-Institut has assisted Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in inviting an artist network in Germany (outside public funding) to be involved in a forthcoming show Situation: Collaborations, collectives & artist networks from Sydney, Singapore and Berlin (June 6-Aug 21), curated by Russell Storer.

Exhibitions by German artists are toured on the participation and exchange model. Goll explains that their works are shown, new works made here and talks and masterclasses held. “Günther Uecker produced a work for Sculpture by the Sea (2002), delivered lectures and ran master-classes, and the same will happen with Wolfgang Laib who will be shown at AGNSW in August and Peter Pommerer who has been invited to be Artist-in-Residence at the College of Fine Arts, to create a new work and to give a presentation at the Sydney Festival of Drawing in July.

“Herlinde Koelbl is a very politically engaged photographer who did a long term study of our Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, other politicians and businessmen over 8 years. She did interviews, photographed the men and made videos, tracking their development, from tennis shoes to black tie in the case of Fischer. At Sydney College of the Arts she conducted a master class, came back after a year and student works were presented with hers in a show about multiculturalism and immigration (me & you–them & us, SCA Gallery [2002]). Some of the SCA students objected to having to be politically engaged. And we displayed her work Writers’ Portraits–At home with writing at the STC during the Sydney Writers Festival 2002. There was a floor talk with Herlinde and Andrea Stretton about all the famous German, Austrian and Swiss writers she interviewed and photographed. Our main focus is to create contexts with universities and colleges, who are very willing to participate, to give students the chance to have a more international view.”

Another positive dimension to the visual arts exchange has been the contribution of Margaret Hamilton, who until recently worked for the Australia Council from the Australian Embassy office in Berlin where the Council has been committed to a significant long term cultural program. Goll says that the outcome is “a strong visual arts and literature connection between the 2 countries, a great network with big projects. But you cannot manage to continue this without an Australian representative in Germany.”

In music, as with visual art, the Institut offers masterclasses when German musicians tour Australia, sometimes in collaboration with Musica Viva. As well, Goll says, “We’ve presented a French-German hip-hop collaboration, jazz groups and sound artists at Electrofringe. We are involved in the German Operatic Award (provided by the Australian Opera Foundation) giving Australian opera singers the chance to work for one year with the Opera in Cologne and offering a language course in Germany in one of the Goethe-Instituts.”

Dancing partners

As with theatre, dance has also offered challenges in establishing partnerships. “The Goethe-Institut was involved in the Pina Bausch visit before the Olympics, but normally it’s a matter of smaller projects. I’m very happy indeed to see the establishment of Critical Path to develop NSW choreographers and dancers in an international perspective.” Critical Path is a distinctive NSW government project that includes excellent workshop space in Drill Hall at Rushcutters Bay, financial support for short-term project development, and visiting international choreographers and others running classes. Goll says that the Institut has assisted with the 5 day visit of leading German choreographer Antje Pfundtner in August. Her workshop is on the use of voice and music in dance. “Later, we’d like to have her here over a longer period with more dancers and to produce a work for the public.” Goll says that he is more optimistic about Critical Path than the partnerships attempted with large dance companies, and he’s impressed with director Sophie Travers’ knowledge of European dance.

Radio on

Goll declares, “Radio is still a very important medium that should be fostered.” The Goethe-Institut has been engaged with the medium in a number of ways. As well as the broadcast of new German plays in English there has been a collaboration with the National Archives and the ABC’s Radio Eye, on “a topic we pick up once in a while–Germans who migrated to Australia and did some remarkable things. The subject of the radio play was Wolf Klaphake, a German scientist who was kept in detention camps in the 40s for years. There was also an exhibition on Egon Erwin Kisch at the State Library and we hope there will be a radio play about him.” A Czech-born, German-Jewish journalist and communist, Kisch came to Australia to speak against fascism in 1934, was incarcerated and deported.

Australians to Germany

I ask Goll about the scholarships that take Australian artists to Germany. He explains, “We have scholarships for artists to learn German, to dig a bit deeper into the German art scene instead of speaking English and not really making enough contact. The language courses start in Australia followed by a 4 or 8 week immersive course in Germany, and then, ideally, we offer the artist the opportunity to join a seminar, for example for the theatre festival–Theatertreffen–in Berlin or the Berlin Film Festival. We do not have huge resources but each year we send 10-20 people. They enjoy it very much. We are offering several programs : a “Visiting Program to Germany” (partly with the German Embassy) and “Key Positions in the Arts”–for people with a special professional interest in Germany. In the last couple of years we invited representatives from different areas: Karilyn Brown, Roger Wilkins, Brett Sheehy, Robyn Nevin, Benedict Andrews, Chris Bendall, Miriam Gordon-Stuart, Kevin Fewster and Scott Millwood. I would like to mention in this context that this year Simone Young received the Goethe-Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany, for her extraordinary engagement in German-Australian relationships.


I ask Goll if he thinks that the cultural distance between Australia and Germany is diminishing. He points to 2 problems: Australian lack of interest in Germany, and the ever-present problem of distance. “Even with the visit of a German politician like Joschka Fischer, who was here last February, or our President Johannes Rau a couple of years ago, nothing happened. The media could have picked it up in terms of our special bilateral relationships, but nothing. Germany is not a main topic in Australian self-understanding and consciousness. When it looks to Europe it’s the UK and, less so, France. It rarely goes beyond Hitler and reunification. My main aim has been to create a relationship: you can get a lot if you’ve got more contact with German artists.” And then there’s distance: “The big challenge is distance: it’s a big topic for me. It’s the reason why it is pretty difficult to establish more intense collaborative relations because Australia is so geographically far away from Germany.”

Despite these limitations, Goll feels his period here–”just the right amount of time”–has been “very motivating.” It is clear that he is very pleased with the Festival of German Films, a labour intensive project that has required much of him and his assistant Claudia Kuehn in a very competitive field. Goll feels that film has a major role to play in fostering intercultural understanding. For the fourth festival, he says, “there was great box office, a 35% bigger audience and the media were very responsive. Downfall [the film about Hitler’s last days] helped but 4 or 5 other movies also sold out. Film is the most important way to create an expanded awareness, and the way that German filmmakers are working allows people to gain insight into our culture. Often these are not big budget pictures.” Goll reassures me that the festival will continue after his departure and will hopefully include Adelaide as well as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.


Goll is looking forward to his new post in 2006 as director of the Goethe-Institut regional office in London (which includes the co-ordination of 11 institutes in North-West Europe from Brussels to Helsinki) and “to its density of cultural scenes and subcultures.” There is art in Australia that he appreciates very much, there have been successful partnerships, and as a place “Sydney has been like paradise after my postings to Jakarta, Amsterdam and Munich.” His son did his HSC here and is now at university, and Goll would like to return here for some time when he retires. Roland Goll’s tenure here will be fondly remembered by many artists, not a few of whom would readily concur with his opinions on the limits of the Australian vision of art and cultural interaction. His practical contributions, like the creation of the Festival of German Films, his push for dramaturgical connections between Australian and German theatre, and the partnerships in dance and in the visual arts are particularly relevant and truly welcome. It is to be hoped that his successor here has the same vision and drive.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 10,

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

Garth Paine

Garth Paine

Garth Paine is a composer, sound designer and installation artist. He has worked in dance and theatre and his immersive sound and video installations have inhabited galleries, gardens and museums. Behind all of Paine’s work is a desire to explore human behaviour within defined environments and a relentless pursuit of new technologies to implement his vision. Currently working as a Senior Lecturer in Music Technology at the University of Western Sydney, seconded to the MARCS Auditory Research Labs, I caught up with Paine between meetings with his PhD students.

Paine began his career as a flautist with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Realising that playing Beethoven was not his true calling he undertook a sound engineering traineeship at the ABC. While working as a sound engineer in a commercial studio, he began to write his own music which led to several years as a composer for Tasmanian companies such as Zootango and Terrapin Puppet Theatre. “That’s where the technology really started coming into the composing and production side. Theatre companies never have any money and as a composer you want to make a rich score so you need computers and samplers.” However it was while working with the London-based dance company Second Stride that he really started to engage with ideas of interactivity.

“Second Stride have a workshop every year called Fast & Dirty where they get people they are interested in working with and spend a couple of weeks doing quick little exercises to test things out. For a Fast & Dirty experiment I went to a guy who did keyboard repairs in London and asked him to take the brain out of the keyboard, stick it in a box and attach terminals so that I could plug floorpads into it–security triggers and light beams. I had 20 triggers that sent out a midi note whenever it was turned on, replacing the keys on the keyboard, and we made a little interactive dance piece with it.”

Moving to Melbourne, Paine continued to develop his ideas working in theatre, and by 1996 he’d created his first large scale interactive installation, Moments of a Quiet Mind, at Linden Gallery. “I’ve always had an interest in music and sound as an exploration and communication of our environment, and our relationship to it–physical, emotional and spiritual I guess. So Moments of a Quiet Mind was the first of a series of interactive environment pieces [in which] movement behaviour patterns generated the quality of the environment. I was starting to ask questions about how you perceive your environment, how your behaviour conditions your environment and how the environment conditions your behaviour… I made CDs with 99 tracks of audio ranging from meditative–the space in stasis–through to intense, chaotic sound and the length got shorter as the intensity increased.” Building an interactive system, the work collaged up to 6 sound elements at a time accompanied by 5 video projections working on similar parameters to create an immersive environment. “[It] was interesting because it was composing lists of potentials rather than structures and form. The actual composition of the polyphony occurred realtime.”

Paine continued these investigations in his next installation Ghost in the Machine (1997) in collaboration with Rebecca Young, however in this the interactive response was inverted. “The space treated any human presence as an irritant. It worked through these stages of intensity in an effort to rid itself of the people in it. The more energy you put in the calmer it got, so by running around continuously in the space you could send it back to this single cell amoeba and it would be really tranquil while you were going crazy. I always put comment books outside these pieces and I got long diatribes about how I didn’t understand what interactivity was. People expected that their instruction to the work would dictate the outcome rather than the work dictating their behaviour within it. It forced people to make those decisions about what kind of environment they wanted to inhabit.”

Through his installation practice Paine was approached to create work for the then newly constructed Crown Casino. While he declined the offer, it did make him aware of other potential avenues for this work, and so by approaching exhibition designers he began to create immersive environments for clients such as the Immigration Museum, the Australian Jewish Museum and the Museum of Victoria.

“The first major project was the Eureka Stockade Centre at Ballarat. I think all my experience in theatre and dance (I’d been working at that stage with Company in Space developing interactive sound scores with them) came into play. I was wanting to influence these exhibition designers to think about these museum experiences as immersive, creating a sense of being in the history–an active engagement in the history rather than the passive.”

Working in the museum sector allowed Paine to realise large scale installations with relatively permanent outcomes. “The [work in the] Museum of Victoria has 70 loud speakers and 36 channels of computer driven spatialisation. We have speakers through the floor, through the roof, 3 foot off the ground, 7 foot off the ground–it’s fantastic. It was a business decision to do this work where the funds were available to realise it at a high level. I’ve always been bloody minded about my creative output so I’ve pushed those jobs to be about what I want them to be–fulfilling and interesting, [utilising] new technology that nobody has used in Australia before.”

Paine’s interest in discovering new technologies and repurposing them is very much at the heart of his practice. For the Immigration Museum he had to find a company to import a demo model of the Richmond Audio Box to enable the desired multichannel spatialisation. For his Reeds installation in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens created for the 2000 Melbourne International Arts Festival, he was attempting to create custom weather stations to relay data to the reed pod sound sculptures floating in the pond and was told by several major companies that it was technically impossible. Eventually he found someone to custom build the technology, Paine himself adapted an in-ear monitoring system and then invited the original companies to see it working.

“I believe the arts drive a lot of these [technological] developments because somebody has got to be out there making the vision. Industry is often driven by the fact that they can now put all this on this little chip, but what are they going to do with it? They have a whole team thinking up applications but it’s driving it from the technology rather than need.”

Paine was recently invited to a 2 day workshop on gesture and interactivity at the National Innovation Centre (Technology Park, Sydney) in which the tensions and potentials of collaborating with science based research was made very clear. “In the sciences they often have very heavy constraints. An example was some video tracking technology for perfecting golf swings. The technology is really fantastic but if the person steps a foot to the left it doesn’t work any more. I was saying this is all terrific but let’s start applying it to dance choreography. Let’s remove the constraints and evolve the technology so we can deal with this stuff. The arts can push these technologies forward. Industry often fails to see the benefit of that as they want to package something they can sell. But there are a lot of good illustrations of where companies have been aware of that–Interval Research in the States and other things that Microsoft have bought up over the years–because they could see these hotspots of technology development. All of that is being driven by artists saying ‘I want to be able to do this’ and engineers and specialists getting together and solving the problem. ARC (Australian Research Council) need to pay more heed to that. We need to have major funding injections…pools of equipment that can be shared and broader resources…a 2 way street [between art and science]. We can make that operate better with ARC support.”

Paine is practicing what he preaches and is currently working with industry on a ‘secret project’ developing a new electronic musical instrument. Other upcoming projects include Metrosonics, an online adaptation of the Reeds installation. People will be able to ‘play’ sonic interpretations of the data from weather stations in Canada, England and Australia. He is also continuing his Endangered Sounds Project premiered at BEAP04 which is looking at the trademarking of sounds. Paine sends volunteers test tubes and asks them to capture the air through which particular sounds have passed and return them to him. The resulting installation includes these along with large vacuum flasks into which trademark sounds are played, illegally–however in the absence of any vibrational medium the result is silence. Paine is not only exploring issues of copyright and the corporatisation of the very the air through which we hear, but also the idea that the sounds we make today live on indefinitely, possibly forming the basis of the silence of the next millennium. (See Sonic Difference Conference Report, and other BEAP online coverage).

Garth Paine is also concentrating on live performance, experimenting with using a Wacom Graphics tablet as a musical interface. His explorations with Michael Atherton on acoustic instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy, are planned to be released by the end of the year. Paine will also be performing at the upcoming Australian Computer Music Conference Conference in July (see page 6) where he may even bring back the flute. Well, it’s a possibility.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 12

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

Kristy Edmunds

Kristy Edmunds

Since the mid-90s Australia’s international arts festivals have increasingly become the realm of artists turned festival artistic directors. Barrie Kosky (Adelaide 1996) did it as a striking one-off, but Robyn Archer (Adelaide 1998, 2000; 10 Days on the Island, 2001, 2003, 2005 [advisor]; Melbourne 2002, 2003, 2004) and Lyndon Terracini (Queensland Music Festival, 2001, 2003, 2005), both music theatre virtuosi, have made it a serious career move, and both are significant festival innovators. American stage director Peter Sellars (Adelaide, 2002) struck out, leaving a new model only partly realised, while Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page (bearing the weight of the post-Sellars reaction, Adelaide 2004) and opera director Lindy Hulme (Perth International Arts Festival, 2005) have presented standard model festivals where you get diversity but little in the way of thematic depth or formal challenge.

Now another artist is taking on the Melbourne International Arts Festival after Robyn Archer’s 3 year program which gave local artists the highest profile they’ve ever had in that festival and which successively focused on text, body and voice, yielding rare insights into where the arts are moving. Her successor is the straight-talking Kristy Edmunds, a Washington State artist turned curator who established a successful alternative artspace, PICA, in Portland, Oregon in 1995 and subsequently transformed it into the producer, from 2000 on, of an annual 10 day festival of international contemporary performance, dance, experimental film and installation titled TBA, the Time-Based Art Festival. It’s a unique event for regional USA, in fact for the USA all over, and its programming is innovative, provocative and enviable (for the range and character of the programming see www.pica.org). This doesn’t mean that Melbourne will neccesarily get that kind of program from Edmunds; the 2 festivals are very different, and Edmunds will doubtless create her own careful trajectory over her 2 to 3 year tenure (the third year is optional): she conveys a sense of pragmatism as well as vision. The bold shift of PICA’s focus to TBA was not without its critics, and a glance at the Portland press online reveals an uncertainty about the benefits of sharing her with Melbourne while a new director is sought. Edmunds, as founder of PICA and TBA will stay on in an advisory role. She lives in Melbourne with her partner, innovative Australian dancer Ros Warby, and their son.

I met Edmunds recently in Sydney to discuss her work as an artist and festival director. Her 2005 festival program is due to be launched in June, much earlier than usual. But we didn’t discuss that. Who knows, we might get to see some really progressive American work, a rarity here in the cultural wasteland of US movies, pop and TV selected for us.

What kind of artist are you, other than many kinds?

I tend to be an artist who gravitates towards the idea first and then figuring out how to make it real. It could come from film, theatre, visual art and I’ve tended in the past few years to mostly be making visual works and objects or installations. I have an idea and then I hope I actually don’t have to pursue it–because it’s too hard. [LAUGHS] The great fun of art-making is that there’s a feeling state and then the rest is about labour, hard labour usually and convincing people or collecting a lot of yesses from every other industry that you need support from economically or materially. I start from an idea which in some works has led me to learn a whole different medium…I might feel like making a film, but the idea is best suited to being written on the back of a napkin and stuffed in a shoe box. But at other times it’ll work better as a body of etchings or prints…or photography quite a lot. I sketch photographically.

The images of women wading in water…[photomedia works produced by Edmunds]

I was on sabbatical here from PICA working for a lot of time on 3 bodies of work, one was a set of monoprints which came from photographs, then some photographs that were called Signs of Life. I blew the photographs apart and reassembled them as monoprints. And then I did a video installation as well.

How important is your art practice when you have a life as a curator and a festival director?

I’ve been working as a curator for 15 years. It’s interesting, coming from the US in particular, when you’re curating you’re also advocating for resources to come to bear on other people’s ideas, so you erode your own economy to make work. You have to sit on the grant panels, and you encourage the collecting of other artists’ work–the collectors become the funding base for PICA. So I don’t make work a lot but it’s probably the first thing that drives how I see the world, from the perspective of an artist, but not in conflict with the curatorial work I do. A lot of curators abandon their own work.

In 2000 you choreographed a dance work. Where did that come from?

[LAUGHS] A dancer asked me to set a solo on her, which I did, and oddly enough the artistic director of the ballet company then commissioned me to make a piece on the company, which then toured to New York. Again, it was conceptual: how do I convert this idea into dancing bodies. I can’t exactly do the movement. I had to describe it, see what was possible, but I had a very clear idea of it, the lighting, the set–it was like an installation using movement and very technically sophisticated. I taped their pinkies to their ring fingers because I didn’t want that gesture. I had ballerinas in Doc Marten full-laced boots so that their feet did different things. All the movement was very scripted.

Sometimes an idea takes the form of movement, so it’s not that I have a particular affinity for dance. Curatorially I find dance very hard. It’s an incredibly diverse field, and in any of the different mediums or disciplines what I resonate with is the thing that actually manages to really get out an authentic voice. I find it in dance but I have to sit througth a lot of dance where I don’t see it at all. The same is true of theatre, and film and…

You curated performance at the Portland Art Museum

I was working there because an alternative space had merged into the museum at a time when the museum had been actively criticised by the community for not seriously addressing contemporary work. I was to take on the live arts with a mandate of drawing on work from around the country. It was really about introducing a contemporary dialogue into the museum at a quite aggressive level.

Was this where you started thinking about PICA?

Yes. It’s one thing to have a program with a loyal following inside a major institution, but if the institution changes its mind, that small thing can go away quite quickly. In certain US cities you’ll have often the high beacons of artistic culture and the self-made, independent arts community. I was interested with PICA in that small to mid-sized animal which was a big gap in the ecology. So PICA was set up so that it would be absolutely dedicated to contemporary forms, ideas, language, emerging and international, as well as national and regional work.

Who did you have to convince? It grew from tiny to big.

I was 29 years old so it’s not like I would have looked at it through the lens of ‘who do I have to convince.’ It was more that unbridled energy of knowing that there was a gap and a need and that I was in an unusual position of being able to have contact with and good relationships with artists nationally and internationally to an extent at that time and locally for sure. And then giving it a go. And I had an identity as an artist as well which gave me access to a certain kind of collecting base and different people, and had a little track record from curating the museum. It was really more about bringing people along one by one. Audiences were certainly there for it. I remember thinking, well I’ll set it up, that couldn’t take more than a couple of years [LAUGHS]. There’s curiosity, there’s all this interest, there’s capacity, there’s will, it just needs someone to flip the switch to start moving it forward and then I’m sure it can deliver.

Your vision was cross-disciplinary, and included film?

Sure. I was filmmaker-in-residence for North-Western Film Festival and also curating the regional film festival and the young people’s film festival. Film less, because there wasn’t as much of a gap: the North-West Media Centre was really doing quite a lot of things. After a number of years I was taking PICA forward with time-based art forms–film, cinema, micro-cinema, performing arts and everything that wasn’t object-oriented–and saying I think a festival format would work really well for this, which allowed us to address cinema better.

When did TBA start?

When PICA’s annual program changed in 2000 from an annual season to a 10-day condensed event. It was a major structural shift for an organisation. Year-round there were still visual arts, residencies and development opportunities for artists, which we were very involved in. In the US we work quite collaboratively and you start realising you’ve got a lot of responsibility around big projects across the whole country, tours, co-commissioning, co-producing, development periods in different parts of the country–and then coming into PICA for the show–or cultural policy, conferences and discussions so that PICA would be very involved in a lot of the national discussions.

What is PICA’s role?

PICA is a presenting organisation as well as helping commission, which isn’t grant giving, but about investing resources, whether human or in-kind, and getting onside with an artist about how they want to make it real. Yes, there’s producing that goes on in that, you’re taking responsibility for the economy of the life of the project, but it’s not done with any artistic input. It’s not like saying ‘I could really sell this show if you collaborated with so-and-so.’ It’s much more about how do you use an institution’s capacity to reach economies and colleagues and audiences in ways that artists often can’t do on their own. You use the nimbleness of the organisation to help the project. So I don’t think of PICA’s role as a producer, but certainly as an instigator, a facilitator.

What’s the scale of TBA?

It’s 10 days and it’s on a much different scale than the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Its absolute, complete focus is on emerging international ideas, again in all the performing arts genres and some cinema and some digital, and a lot around ideas and workshops and teaching and institute behaviour. There are 18 venues. Portland’s not a huge city, and there’s no really huge art centre although there is a performing arts centre, so it’s run from the masonic temples, concert halls, sometimes church facilities and then the major theatrical venues. And we usually convert a warehouse space or something for late night. It’s like PICA has the main programming and its own fringe all programmed in the same bundle.

What kind of audience? Is it a gathering point for artists?

It’s a European model festival and the US doesn’t tend to do that. There are usually 3 day festivals that focus on jazz, or blues, or events where the primary concern is not usually the arts, or BAM’s Next Wave lasts a couple of months. TBA is a place for artists to gather and increasingly a place where an international community of curators, colleagues and artists gather. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to make it a festival: you’re not going to fly into Portland, Oregon over one weekend in May to see one performance from Japan. We also try to keep the artists performing in the festival in the city as long as we can, so that they have a chance to see one another’s work as well. This was one of the reasons for creating the festival.

Are local artists involved in TBA?

There’s lots of them, lots of inclusion in TBA in different contexts. It’s a challenge in a certain way, because you can’t disrupt the independent self-producing mechanism of artists, because it creates a feast and famine moment. At the same time you really want to get behind the work, so it’s all about the appropriateness of that sort of balance. Then there’s selection: is the project ready for an international gaze upon it?

Where do you draw the work from? It’s increasingly international.

It’s not about drawing on countries, but on artistic talent that you put in a context that you can facilitate to a localised community. The work has ranged from people like Elizabeth Streb, Robert Ashley, Cecil Taylor, Philip Glass and Spalding Gray or artists on a much more emerging level, for example Lone Twin (UK). You don’t know if history will recognise these artists, but in the time period they are mobilising themselves they are making the forms question themselves and they are adding a huge contribution. It’s about identifying the pulse points that are really authentic and the people who are pushing boundaries, and asking how do I build a bridge to a curious public, rather than a complacent public.

Regional arts development here is at an important stage with collaborations between city and regional artists playing a key role. How in your experience should this be handled?

I’m loathe to give advice from another culture. Sometimes regional developments are driven by funding bodies or a sponsor’s interests. The most important thing is that artists initiate the relationships together, and then you have at least half of a chance of it working out well. If artists are mutually interested in one another, they can at least see one another’s work. That kind of detailed long-term relationship is a really important part of regional development and of international development. I see them as very similar. International collaborations are as complex as regional ones. It can’t be led by a carrot, it has to be driven by an organic artistic interest.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 14,

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

Byron Perry, Antony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Aether

Byron Perry, Antony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Aether

Byron Perry, Antony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Aether

Lucy Guerin’s Aether

Writing about dance, perhaps more than other forms of performance, is always an act of translation. In attempting to think about dance, there is often the tendency to characterise it in terms of the thinking with which the writer is most familiar–namely words. But unlike text or orally based modes of performance, movement provides a form of experience which is not reducible to language, though it may be possible to use words to approach this experience at an angle, as it were. But this act of translation always carries with it the risk of losing something in the process, or even adding something which did not exist in the original.

Lucy Guerin’s Aether brings language into the field of dance in a daring way. Halfway through the performance there is an interruption, during which one of the artists moves downstage to deliver a monologue about the work. We are told that the second half of Aether will include dialogue delivered by the performers. The monologue becomes increasingly self-reflexive as the dancer explains how this introduction of language, of dancers speaking, was a point of contention during the rehearsal process. One dancer, we are told, was uncomfortable with the idea of speaking during a dance work. Moreover, she felt that audiences found male dancers speaking more forgivable than female dancers.

All of this only begins to suggest the remarkable density of Aether, its layering of rich and provocative ideas and contradictions within a busy, visually dynamic and formally innovative structure. The monologue, as mentioned, works to split the piece into 2 halves. The first part is more coherent, a sustained attempt to use dance to think through the shapes and outlines of postmodern communication and technology. The performers, heads shaven and clad in billowing shifts of neutral hue, are genderless clones, lacking individuality or identity. Contemporary dance frequently invokes a mechanicist philosophy to present the body as a machine, whether idealised or problematised; Aether offers us bodies as networks, nodes, radiation and flickering signals. These are bodies as frequencies, variable rather than immanent. There is a strong focus on fingers, skittering across keyboards or seeking out an available socket; as electrodes, antenna, spidery points of connection. The overall movement of the dancers appears chaotic rather than unified, but a logic slowly emerges. Relationships between them, when they exist, are fleeting and almost random, as if they are tuning into each other by accident rather than design. What Guerin offers here is an impressive and successful way of imagining the body mediated by technological forms. The glut of visual information presented by the dancers is matched by the overload of sliding images and text in Michaela French’s projected graphics and the electronic soundscape composed by Gerald Mair.

When Aether’s second half commences with the introduction of language, communication takes on a less abstract form as the dancers begin to seek out ways of interacting. We are offered a series of moments, duets for the most part, in which dancers communicate through garbled or squeaky voices, pidgin squeals or incoherent mutterings. Once again, hands often lead movement, but they play a less obvious role: it is interesting to see eyes, or more accurately eyelines, given a more prominent position. Dancers watch each other as they attempt to find a common tongue, or a physical point of connection. This is an observant touch, given the role of the visual in interpersonal communication, but it also takes the audience into less familiar territory, as eye contact between dancers is frequently given second billing to the contact between bodies. An eye that observes becomes a subject, and a subject that speaks defines itself even more closely. In these ways, the second half of Aether charts an original and intriguing course. It’s not nearly as accessible as the former section, nor as noisy and unstructured. The latter part doesn’t appear to be held together by the same set of underlying thematic concerns, and at times it can be difficult to ascertain the intentions behind certain sequences, or the reasons for their juxtaposition. But again, this may just be the part of my brain possessed by the linguistic bias attempting to find a syntactic order in a construction not defined by the lineaments of language.


Dance Card

The pleasures afforded by viewing improvisation are entwined with this same hunt for an ordering logic: why has this choice been made, and how did it spring from the previous motion? How long has it been building towards this, and how can I predict what will come next? The 10 performers in this year’s Dance Card season all gave 8 minute improvisations which varied dramatically in style and quality. Vicky Kapo scrawled chalk upon the floor while delivering a discomforting rumination on a teenage sexual assault of sorts; she eventually took up a microphone to sing a song and asked her audience whether all this was stepping outside the acceptable bounds of dance. Sheridan Lang, in a retro grey and orange cashier’s outfit, gave a more conventional performance centring on the dancer measuring the various fragments of her own body. Lang made excellent use of the space in which she moved, demonstrating a fine sense of the relationship between performer and environment.

Luke Hockley’s contribution was the simplest but most daring of those played out on opening night: a figure attempting to complete a sequence of 3 consecutive backflips, most of his time was spent in suspense, warming up, trying for one or 2 flips and mentally preparing the final motion. The work played upon ideas of failure more common in sports or in street performances.

New Yorker Bob Eisen was touted as the draw card of The Dance Card, but his performance was only a partial success. Crowned by a wild shock of coloured hair, he offered us a shuddering, spasmodic vagrant or street preacher, words spewing as erratically as his movements. Consciously devoid of technical sophistication, it was a kind of art brut of the body, the physical equivalent of automatic writing or speaking in tongues.

Lucy Geurin Company, Aether, choreographer Lucy Guerin; dancers Antony Hamilton, Byron Perry, Kirstie McCracken, Kyle Kremerskothen, Lee Serle; composer Gerald Mair; motion graphics design Michaela French; North Melbourne Town Hall, March 14-27

The Dance Card 2005, performers Bob Eisen, Helena Yuk, Vicky Kapo, Alice Cummins, Kimberley McIntyre, Tim Harvey, Sheridan Lang, Bronwyn Ritchie, Luke Hockley, Sela Kiek; sound designer Mark Lang; lighting Niklas Pajanti; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 9-20

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 14

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

Jodie Farrugia, In Outside

Jodie Farrugia, In Outside

Jodie Farrugia, In Outside

A corner of the stage is piled with books: old, gilded spines, gold, red and leather binding, a 20th century curiosity on the edge of the present. It looks like the fragment of an old bedroom, fusty with childhood and single beds. A book is extracted, unlikely words spoken representing ‘time.’ Jodie Farrugia dances towards a book, mesmerised. It moves out of her reach, jerking its own jig. For a while I am intrigued by the locomotion of the books, disappointed to unravel their mystery–fishing line.

Three performers successively reach for these books. Clearly they stand for something. They are everywhere, above, below, always out of reach, stepping stones to an abyss. What do books stand for? In my lifetime, they have become archaic: papyrus leaf, cave paintings, scrolls and parchment, remnants of an old world. Yet their outdated status belies the vigour of writing, the dynamic relations that enthral the reader. My bedside novel insinuates itself into my imaginary body. But when I look at these artefacts dangling, they appear alien, inert objects not up to much, as distinct from the 3 performers–Farrugia, Darren Green and Dylan Hodda–who exude vitality. Much of their movement quality is athletic, sometimes dancerly, with an overlay of naturalistic interaction. In Outside aims to convey a relationship between people and these objects.

Despite the bookish theme and the implications of its symbolism, In Outside is brought alive through the energies of its performers. Farrugia works with an acrobatic idiom, adapting its form towards staging human modes of interaction by producing a choreography which combines acrobatics with human meaning. The play between performers elicited gasps of amusement from the audience. There were also moments when Farrugia reverted to a dancerly series of movements, skating across the floor, seeking out spatial coverage. Her performers had signature phrases, occasionally echoed in duet. There was a satisfying middle section involving all 3 performers, intertwining their material, and a striking section against the back wall–3 dimensions squashed into 2, splattered, suspended, slowly disintegrating. Farrugia also used the books in a lateral manner, attached to her joints, in the space between her legs. These imaginings brought them to life in a different way, their pages yawning like piano accordions.

According to the program notes, this is a piece which has evolved over a number of years. In Outside bears the mark of time; it is a polished piece of work. On the question of future polishing, it would be nice to see a greater variety of movement qualities, timbre, speed, energy, breath. Does acrobatic work require a certain kind of approach or attack, or can it be enlisted to produce a wider range of performative solutions? Perhaps it’s an issue of what occurs in the space between movements, in breath prior to action. Similarly, the more dancerly traversals of space had a recognisable locomotive quality, a gliding motion across space on softened knees, with limbs extending from the centre. How is it possible to challenge an idiom so that it can become more than itself?

As a work, In Outside represents challenge, anticipation, aspiration, subjection and overcoming–themes ably animated by athletic imagination and dynamic performance.

In Outside, choreographer Jodie Farrugia; performers Jodie Farrugia, Darren Green, Dylan Hodda; sound score Chris Amor; lighting Mark Gordon, Sam Johnstone; Dancehouse, Melbourne, April 28-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 15

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

Through darkness a curtain ripples and a dancer lifts the arm of pianist Gabriella Smart. On release, Smart strikes the treble register, and commences with Qin Yi’s Suo, an evocation of water. This opening gesture sets the theme for the evening’s performance: understated, strongly evocative dance accompanied by a versatile piano score featuring contemporary Chinese and Australian composers including the 82 year old Zhu Jian’er and Constantine Koukias and Carl Vine. Chinese Whispers is the first project of Creative Futures, producer Reckless Moments’ program of artistic and cultural collaborations between Australia and China. It’s an evening of dance duets and piano solos, combining contemporary music, dance and film.

The physical and stylistic contrast between the 2 dancers is slowly illuminated by Amanda Phillips and Stephen Dean’s lighting design. Classically trained Hou Honglan is the principal soloist with the National Ballet of China, while Anastasia Humeniuk is a guest artist with the Australian Dance Theatre. Wearing simple black costumes designed by Jason Dallwitz, the dancers alternate a frenzy of arm movements with an energy radiating upwards from the feet, through the back and along the arms. The allure of Phillips’ choreography is the frisson generated by the dancers’ immaculate transitions, extensions, balance and control. This is contrasted with the sheer excitement of hearing the reverberation from Gabriella Smart’s bass combinations.

Each dancer appears immersed in her journey as feet and hips angulate into and through space. Moving between the spotlight and half-darkened edges of the stage they confront each other and move away. Like wayang kulit figures, shadows of the dancers’ elongated bodies appear against a back curtain. Their shapes disappear and return, alternately benign and ominous. We imagine the contours of connection and possibility.

The dance is interspersed with a piano solo and the dancer’s physicality is replicated as Smart engages in her own bodily permutations, caressing and cajoling the piano while playing with her right elbow, left arm tucked under right armpit.

Amanda Phillips’ film When There’s Only provides the segue. Shot in back and white, the film provides a complementary and surreal contrast with the Whispers costumes and lighting design. The film’s set is reminiscent of catacombs. Phillips revisits the once modern world of old-time dancing, contrasting inter-generational memory and dancing styles. The dancing partners circle while solo women line the walls hoping to be invited to dance.

Chinese whispers is a game where participants are arranged in a circle and the first player whispers a message which is passed around the circle. When the final version is revealed threads of the original may remain but exaggeration and distortion make the original story unrecognisable. Similarly, when Honglan floats onto the stage in a final en pointe sequence, she offers the fluency of familiarity while infusing Chinese Whispers with new meanings of rich strangeness.

Reckless Moments, Chinese Whispers; Conservatorium Recital Hall, Hobart, March 15

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 15

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

The relatively young dance-makers of STRUT’s Dance #1 offered several different models of the dancing body’s intelligence in performance. Arguably the most ‘venerable’ interpretation was that of Alice Holland’s Unpinning, an evocative, often athletic solo involving the fluid posing of the body through the smooth yet nevertheless complicated redirection of its inertia and weight via circular swirls, down, across and up again. This created the somewhat paradoxical sense of a highly crafted self-presentation coupled with an unreflective physical palette, linked to breath, spine-curving inflation and chest-hollowing deflation. With her poised presence, Holland skirted Expressionist clichés to create an intriguingly traditional yet contemporary work.

Owing less to Martha Graham was Debbie Robertson’s Lit. Sequentially choosing circumscribed spaces, she offered not a body linked via breath to nature or psychological depths, but an intensely intimate, cognitive body. Careful extensions and tracing of lines out from the torso and diagonally back characterised movement which was somewhat reminiscent of the choreography of Rosalind Crisp. The audience was offered a representation of the thinking body, a physique carefully retracing the spatiality of memory and proximity. While Holland shone in clear light and a white dress close to the audience, Robertson remained at a consciously suspended distance at the edges of the space, in shadowy light and a crisp, dark costume.

Different again was Bianca Martin’s blank-faced representation of failed romance, Honey You Lied. Elvis’ Love Me Tender filled in the ironic content of Martin’s ambivalent physical performance, her movement shifting between restful standing positions in which one arm traced the side of the torso where her lover’s arm used to be before the body dropped to the ground and legs crossed above it, flashes of underwear implying a sense of sexual distress. This was a fun study with hints of darkness, which promised greater depth in a future, full-length work.

Another sense of narrative was provided by Sermsah Bin Saad’s Totem. The piece opened with didgeridoo music and the low, horizontally-held chest and bent-legged cross-stepping of much traditionally informed Aboriginal dance. Bin Saad avoided the familiar fusion style of Bangarra Dance Theatre Company, retaining a somewhat harder physical stance in the first section before the body slipped into capoeira and hip hop style ground work and flips accompanied by electronic beats. Moving from an abstracted representation of his Aboriginal totem–the pelican–to a highly athletic body swinging from a rope, Bin Saad’s dance suggested a more interesting confluence of influences than the often kitsch populism of Bangarra.

The most choreographically sophisticated piece was Jessyka Watson-Galbraith’s Insufficient Funds. Beginning with a dancer sitting on a chair placed horizontally along the floor to complete an asymmetric triad, the 3 dancers rearranged each other and paused as though offering stills from an emotionally eviscerated chess game. Bony, anatomical articulations similar to the choreogaphy of Gideon Obarzanek tended to dominate, while Watson-Galbraith’s leg spinning ground work similarly recalled the hip hop and popular culture influences of modern dance. Her main motif was an alternation of implicit tension, moving between languid, barely motivated bodies with no apparent connection, to physically scattered forms linked by an abiding sense of flexed unease. Without any overt expressiveness, this was nevertheless a highly theatrical piece, suggestive of relationships between individuals. A former veteran of youth dance company Steps (which also staged the delightful Mania in May, featuring the disarmingly cabaretic presence of composer Cathie Travers), Watson-Galbraith and the other Dance #1 choreographers presented a strong, diverse season which promised great things to come.

STRUT dance, Dance #1, curator Sue Peacock, including: Honey You Lied, choreographer-performer Bianca Martin; Insufficient Funds, choreographer Jessyka Watson-Galbaith; Unpinning, choreographer-performer Alice Lee Holland; Carry Oga Champ choreographer-performer Chelsea Funnel; Lit, choreographer-performer Debbie Robertson; Totem, choreographer-performer Sermsah Bin Saad; Exhale, choreographer-performer Aimee Smith, Chapel Space, Perth, May 5-8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 16

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

Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman filming Anthem (2004) in Afghanistan

Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman filming Anthem (2004) in Afghanistan

In an era when our feature films are frequently ignored by audiences and slammed by critics, documentaries represent the most active, stimulating and innovative sector of the contemporary Australian industry. Furthermore, local interest in documentaries has been steadily rising in line with a global trend. So what does documentary innovation represent in an Australian context? Apart from the rapidly growing field of Indigenous filmmaking, which demands special attention and will be covered in a forthcoming edition, the most prominent trend in recent local production has been the preponderance of films focusing on refugee experience and the wider political context of the ‘war on terror.’ These films have played a key role in exposing stories and alternative views excluded from mainstream media, while also revealing some of the key strengths and weaknesses of our documentary sector.

Refugee stories

There is a venerable tradition of Australian political documentaries, of which refugee stories have long been a part. The early 1990s saw Tom Zubrycki’s Homelands (1993), centred on an El Salvadorian couple living in Melbourne, and many lesser-known television documentaries such as Jeffrey James’ The Embraced (1993), about Chinese students seeking asylum in Australia, and Sally Ingleton’s The Isabellas (1995), focusing on the detention of Chinese ‘boat people’ by the Keating government. The list of contemporary films focusing on refugees and the broader socio-political context is long and many have been covered in RealTime: Fahimeh’s Story, Letters to Ali, Molly and Mobarak, Anthem and The President Versus David Hicks to name just a few. In an era in which the mass media operates on an hourly turnaround and even the biggest stories can disappear within days, these works have provided a broader perspective on the rapidly shifting political sands, while also keeping contentious issues in the spotlight.

Keeping governments on edge

The Australian Government has shown nervous displeasure on several occasions at documentary makers’ implicit questioning of government policy. In RT60 (p15) Tom Zubrycki related the attempts of Joint House leader Bob Wedgwood to ban a screening of Molly and Mobarak at Canberra’s Parliament House because, to quote Wedgwood: “this film promotes the theme of widespread opposition to government policy.” Nevertheless, Australian documentaries seem to have had little influence on our voting patterns.

A panel discussing the Time to Go John project at the Australian International Documentary Conference in February addressed exactly this issue. US filmmaker Robert Greenwald (director of Outfoxed) convincingly defended the importance of films that present an alternative view of current affairs. He argued that while no film will change the mind of a die-hard ideologue, documentaries can influence those who oppose government policy on principle but who lack the knowledge to construct an informed critique to back up their views. Additionally, these films play a role in building communities of resistance and change across national borders. Melbourne filmmaker Pip Starr supported Greenwald’s point with a story about footage he shot of the mass breakout from the notorious Woomera Detention Centre in March 2002. As well as forming the basis of Starr’s powerful verité short Through the Wire (2004), the footage later turned up in a documentary screened during a protest at a detention centre on the Slovenia-Hungarian border.

Formal limits

For all their politically tendentious content, however, comparatively few Australian documentaries push the formal boundaries in the manner of recent overseas films like Brian Hill’s ‘musical documentaries’ such as Drinking for England (RT63, p22), or the German film Edifice–VW in Dresden (RT61, p17), which analyses the construction and perception of space in a world dominated by corporations. The recent Festival of German Films featured the similarly innovative I Love You All, constructed around the writings of a former Stasi agent (East Germany’s secret police), detailing the agent’s long career and devotion to the East German state. The visuals comprise largely de-classified Stasi surveillance footage. Over 90 minutes, the film provided a fascinating insight into the psychology of state security apparatus without utilising any classical techniques of emotional identification. In contrast, almost all Australian films about refugees rely on identification with an individual caught in a situation of conflict and seeking particular goals (will Mobarak be able to stay in Australia and will he get together with Molly?).

Dennis O’Rourke’s films, notably The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991), foreground the authorial voice of the filmmaker to a degree unusual in Australian documentaries, although this is less evident in his recent Landmines–A Love Story (2005, RT66, p25). On the television front, John Safran has forged a kind of gonzo documentary style, placing his performative subjectivity and interaction with his subjects centre stage in series such as John Safran Vs God. In a more serious vein, the only recent local documentary which comes close to the stylistic audaciousness of films like Drinking for England, Edifice and I Love You All has been The Ister, described by Hamish Ford in RT64 (p23) as “the ultimate philosophical road movie.” Tracing a journey up the Danube through a series of lectures by Heidegger about Holderlin’s poem Der Ister, this remarkable film is the most un-Australian of documentaries: deeply philosophical, meditative and analytical in nature, with no central protagonist or principle conflict. In what would be considered an heretical statement by most local commissioning editors, directors David Barison and Daniel Ross describe the filmic medium as an “incredible tool for framing concepts, for telling abstract stories.”

While the The Ister doesn’t necessarily represent a model appropriate for films on Australian refugee experience, I wonder whether our singular focus on individuals means we are missing out on an important broader analysis of our current situation. The aforementioned I Love You All is part of a long history of innovative and disturbing European documentaries examining the psychology of repression while eschewing strategies of individual emotional identification. Alain Resnais’ chilling Night and Fog (1955), for example, remains one of the only Holocaust films that maintains a distance from individualised stories to convey the truly impersonal, bureaucratised horror of the Nazi genocide.

The problem?

So why are we not making more films that push the formal and thematic envelope? Back in RT57 (p16), then Commissioning Editor for SBSi Marie Thomas said of the documentary sector: “the industry is loosening its stays.” Thomas’ comment is ironic considering that the overwhelming message emanating from filmmakers on the pages of OnScreen over the past 2 years has been that broadcasters are the key factor limiting the scope of Australian documentaries.

Scott Millwood’s experiences are emblematic in this regard. His 1999 film Proximity documented an epic solo journey he undertook through Asia and Asia minor. This essayistic work is part travelogue and part meditative reflection on love, life, politics and death, inspired by the work of French filmmaker Chris Marker. SBS offered to purchase the film if Millwood cut scenes of a dead animal floating in a river and of a leprosy sufferer considered too confrontational for Australian viewers. The fact that these scenes represent the film’s thematic climax made no difference. Millwood refused, with the result that only a few festival aficionados have seen one of the most unusual and engrossing Australian films of recent times. Millwood had several other innovative projects rejected by funding bodies and broadcasters before making the poetic but relatively conventional Wildness in 2003 (RT60, p17). Millwood’s producer Michael McMahon commented in a RealTime interview last year: “There is a core of wonderful people who constitute a very real and vibrant documentary sector but there is that fundamental problem of having so few opportunities outside the broadcasters to actually push the form, the way stories are told and the stories that actually get told” (RT61, p15).

One of the central problems seems to be the reluctance of broadcasters and government funding bodies alike to back projects with unpredictable outcomes. At Macquarie University’s Nonconformists symposium last year, Australian filmmaker Kriv Stenders detailed the exploratory process he employed making Motherland, his evocative 1994 documentary about his Latvian grandmothers. With only a rough idea for a film at the outset, Stenders’ work constantly changed direction in response to his grandmother’s stories and Latvia’s unexpected liberation from Soviet rule during production. While SBS supported him throughout the process, he felt that such an approach would simply not be permitted today. At the same symposium Brian Hill claimed that he secured backing in the UK for all of his ‘musical documentaries’ with only the most rudimentary of ideas.

Admittedly Brian Hill had a proven track record before making his more experimental films, but so few local filmmakers get the opportunity to make more than one documentary it is almost impossible to build up a body of work, let alone develop a distinctive stylistic voice. One of the most striking things about looking over back issues of OnScreen is the number of first time documentary makers we’ve covered who have yet to make another film. Even if a few realise more than one project, the length of time between films is hardly conducive to building the kind of confident authorial voice that characterises the most memorable documentaries. It has been argued that digital technologies will free filmmakers from reliance on funding bodies and broadcasters, and it is significant that both Proximity and The Ister were shot on video without financial support. But without the involvement of broadcasters, the distribution of these films will always be limited.

SBS and the ABC are to be applauded for creating more prime-time slots for documentaries. If they can truly free up what can be done with the form, instead of creating half-baked imitations of Reality TV such as The Colony, then documentaries might become our most formally innovative, as well as thematically challenging films.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 17

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

This issue of OnScreen features several articles on Indigenous filmmaking, a focus set to spill into RT68 with coverage of Sydney’s Message Sticks festival. In what has generally been a troubled period for the industry, Indigenous films have been one of the few consistently strong areas in contemporary Australian cinema.

There are several key factors characterising the Indigenous sector that may provide useful pointers for the long term survival of industry as a whole. Firstly, the current wave of Aboriginal practitioners is partly the result of carefully targeted nurturing by film schools, funding bodies and Indigenous media organisations like CAAMA (see p19). Additionally, Indigenous media organisations, particularly in the Northern Territory, have provided crucial ongoing practical experience for emerging practitioners. The success of this process belies the oft-stated claim that film funding bodies are incapable of generating excellence and innovation, and highlights the importance of a continual working schedule for developing young filmmakers.

The second factor has greatly contributed to the sustainability of Indigenous filmmaking: the scale of productions. As Michaela Boland noted recently in the The Financial Review (“Motion Picture Sickness”, May 20) with very few exceptions it has only ever been low-budget Australian features that have enjoyed a degree of financial success. While the budgets of Australian features generally have been steadily escalating, Indigenous productions have remained modest. Ivan Sen’s debut feature Beneath Clouds, for example, was a financially restrained small-scale affair, and since then Sen has continued to develop his filmic voice through a series of half-hour video documentaries: The Dreamers (2004), Who was Evelyn Orcher? (2004) and Yellow Fella (2005).

The third factor follows on from the last: Indigenous filmmakers use any means necessary to get their stories told: working across forms has become the norm. As well as documentaries, dramatic shorts and a feature, Sen has produced video art (Blood) that has exhibited in spaces such as Melbourne’s ACMI galleries. Rachel Perkins is another prominent Indigenous practitioner working across forms.

Finally, for all their modest scale, most Indigenous films engage directly with our contested history or the conditions of contemporary Australia. In other words, these films address a specific audience and tell idiosyncratic stories with a strong sense of place.

So rather than asking whether Aboriginal filmmakers can “save our industry” (Katrina Lobley, “The Great Black Hopes”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 20), the rest of the industry should observe the lessons of the Indigenous sector. Australian cinema will never compete with Hollywood in terms of budgets, star power and sheer spectacle, but we can successfully make small movies telling stories that resonate with the experiences of targeted audiences.

On a personal note, I’m sorry to report that after 2 years this will be my last issue as RealTime’s OnScreen editor. I’m leaving to take up the Managing Editor position with the Publications Unit of the Australian Film Commission.

I’d like to say a heartfelt thanks to Keith and Virginia for the opportunities they have given me while working at RealTime, and to all the writers who have contributed to OnScreen’s growing critical strength. One of the job’s great pleasures has been making contact with so many talented writers and practitioners in Australia’s film and new media communities. DE

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 18

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

David Page, Green Bush

David Page, Green Bush

25 years of Indigenous media production and broadcasting at CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) began with a second-hand car, some donated equipment, a typewriter, rent-free office space, and some very ambitious dreams. Out of these dreams has come CAAMA Productions, the film and television branch of the CAAMA group of companies, one of Australia’s most abundant and groundbreaking well-springs of national screen culture. Indigenous filmmakers affiliated with CAAMA are now at the forefront of Australia’s presence at prestigious film festivals around the world.

The appearance of Rachel Perkins’ first feature Radiance in 1997 and Ivan Sen’s acclaimed Beneath Clouds in 2002 (which won 2 AFI awards, including Best Cinematography for long-term CAAMA Director of Photography Allan Collins) drew media attention to Indigenous filmmaking and the emergence of a generation of Indigenous auteurs. While a dozen or so individual names have rightfully risen to prominence through this kind of exposure, many audiences remain unfamiliar with the fundamental role CAAMA has played in the development of Australian screen culture, through the creation of a distinctively Central Australian Aboriginal-controlled working base and founding commitment to the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Recent CAAMA documentaries including Dhakiyarr vs The King (2004), Beyond Sorry (2003) and Rosalie’s Journey (2003) interrupt and revise non-Aboriginal narratives of Australian political, social and cultural history with an acumen, and a sensitive empirical humanism, that is very hard for conservative contributors to the ‘history wars’ to challenge. The confidence of CAAMA documentaries is grounded in the self-conscious ethos of the company’s long-running Nganampa Anwernekenhe television series: to foreground the film subject’s voice, in his or her original language, and allow this voice to shape the film.

The language and culture preservation and promotion project underpinning the Nganampa Anwernekenhe (‘Ours’ in the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte languages) project is unique in Australia and all CAAMA filmmakers have gained practical experience through this series. Early episodes focused on traditional law and culture stories and many of these are no longer available for public viewing. Social issues including women’s welfare, health management and language change became central after about 5 years, followed in subsequent series by individual meditations on different Aboriginal identities. Contemporary historical accounts have come to prominence in the most recent instalments. Nganampa Anwernekenhe programs are delivered in Aboriginal languages and thus made available to specific Aboriginal audiences. They are also available to literate non-speakers through subtitles. The challenge inherent in the Nganampa Anwernekenhe ethos of balancing the subjects’ and filmmakers’ voices has produced innovative and beautiful resolutions. Subtitled Aboriginal voiceovers taken from interviews with the films subjects’ are, for example, both lyrical and arresting in their capacity to frame and reframe stories by focusing viewers’ attention on interpretive Aboriginal perspectives that can surpass the filmmakers’ knowledge.

Underpinning this ethos is CAAMA Productions’ highly trained skills base; most of the film personnel have AFTRS diplomas or degrees. This is matched by the practical experience of making tight budgets cover a lot of ground in physically, economically and politically challenging environments.

CAAMA Productions also invites some of the industry’s most sought after non-Aboriginal writers, editors, designers, composers and sound artists to collaborate on projects. Aboriginal authority is ensured by assigning Aboriginal people to key creative roles in production crews. Documentary and drama production at CAAMA also involves complex intercultural relationships between people of different Aboriginalities. With very few exceptions, Aboriginal control of story form and content remains primary, concerted and definitive. The making of films at CAAMA is a social experience in which creative collaboration and cooperation is key.

Film Australia’s decision to present CAAMA with the 2005 Stanley Hawes Award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Documentary has proved timely; in January Dhakiyarr vs The King featured at the Sundance Film Festival alongside new Indigenous short dramas Plains Empty (director Beck Cole) and Green Bush (director Warwick Thornton). Thornton’s story of a night in the life of an Aboriginal radio broadcaster at a community station went on from Sundance to win the Best Short Film at the 2005 Berlinale Panorama. It will also screen at this year’s Message Sticks and Sydney Film Festival (see p22).

Alongside Thornton’s film, the Sydney Film Festival will be showcasing 7 other CAAMA documentaries in a special retrospective, and hosting a forum looking at CAAMA’s cultivation of black screen voices. The 1990 documentary on CAAMA and Imparja Television, Satellite Dreaming, will introduce festival audiences to the first phase of Indigenous media production and broadcasting.

Ivan Sen’s Yellow Fella (2005) has just screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and will have its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Message Sticks festival. The film is a road movie connecting national cinema history to the personal challenges of mixed identity. Tom E Lewis, the Aboriginal anti-hero of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and director Ivan Sen are equally involved in a journey to find the resting place of Tom’s white father. Tom’s mother Angelina is brought to the edge of her comfort zone as a passenger on, and an authority for, her son’s quest but the film never once pushes its subjects to reveal private anguish.

Steven McGregor’s 5 Seasons is an observational documentary focused on Numburindi man Moses Numumurdirdi and his living relationship to the cycle of 5 weather seasons affecting his country in South East Arnhem Land every year. Moses’ extended family use modern technologies to hold onto their traditional way of life. Exquisitely shot by Allan Collins and Warwick Thornton, 5 Seasons moves effortlessly between environmental detail and human responsibilities.

Karli Jalangu (Boomerang Today) (2004) is a short documentary by long-term CAAMA sound recordist and first-time director David Tranter. Karli Jalangu exemplifies the Nganampa Anwernekenhe mandate of preserving specialist, rare or unique traditional Aboriginal knowledge in language. Four senior Warlpiri/Anmatyerr men teach how to make a “Number 7” or “Killer” boomerang. We watch the men select the right wood, then shape and paint it, all the while listening to the intimate dialogue of master craftsmen working together. This film has brought David Tranter to the attention of Canadian Indigenous film festival programmers, resulting in invitations to the ImageNation festival in Vancouver and Terres En Vue in Montreal.

Beck Cole’s Wirriya Small Boy (2004) is an observational documentary that presents an ordinary day in the life of 8 year old Ricco Japaljarri Martin, as he moves between his home in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs, Aboriginal school, the town pool and the library. Shot over 2 months on a mini-DV camera, Wirriya features a voiceover by Ricco and occasional exchanges with the filmmaker. Cole was granted rare access by the local organisation directly responsible for the welfare of the town camps.

Warwick Thornton’s Rosalie’s Journey (2003) presents Rosalie (Ngale) Kunoth-Monks speaking for the first time, in her Arrernte language, about her life in central Australia as a young woman and the profound cultural challenges she faced when selected by Charles Chauvel to play the lead role in Jedda, opposite saltwater country man Robert Tudawali. Recreating scenes that match remaining archival footage from St Mary’s girls home in Alice Springs, Thornton and editor Dena Curtis have woven a moving portrait that brings forth memories and stories that have simmered quietly beneath the surface of the acclaimed and controversial icon of Australian cinema for over half a century.

Mistake Creek (2001) was made as part of Film Australia’s ‘Everyday Brave’ initiative of Indigenous stories by Indigenous filmmakers. The interest of director/cinematographer Allan Collins in personal stories about unrecognised achievements drew him to the stoic marriage of Mistake Creek cattle station managers Steven and Jo-Anne Craig, and the tensions between town and bush worlds. Beautifully shot in widescreen on Digital Betacam, this film reframes romantic visions of the outback and re-places Aboriginal people in national narratives of struggle in cattle country.

One of CAAMA Radio’s (8-KIN FM) longest running weekly programs is Green Bush, a show that connects Aboriginal prisoners in Alice Springs’ Gaol with their families through song requests and messages. Recalling the actual circumstances of 8-KIN FM’s first independent decade of broadcasting, and the current situation of many BRACS (Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme) operations in small Aboriginal communities, writer/director Warwick Thornton and designer Daran Fulham created the set of Green Bush inside Alice Springs’ Little Sisters town camp, where CAAMA used to live.

Like other Indigenous drama productions in Australia, and throughout the world, CAAMA’s ‘fiction’ storytelling–first seen in Danielle Maclean’s My Colour Your Kind (1997), then in Steven McGregor’s Cold Turkey (2003) and now Green Bush–employs distinctive realist codes, where appearances by non-professional actors and location shooting operate as signs of cultural authenticity. The style recalls Rossellini, Cassavetes, the Dogma ‘95 directors and Jean Rouch. While CAAMA’s emerging drama strand draws on the film school training of its writers, directors and cinematographers, it also has foundations in the grass-roots script-writing, story-boarding, directing of actors, and editing of educational films and community service television spots produced in Alice Springs since the late 1980s.

In the relentless whirl of activity filling the 3 permanently-staffed downtown Alice Springs offices of CAAMA Productions there is no question where the heart of Australian Indigenous filmmaking action is beating hard. A slate of over 15 short and long documentaries, short dramas, a television drama series and music video clips, and monthly schedules that can include bush work, training, meetings or post-production work in the cities down south, and overseas festivals and markets keep Executive Producer Jacqui North, Production Manager Rachel Clements and Production Co-ordinator Trisha Morton-Thomas and their network of Indigenous freelancers working at rates enviable to many in the industry.

The survey of CAAMA works at the Sydney Film Festival will illustrate continuity and transformations in the depiction of Aboriginalities as a spectrum of dynamic social, cultural and historical identities. As a critical incubator of Aboriginal screen production ethics and distinctive styles of narrative and character presence, CAAMA will continue to influence the look, sound, feel and politics of Australian film and television for years to come. The retrospective will also illustrate the radical potential of Central Australian production to transform the landscape of contemporary Australian film.

A Tribute to CAAMA, 52nd Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre and Dendy Opera Quays, June 12-16

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 19

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

Day and Night

Day and Night

What does the Australian film industry have in common with that of Hong Kong? This year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) suggests that our futures may both become increasingly tied to a rapidly emerging cinema industry in mainland China. Not only is the production of feature films in China increasing at a rapid pace, from 100 in 2002 to 212 last year, but the bulk of these films are co-productions, opening up possibilities for potentially rich connections with other regional industries. While the talk in Hong Kong, like here, is of doom and gloom for local production, this is always accompanied by an emphasis on the possibilities of expanded links with the mainland.

The big breakthrough at the HKIFF 2005 was a Chinese Renaissance strand, featuring the year’s major works from the Peoples’ Republic of China. There has typically been a dearth of new Chinese films at the HKIFF, due to the division that existed in China between officially sanctioned films and works made without government script approval and distribution arrangements. The PRC government now seems intent on repairing that breach and bringing the underground film movement into the mainstream. Leading Sixth Generation director Jia Zhangke noted while introducing his new work The World at the HKIFF that it was the first of his films to receive government support for screening at international festivals (the film had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in February). Although several commercial romance films were included in the Chinese Renaissance program, many continued to mine the miserabilist tradition of the Sixth Generation. This involves a critique of the dead heart at the centre of an economic transition which has not been accompanied by any equivalent transformation in social values or institutions.

The most impressive of these films was Jia’s The World, about an amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing in which all the world’s tourist attractions are replicated in miniature, including the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and Manhattan complete with Twin Towers. Despite the park’s global reference points, the people who work there remain trapped in an extremely small world of limited possibilities.

Wang Chao is another established filmmaker (The Orphan of Anyang, 2001) whose work centres on the psychical and material poverty of the new China. His coldly beautiful Day and Night shows the ways in which a low-fi grunge cinema can develop given access to higher budgets. The other highlight was Yang Chao’s debut Passages, which details the cross-country journeys of a young couple who discover just how much perseverance and imagination is needed to leave the social world.

While a new and more assured cinema is emerging in China, what have been the effects on Hong Kong cinema? The fact that most of the acceptance speeches at this year’s HKIFF Film Awards were made in Mandarin rather than Cantonese gives an indication of the degree to which Hong Kongers are looking northwards.

Several of the year’s more commercial films thematise this turn to the mainland in provocative ways. Cheang Pou-soi’s Love Battlefield tells the old, old story of a mainland gang who hit the SAR (Special Administrative Region) with a bad attitude and a small arsenal. In the process, though, the intensities of their family loyalties provide a lesson in the ferocious nature of love to a couple of Honkie yuppies. There are places in the world where love is still a matter of life and death. Derek Yee’s One Nite in Mongkok takes up similar themes with 2 of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Daniel Wu and Cecilia Cheung, playing northerners who hit the streets of Kowloon looking to make a killing–literally. Hong Kong has a thankless position as the pot of gold at the end of the Chinese dream. National fantasies about the quick buck being what they are, things go wrong very quickly.

The vice-director of China’s Film Bureau recently claimed that although his country now rates as the third largest producer of films in the world, “problems still exist in China’s film industry. We have very few good films, for example.” He explained these remarks by saying that only 3 features (House of Flying Daggers, Kung Fu Hustle and A World Without Thieves) had been financial successes last year, accounting for nearly 60% of China’s box office.

It is worth noting that these 3 films had 2 things common: all had Hong Kong stars (Andy Lau and Stephen Chow), and all had postproduction done in Australia. As big budget Chinese films become increasingly reliant on Australian postproduction facilities, it may be that the fates of the Australian and Hong Kong industries become increasingly tied to each other, and to mainland China.

Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 22-April 6

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 20

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

David Wenham, Three Dollars

David Wenham, Three Dollars

Young love in Melbourne. Boy meets girl in the supermarket checkout queue–or in a movie, at a record store. He’s “struck by the recalcitrant beauty in what Durkheim would call her ‘anomie’”. She asks him “What’s the difference between a commodity and something else?” Soon enough they’re hanging out on campus and arguing about Shakespeare and feminism; after graduation, he gets a job at the Federal Environment Office, while she tutors in politics and tries to think up a sexy topic for her thesis. Before they know it they’re equipped with a child and a mortgage, fretting about their incipient conservatism and counting their pennies.

If the joke seems facile, that might be part of the point. The intended wit of Elliot Perlman’s 1998 novel Three Dollars depends on a circular irony that mocks its own tendency to classify and label: Eddie and Tanya Harnovey are self-conscious intellectuals who wryly observe themselves in the act of running true to type. What’s less clear is how far these soft-left yuppies differ from the book’s more immediate satirical targets, the apostles of economic rationalism with their unreal calculations of profit and loss. The will to abstraction is almost equally evident on both sides, but while Eddie is allowed his lapses, he’s also held up to the reader as a decent bloke doing his best: a representative of the truly human.

The problem is ‘humanity’ remains just another abstraction: the more Perlman insists on Eddie and Tanya as recognisable and sympathetic characters, the more he robs them of the complexity that might make them so. Too often Eddie’s voice has the sanctimony of any consciously noble narrator (“Perhaps people like me would not survive…Would all those who could not take even the smallest pleasure from inflicting pain die out?”). So immediately, there’s one reason why the film of Three Dollars, directed by Robert Connelly, might improve on the book: where Perlman traffics largely in received ideas, Connelly can call on concrete faces and voices to bring these ‘human’ values to life.

Certainly, the lead roles are ideally cast. Francis O’Connor has the quasi-neurotic charisma required for Tanya, and her forthright manner lets her convey the character’s earnestness without looking silly. On the other hand, David Wenham as Eddie is (thankfully) a different animal to his priggish literary counterpart: a subtler ironist than Perlman, Wenham is able to get laughs from some of the book’s worst lines by making them sound like distracted ad-libs by a man at the end of his tether. Where Perlman’s Eddie rarely misses a chance to show off his mental equipment, the keynote of Wenham’s acting is a casual miming of naivety, updating an archetype that runs deep in Australian culture: while Tanya sounds off about women’s rights, he slouches against the university library shelves with his hands in his pockets, looking every inch the country cousin.

By comparison with Hollywood smart-arses from Bogart to Bill Murray, David Wenham’s irony is superficially unthreatening, a defensive stance that highlights his potential vulnerability. Beneath the clowning his screen characters tend to be emotionally reticent, though it’s not always clear what emotions are being repressed. Both this film and Connelly’s earlier The Bank (2001) have a touch of Frank Capra, with Wenham cast each time as the ordinary man who goes up against the system. But where Capra was more than able to show the dark side of the American Dream, Wenham is yet to find a movie role that fuses the folksy side of his persona with the capacity for sociopathic rage he displayed in The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998).

In fact it’s Tanya rather than Eddie who comes closest to Jimmy Stewart’s crack-up in It’s a Wonderful Life (1948) though nowhere in Three Dollars is there the kind of dramatic crux that might reveal the limits of a complacent liberal world view. When Eddie is effectively forced to choose between his principles and the welfare of his child, it seems inevitable that his faith in himself as a decent human being will be threatened if not destroyed. Yet after a couple of unconvincing feelgood gestures the story simply peters out. As a result, the film’s political message amounts to little more than a generalised plea for compassion, with Eddie and Tanya seen as victims of a largely faceless system rather than agents with responsibility for themselves or others.

Again, there’s a failure of concrete imagination, at least when the film tries to picture anything beyond its central characters. Robert Menzies’ mumbling prole is an embarrassingly stereotyped representative of the underclass, while visually Connelly does little to repair the want of sensuous detail in Perlman’s prose. For the most part, the domestic scenes are staged in an inert, vaguely theatrical manner, the kitchen bench or living-room table used as a proscenium arch behind which the actors move back and forth. Though Connelly takes the opportunity for striking long shots when Eddie heads out to the countryside, in the city he seems unable to place his hero in a wider visual or social context: his use of flashbacks, home movies and dream sequences reinforces the book’s limited first-person perspective, with Wenham’s voiceover steering us through Eddie’s biography as if through a narrow tunnel.

“This is how healthy people feel in unhealthy times.” The line is rousing but paradoxical, since it depends exactly on the split between the personal and the social that Connelly and Perlman would presumably oppose. Moreover, there are hints that the Harnoveys have been less than entirely healthy from the outset: Tanya’s anomie has no simple cause, nor can economic deregulation be wholly blamed for Eddie’s shadowy fears of impotence and death. Children, rational argument, the songs of Joy Division: these fragments we have shored against our ruin. What’s the difference between a commodity and something else? Trapped in self-reference, the nominal leftism of both versions of Three Dollars is finally closer to a solipsism that finds its emotional justification in its own defeat: as if some of the unhealth of the times had rubbed off not only on the people, but the artworks as well.

Three Dollars, director Robert Connelly; writers Robert Connolly, Elliot Perlman; Producer John Maynard; Arenafilm

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 21

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

Liu Jiayin, Oxhide

Liu Jiayin, Oxhide

In awarding Liu Jiayin the Asian DV Prize for her small masterpiece Oxhide (2004) at the 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival this year, the jury commended her for “demonstrating the new possibility of cinema, and radicalising the process of filmmaking.” While such hyperbole risks saddling the 23 year old director and her work with unrealistic expectations, Oxhide is the type of startling, refreshing film, at once experimental and familiar, that can revitalise the most jaded of viewers. Liu, a student of the Beijing Film Academy, is surely destined for larger stages than the theatre of the Hong Kong Science Museum lecture hall.

Oxhide captures the domestic squabbling of a small family (father, mother, daughter) in their cramped apartment as the family leather goods business endures recession. The narrative plays out in one location across just 23 shots on grainy digital video. From such stylistic minimalism and a seemingly banal narrative premise comes an engaging work that combines abstract formal composition with tender, humorous and honest domestic warmth.

Remarkably, Liu operated the camera, recorded sound, was production designer, edited and stars in the film. Her real mother and father play the parent characters. The resemblance to a home movie or any youthful amateurism ends there: the meticulous framing, staging and selection of conversational fragments reveals an astute cinematic mind. The shots are composed so as to give a disconcerting spatial perspective on the family flat; the family appear to have only a few square metres to live in. Lamps, leather materials and curios clutter the frame and obscure the protagonists, and the home is under-lit, completely masking room corners and silhouetting faces. It is interesting to note that each shot remains static, the immobility focusing the viewer’s attention on the intricate movement and staging.

Liu’s unusual camera angles sometimes focus on the cast’s midsections rather than faces, with off-screen dialogue and action more than enough to pique curiosity. A conversation seemingly about the significance of the heritage and style of scripting Chinese characters turns out to be, after a printer spits a flyer into frame, a chat about the layout of a brochure advertising a half price sale. The film is full of these revelatory moments, with humour often underpinning serious scenarios.

Indeed, such a contained, spare and personal piece is saved from being merely an exercise in low fidelity aesthetics by extensive use of irony, humour and affection for the characters. Despite the strained times through which the family lives, a genuine emotional warmth suffuses Liu’s non-figurative compositions. The film effectively taps into family dynamics as recognisable in suburban Australia as they are in provincial China. Liu, whose diminutive stature is a source of constant angst for her father, is plied with dairy products in an attempt to stretch her frame beyond the 5 foot mark. The eager patriarch then enforces his daily ritual of measuring her height against a doorframe. “If anything, you’re getting shorter!”, he wails at his full-grown daughter after one such check. There are some excellent dinner table scenes, in which the bickering family air their quotidian grievances. The exchanges are well observed, relating to the annoyances of loud noodle-slurping rather than any real aggressive tension. However, the family’s precarious financial situation is always in the foreground, as is the father’s obsession with saving face.

Oxhide draws immediate comparisons with the work of Abbas Kiarostami, in particular the recent Ten (2002) and Five (2003), and Liu cites the Iranian veteran as her primary influence. However, where a film like Ten has one straightforward camera set-up and Five no immediately tangible narrative thread, Oxhide manages to bring together the traditions of conceptual artwork with domestic drama and comedy.

Liu, like her hero, obviously enjoys blurring the line between documentary and fiction. While casting her family and articulating their financial difficulties and domestic squabbling may seem like a strand of neo-realism, this is offset by a visual style distancing the film from the kitchen-sink tradition. Liu pulls off the difficult trick of capturing the raw sentiment of neo-realism while still experimenting with a deliberately alienating visual style.

It seems that countries in the Asia region take it in turns to produce the world’s most challenging art cinema each year. 2005 switches the spotlight to mainland China, with the Chinese Renaissance and Asian DV programs at the Hong Kong International Film Festival offering a range of thought provoking, visually stunning works. While its grassroots, underground pedigree makes Oxhide not entirely representative of China’s recent output, it does focus attention on the innovative potential of the mainland’s new breed of filmmakers.

Oxhide, director/writer Liu Jiayin, People’s Republic of China, 2004

Oxhide was awarded the Asian DV Prize at the 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 22-April 6.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 22

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

Kim Ki-duk’s Samaritan Girl

Kim Ki-duk’s Samaritan Girl

“Diversity” is Lynden Barber’s watchword for his inaugural program as the Sydney Film Festival’s artistic director. The festival guide suggests more scattershot populism, the gathering of a vast array of apparently safe choices in categories where everyone will find something they like. The approach is understandable given the festival’s ongoing financial woes, but will strategies such as utilising the George Street cinema complex for a ‘rock flicks’ retrospective attract larger audiences? Although there is no single program strand likely to generate the excitement of last year’s exhaustive Antonioni retrospective, there are certainly interesting and significant films scattered across the program incuding recent works from major filmmakers and a celebration of CAAMA’s (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) 25 years.

In a break with tradition the festival will open with UK film My Summer of Love (director Pawel Pawlikowski) rather than a local offering. However, there are 2 Australian premieres that look set to continue the growing trend of innovative low-budget features made outside traditional funding structures and engaging intelligently with contemporary Australian milieus. Kriv Stenders’ Cassavetes-influenced Blacktown is set in Sydney’s western suburbs and sounds far more raw that his ponderous feature debut The Illustrated Family Doctor. Mosaic, by Brisbane writer-director Aaron Catling, also promises a break with the often conservative form of Australian dramas, relying on long takes and an episodic narrative to tell the story of a father-daughter relationship poisoned by the daughter’s sexual abuse at the hands of an older man.

A genuine festival highlight is the celebration of CAAMA’s 25 years with 8 films representing some of the very best in contemporary Australian filmmaking. Ivan Sen’s new documentary Yellow Fella examines the life of actor Tom E Lewis, who played the lead role in Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith in 1978. Also featured is the new documentary 5 Seasons by Steve McGregor, who directed the excellent Cold Turkey in 2003 (RT56, p18). OnScreen joins in the celebration of CAMAA’s success with Lisa Stefanoff’s account of the association’s history and achievements (p19).

The program also features some of the great names of international cinema: Angelopolous, Ruiz, Herzog, Araki and Kim. Trilogy: the Weeping Meadow is the first feature in 7 years from Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos. It’s the first part of a series dramatising the events of the 20th century. From Chile’s legendary Raul Ruiz comes Dias de Campo, the first film the director has made in his homeland since fleeing Pinochet’s coup in 1973. South American cinema generally has been enjoying a recent resurgence, and will be highlighted with a small program of new Argentine films.

The New Asian Cinema strand features 2 works from prolific South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, whose brutal films of violent love have been festival regulars for several years. Unusually, 2 Vietnamese period films will also be screening. Buffalo Boy is a ‘Western’ set in the 1940s, while Bride of Silence, touted as “Vietnam’s first feminist film”, focuses on a young girl hounded from her 19th century village when she refuses to name the father of her unborn child.

The sheer number of strands at this year’s festival program, and the small number of films in each, means that none is likely to investigate theme, region or country in depth. However, the fact that single tickets, as well as 10, 20 and 30-film Flexi-Passes are now available should make it easier for festival goers to distill a personalised program to suit their taste.

Sydney Film Festival, artistic director Lynden Barber; State Theatre, Dendy Opera Quays, George St Cinemas, Art Gallery of NSW, The Studio Sydney Opera House; June 10-25, www.sydneyfilmfestival.org

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 22

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

David Starr Ngoombujarra, Ganggu Mama

David Starr Ngoombujarra, Ganggu Mama

Recently aired as part of ABC TV’s Message Sticks program, Deadly Yarns is a collection of 5 short films by 5 emerging Indigenous filmmakers, produced in WA under an FTI initiative supported by ScreenWest. I have to put my subjective foot forward here: I often find the short film format stifling, lending itself either to naff endings, or in the case of these films a certain propensity for STATEMENT.

The ethos driving the script development of these films seemed to be if you only have 5 minutes of screen time you’d better ‘say something.’ Personally, I crave stillness and space in film, particularly shorts, where there’s seldom room for more than a crystalline moment, a gesture, or an ineffable push towards something outside the frame. I think the medium makes anything more impossible. When a short film embraces this essential impossibility you can end up with something beautiful. The most resonant moments in the Deadly Yarns films occur when they gesture to a more complex reality outside the dramatisation, something not quite so over-produced. However, if statement dominates this series of films, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that each is delivered at a different pitch and volume.

Ashley Sillifant’s Broken Bonds is the visually and sonically lush montage narrative of a Nyungar boy and his totem, the Serpent, and how this Dreamtime spirit leads him out of a cycle of domestic abuse and into a championship boxing ring. The film has won 2 WA Film Awards, one for director Sillifant and one for cinematographer Rob Bygott. The film is tightly produced, and Sillifant is obviously talented. But I came away with the impression that the film had been stylised within an inch of its life. The saturated macho aesthetic teeters dangerously close to beer commercial territory at times, and I suspected the aesthetic was concealing something more real, giving the emotional core of the story a protective coating.

Don’t Say Sorry (directors Paul Roberts and Christine Jacobs) is raw by comparison. Jacobs delivers a first person recollection of her experiences as a stolen child, and entreats white Australia not to say sorry, but rather “understand and acknowledge.” It’s a fair enough expectation, and Jacobs puts her case forward passionately, but again production dominates content.

Ganggu Mama (director Mark Howett) has spunk and personality and the performances are solid. The screen presence and sensitivity of the 2 leads carries this one. David Starr Ngoombujarra (who also wrote the script) plays Dave, a didjeridu maker, opposite Clarence Ryan as his nephew Jackson, a young Wadjarri boy struggling to heal the split between contemporary and traditional identities. There’s a raw energy to Ganggu Mama that I liked, though the awkwardly sentimental final scene could have done with some pruning to create a more poetic and less didactic conclusion.

The last 2 films in the series, Miss Coolbaroo (director Michelle White) and Sugar Bag (director Gary Cooper), are the most fully realised and confident of the series. This can be partly attributed to the skill of the filmmakers, and partly to the inherent qualities of the 2 women, Monica Jones and Laurel Cooper, whose fragmentary recollections form the basis of each film. It was not so much the films themselves but their subjects that held my attention. Monica and Laurel recount their different stories with a sense of dignity and total self-possession. They’re both real Aunties, maternal gatekeepers of personal history who seem to know how much of the story needs to be told and how much tells itself.

There are some big voices in Indigenous film, and there are lots of big things that need to be said about contemporary Indigenous culture and identity. There are some big histories, big steps that need retracing, and big gaps that need to be bridged. The question is, how big can you be in 5 minutes? The fundamental schism here was between form and content; one drastically outsized the other, and they failed to meet. There are points where the filmmakers seem to realise this and roll with it. The camera backs off and all the mute things, like Laurel Cooper’s treasured photographs of her parents in Sugar Bag, are allowed to speak for themselves. It seems to me that filming History, particularly Indigenous history, is crucially invested in what can’t be re-enacted, recorded, or bashed into the shape of an exclamation mark. Laurel Cooper’s photographs, mounted and immaculately kept in plastic sleeves, succeeded beautifully in allowing all the unsayable things to momentarily resonate. I’m glad that it was this moment that concluded the series.


Christine Jacobs

On May 25, as this edition was being laid out, OnScreen received the tragic news that Christine Jacobs, director of the Deadly Yarns film Don’t Say Sorry was run over and killed in Canberra. Her film was to screen as part of the launch of National Healing Day at Federal Parliament. The screening went ahead and Jacobs’ speech was delivered by her 14 year old daughter Tamara. Everyone at RealTime extends their deepest sympathies to Christine Jacobs’ family and friends.

Deadly Yarns, 5 short films by WA Indigenous filmmakers, screened on ABC TV, April 22-May 20

ScreenWest, the ABC and FTI are currently assessing projects for a second series of Deadly Yarns.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 23

© Sarah-Jane Norman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Mari Velonaki, David Rye, Steve Schedding, <BR />Stetan Williams, Fish-Bird, at State Parliament House, 2004″></p>
<p class=Mari Velonaki, David Rye, Steve Schedding,
Stetan Williams, Fish-Bird, at State Parliament House, 2004

Computer-based interactive art is one of the very latest art form innovations, part of the new media arts family born of revolutionary developments in information communication technologies over the past 50 years. Unlike some of its siblings it makes use of these technologies in more than just its means of production and presentation. Interactive art uses human-computer interaction, one of the defining features of computation, as its very medium.

Unlike a book, a painting or a video installation, an interactive artwork is an open field, which means in effect that every instance is an innovation. From networked garments that sense and transmit bio-data projected around the participants as sound and animation (Thecla Schiphorst and Suzan Kozel’s Whisper [2003]), to an exercise bike pedaled by the user through a virtual landscape (Jeffrey Shaw’s Legible City [1989]), the world of interactive art is full of radically new experiences.

Not only is the work characterised by continual artistic innovation, but also technological innovation, the field’s short history being inextricably linked with the history of computing. For some this is its major failing. It is a common criticism that interactive art too often simply functions as a shop window for the latest technologies. While it must be allowed that there is a degree of technological fetishism at play, the image of an art form following like an eager puppy at the heels of ICT development misrepresents interactive art’s role in driving technological innovation. Artistic visions can often only be achieved with software and hardware created specifically for individual artworks. Such ambitious productions require collaborative relationships with developers at the cutting edge of technology.

Hybrid spaces

In Pathways to Innovation in Digital Culture (1999, www.music.mcgill.ca/
~mcentury/PI/PImain.html) Michael Century traces the history of a phenomenon he calls the “Studio-Laboratory”, a site for combined art production and technological research. These hybrid spaces have many different configurations, from commercially funded research laboratories, such as the Xerox Parc Artist in Residence Program in Palo Alto (USA), to creatively focused academic institutions such as MIT Media Lab in Boston and independent arts-led organisations such as ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) Karlsruhe in Germany whose mixture of research and production with public presentation and high profile debate has defined the field of new technology arts for 2 decades.

Sydney’s iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, founded in 2001, is one of the most recently created studio-laboratories. Positioned between the University of New South Wales’ School of Computer Science and Engineering and the College of Fine Arts, iCinema is directed by Jeffrey Shaw, previously founding director of ZKM and one of the most influential artists and theorists in the area of interactivity. iCinema produces artworks of vast technical ambition such as Conversations (2004), a multi-user virtual reality work exploring the ethics of capital punishment. The work’s creation generated 2 technical ‘world-firsts’ in computer science.

The knowledge economy

Such endeavours require large scale investment, and in this regard interactive art’s close relationship with innovation has served it well. The knowledge economy feeds on innovation. John Hartley has written, in the preface to Innovation in Australian Arts, Media and Design (Rod Wissler , Brad Haseman, Sue-Anne Wallace, Michael Keane eds, Post Pressed, Queensland, 2004) that “innovation is research and development for the knowledge based economy and it is what creativity needs if it is to find a use and therefore a value.” The hybrid environments of studio-laboratories offer attractive prospects for funders and commercial sponsors because the promise of technological and artistic innovation translates investment in creativity into profit.

Vision first

But while the supreme value of innovation seems clear to funding bodies and some theorists of the knowledge economy, it is not always so clear to the artists and technologists producing the work. “Our funders ask us to answer the question of innovation and significance in the same box on our grant application, but the value of the work has nothing to do with innovation”, says Steve Schedding, an engineer in the collaborative team at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics producing the interactive art installation Fish-Bird.

Fish-Bird is by any measure a tremendously innovative artwork which has captured the imagination of both artists and experts in robotics. Two robots appear as wheelchairs impersonating the characters Fish and Bird who communicate with one another and their visitors via movement and text, producing small printouts (see image above). Fish and Bird learn the behaviour of audience participants and reason independently to decide their actions. The work was presented at Ars Electronica 2004 as part of Timeshift—The World in 25 Years. It has produced “mountains of copyrightable software” according to Steve Schedding, and numerous original technical solutions which are translatable to other domains. Nothing similar has ever been produced in robotics.

The team includes technologists David Rye and Stefan Williams and artist Mari Velonaki. All are exceptionally proud of Fish-Bird, and when pressed admit that its uniqueness and newness are part of that. But it is not the whole story; for Rye satisfaction comes from knowing they have “made something that is so complicated, and so far beyond what anyone else is achieving in the world, but it looks so simple and is so effective as an artwork. It absolutely does the job it was meant to do.” For him the fact that they could realise Velonaki’s imaginative vision so completely without aesthetic compromise is the work’s great achievement. Interestingly it was the exacting nature of the artistic vision and its real world requirements that drove a great deal of the technological innovation. In contrast to the common impression that the creativity of the artist brings life to straitlaced engineers, they claim it was the rigorous demands of the artistic specification that spurred the technical innovation: the fact that it needed to work for 8 to 10 hours a day, tour to un-predictable places and encounter audiences who would test the work to its limits. This encounter between real people and new technology may be the most important aspect of the relationship between innovation and interactive art. The most significant works in the fledgling canon are often technical pioneers that bring revolutionary technologies to the gallery in a way they are not experienced elsewhere.

Benchmark interactive

Another example is Char Davies’ celebrated virtual reality work Osmose (1995), which has been shown around the world, including Melbourne’s ACMI in 2004. Davies was founding director and head of visual research at Softimage, the pioneering Canadian company whose software brought Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to life. Osmose is a work of astonishing complexity which uses a head-mounted display and breath/body-position sensing interface to immerse the user in a virtual space which can be navigated through breathing and balance. The virtual space emerges from an overlaying of ambiguous natural landscapes, the computer code that generates the work and philosophical texts exploring the nature of perception and space.

Osmose has given many people their first experience of virtual reality. The work uses VR to allow participants to “cross over the 2D picture plane” and experience a non-Cartesian space of dematerialised and semi-transparent forms. In doing so Davies explicitly challenges what she describes as the “hard-edged-objects-in-empty-space aesthetic” of conventional VR. At the same time the work questions the fate of nature and human experience in a technologised world. When the work is shown in public a silhouette of the ‘immersant’ is projected into the gallery as he or she navigates the virtual world. This is intended to draw attention to the embodied nature of the experience, but also renders the immersant as a lone cyborg isolated from those around them.

They’re innovating us

Osmose both drives forward and reflects upon the effect of technological innovation on our lives. Like the best works of interactive art it has a special relationship with the times in which we live, exploring our current technological capabilities in both content and form. We are not shown the effects of new technology; we experience them, living through them in all their complexity. Interactive artworks reveal the way new technologies ‘innovate’ human existence, the ways we are re-made by our inventions. They offer us opportunities to inhabit and reflect upon revolutions in human experience before they engulf us and we are no longer able to see their effect.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 24

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

Abe Linkoln and jimpunk, screenfull.net: the book (www.screenfull.net) (2005)

Abe Linkoln and jimpunk, screenfull.net: the book (www.screenfull.net) (2005)

We all know what slippery commodities innovation and creativity are. Despite the establishment of comfortable centres of excellence and well-resourced educational institutions, the ‘it’ factor often elusively springs, like a pop up window, from left field. After all, networked art itself first emerged in the gaps and margins of the military and educational internet and our first generation of Australian net artists like Francesca da Rimini, Ian Haig, Garry Zebbington, Mez, Graham Crawford, John Tonkin and myself, were all self-taught. In the mid 1990s it was a necessity to be innovative with online practices, and artists had the excitement and advantage of working in the uncharted territory of a fresh media.

A decade later things have changed. The net has been through a period of exponential growth, conformity, and inevitable bust. Now the network is firmly established as a way of life, disillusionment has been dusted off and more sustainable practices are emerging. But is innovative networked art still emerging locally and globally today?


The answer is yes, and screenfull.net (expired), a collaborative blog which starts by promising the viewer “we crash your browser with content”, is one example. It doesn’t actually crash your browser, but it does confront the viewer with raucous and chaotic content, forcing a re-consideration of the multiple narratives with which we engage each day. This is not safe, clean, bland web design–it breaches good taste and sensible research practice, looking beyond the familiar to create its own rules of engagement.

The artists responsible–jimpunk (France) and Abe Linkoln (USA)–know their stuff, rigorously mashing theory, humour, hybrid-media immersion and larrikin impudence. Linkoln’s previous curatorial projects display an intelligent understanding of, and inquiry into, the unique qualities and decade long history of networked art. Likewise jimpunk smartly exploits the Rococo potentialities of HTML, JavaScript and Flash to create sites that give you a scary and exciting media-rich roller coaster ride unlike anything you’ve experienced online before.

Learning networking

This generation of artists grew up with the network and are often being educated by experienced online practitioners. One of screenfull.net’s authors is a graduate student at Colorado University’s TECHNE practice-based initiative. The program was instigated by veteran net.artist Mark Amerika and encourages investigation into the complex and intuitive processes that revolve around emerging forms of knowledge in networked digital culture. The students built the course website, curate shows and conduct interviews with global practitioners, creating works for real world consumption rather than classroom assessment. In fact screenfull.net was recently recognised as the Graduate School’s top research project over the usual winners from physics and engineering. When network art is positioned as a discrete discipline, retaining its unique language and strengths, rather than being squeezed into a scientific model, then an environment is created where innovation can be recognised and fostered.

Locally we are implementing similar strategies, such as Integrated Media Practice taught by Adrian Miles, himself the creator of the video blog or Vog, and Jeremy Yuille at RMIT. This course ensures students are multi-literate in network and software, utilising blogging, podcasting, videoblogging, and conducting collaborative research in an ongoing wiki (server software allowing users to freely create and edit web page content using any web browser). The crucial innovative factor is that students learn to operate within a network rather than learning to design work for networked display.

These focused but flexible environments encourage experimentation, and most importantly acknowledge failure as a crucial part of the innovation process. If we continually operate from a position where funded projects must have successful outcomes for the recipient to be re-funded, then spectacular failures from which innovative work often arises will be swept under the carpet. When research projects jealously guard their Intellectual Property, others waste time and money examining similar issues. We need visionary direction to nurture openness in our educational and research cultures. Mature policy makers understand that the creative process is playful, involving the sharing and breaking of things to create newness.

Australia out of step

While the emergence of innovative networked art is unpredictable, it may also never reach a wider Australian audience. Although networked art is a well established international genre, the same net artists who are shown globally in biennales, film festivals, and media exhibitions are rarely seen locally. In contrast, network art is promoted daily to 3 million commuters in the London Underground through Platform for Art Online. Net art and net communities account for 2 of the 5 major artform categories in competition in Austria’s Ars Electronica, the largest annual media festival in the world. The Tokyo’s NNT Inter-communication Centre (ICC), and Seoul’s Art Centre Nabi, focus exclusively on media works, with internet and mobile art predominating. File in San Paulo, XX in Montreal…the list of dedicated networked exhibitions is extensive.

If networked art has such a prestigious international profile why is it different in Australia? Having recently sat on the jury for net.art commissions for New York based organisations Rhizome and Turbulence, and looked at hundreds of proposals from around the world, it was disappointing to see only a very few (but great!) proposals from Australia. What has happened? Australians used to be well-represented and universally regarded as innovators. It seems locally, there is a dampener on the otherwise vibrant world of networked art. Why does smart, fast, often funny, sometimes socially aware content and a unique low-resolution pixelated aesthetic generate an aura of poor cousin?

Several structural problems spring to mind. Funding bodies and commissioning organisations often profoundly misunderstand the media, a prime example being the AFC-ABC broadband initiative (RT66, p20). While the initiative funded important works such as UsMob, it missed the point that the internet is about 2 way interconnection between users. It is not an appropriate delivery platform for what would otherwise be CD-ROM, TV or film content. As well, user control and censorship are often the first concern of curators considering internet work, an unfortunate reflection of the 1950’s morality pervading attitudes to art and film in this country. Yet the same censorship principles are not applied across the board, allowing open access, for example, to Bill Henson’s undoubtedly scrumptious photographic teenage orgies at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Where do you get it?

Thankfully there are exceptions. The new spatial initiative (www.nga.gov.au/spatial) at the National Gallery of Australia displays a bold and changing program of net artists. dLux media arts actively promote the newest distributed media forms with d>Art, their annual exhibition of mobile, sound and web.art works. The Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth (BEAP) shows net art as a major stream of its program. Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) promotes networked art and Newcastle’s Rocketart gallery shows networked art as part of emerging practice. Other institutions have experimented with the genre: Perspecta 99 at AGNSW had an online component, Experimenta has previously commissioned net art and I curated the networked section of 2004: Australian Culture Now at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Network = the medium

However, a major obstacle to mainstream visibility is that networked art challenges the very foundations of the commodification of art, as it defies conceptions of uniqueness, stability and collectability. It is a practice that has never slotted neatly into existing institutional and cultural establishments. Sean Cubitt wrote in Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s refreshing look at the precursors to online art practice, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet (MIT Press, 2005): “The network artist is not a person…authorship…is profoundly shared with the medium…The network is more than the medium: it is the very stuff of the work” (“From Internationalism to Transnations: Networked Art and Activism”). This requires a shift in our understanding of what art is, how it is delivered, and the fundamental principles of authorship and ownership.

As commercial galleries begin to exhibit the safer forms of new media like video, I wonder whether there is a space for networked art? There is both merit and danger in funding and curatorial policy which considers networked art as just another part of new media, just as there is danger in new media being considered simply part of the visual arts. These forms are each so significantly different, emanating from such radically oppositional positions and with often incompatible delivery modalities. Affirmative initiatives and supportive groupings are needed to ensure certain practices are not marginalised.


Let’s hope, for example, that Sydney’s ACP (Australian Centre for Photography) and Melbourne’s CCP (Centre for Contemporary Photography), who include internet art in their expanded definition of photo-based practice but have no specific affirmative policy, get a significant level of proposals from network artists. Likewise the CarriageWorks at Eveleigh in Sydney, to house Performance Space from 2007, will be network cabled, and so could support highly experimental networked performance and exhibition projects.

Most heartening is that our younger curators, from independents such as Thea Bauman and Rebecca Cannon, to the directors of Electrofringe and Next Wave festivals, actively promote the full spectrum of networked art: games, internet, performance, sound and mobile works. By nurturing networked practice now, we create an environment where innovation is possible, and emerging artists won’t have to leave the country to find creative and financial support. Otherwise we will wake up to an online world of overseas content, intellectual narrowness and aesthetic poverty.

As Sean Cubitt predicts: “We have the future to build. It will be global, networked, and utterly new, or it will not be the future at all.”

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 25

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

transmute collective, Intimate Transactions (2005)

transmute collective, Intimate Transactions (2005)

transmute collective, Intimate Transactions (2005)

Up at the desk, hands to the keyboard, slump and slouch, the arse creeps forward on the chair as gravity takes over. The brain-in-the-vat signals to the peripheral effectors–I choose to press that keypad now. Intimate Transactions drops the periphery as our only extension into the world and brings back the back, the trunk, the torso, as the core embodiment within new media experience.

Intimate Transactions comes from transmute collective, directed by Keith Armstrong with Lisa O’Neill, Guy Webster, and numerous advisors, designers, programmers, fabricators, industry bigwigs and funding bodies. It continues Armstrong’s development of ecosophical praxis, used here as a pragmatic philosophical take on new media production that chucks out the techno-fetish and puts in a fusion of ecological theory and ethics. New media as experience design rather than commodity production. The pragmatic upshot of Armstrong’s ethical position is the development of work that requires prototyping, interviews with people about their experience of the work, and further prototyping. Perhaps that is the contribution of new media: the introduction of user testing in the arts.

But there is still plenty of tech in the work–sensors to transduce pressure and motion, realtime graphics, immersive sound, lots of grunt at the server. And it’s running across GrangeNet, a high-speed research network down the east coast that is a million times faster than the old 56k modem. A 2-week download on the modem or a day or so on ADSL is one second on GrangeNet.

I got to play with Intimate Transactions at the Block, one of the exhibition spaces at QUT’s Creative Industries Precinct. The room is dark and smallish, set up to give that distractionless isolation ward experience that signals new media installation. There’s a bunch of equipment: speakers all about, projection wall in front, strange apparatus in the middle. The strange apparatus is the Bodyshelf, an almost vertical backrest with a shelf to rest the feet on. Physiotherapy meets high-tech correctional facility.

The Bodyshelf is designed and built for Intimate Transactions, and is central to placing the body at the core of the work. You stand on the shelf and lean against the padded backrest. There are sensors to detect the pressure of your body. Padding is adjusted so that the sensors line up right. There’s some training before the work begins, moving the back about to activate the sensors or shifting weight on the feet to wobble the footrest and drive the system that way. I put on a harness with a rubber suction pad that plops onto my stomach. Later on it will vibrate but I won’t notice.

The apparatus is not for individual use: down at Melbourne’s ACMI someone is using another Bodyshelf to enter Intimate Transactions at the same time. We will be in the work together, each of us knowing what the other is doing. This is one of the smart bits of the design because we infer so much about others from their movement–maybe seeing them walk, maybe just the sound of breathing, or maybe the glimpse of shadows moving across a wall. Even though we are both going to use a completely novel interface we can each see the impact on the system of what the other is doing, and so infer each other’s motivation. That builds community, the intimate knowledge of people whose behaviour is more predictable than the behaviour of strangers.

So the whole system forms an ecology and we have avatars within the system: jellybaby angels or glowing discs floating submerged in a dark ocean. The graphics move slowly as we shift our weight on the footrest, roll sidewards across the Bodyshelf, curl and unfurl our backs. Navigating the virtual. No hands.

Most times the action is solitary; I go into one of the system spaces and look around. The space is 2D, translucent creatures float and dart around the edges. Sounds move about, creepy and comfortable. The goal is to hover over one of the creatures, get intimate and be transported into another space, the place of the creatures’ treasure: skeletal, x-ray fragments that rotate and fluoresce around the perimeter. Get intimate again and the treasure is mine, collected at the centre of the projection. I can take all the stuff from all the creatures but the underlying maths of computational ecology change the system if I get too greedy. The creatures become reluctant to share. The treasures can be returned if we co-operate–Brisbane to Melbourne–a little intimate snuggling in the submerged world.

I realise I’ve spent way too long exploring and just soaking up sensation. I start to chase my colleague around the screen. I get off centre and lose my place on the bodyshelf. It doesn’t work right. I think about my position, where I am, how my body moves. I make adjustments, make mistakes, start again, reorientate. There are rules. Predictions can be made, actions calibrated, then it’s over–just 20 minutes of participation which is way too little. Or maybe 20 minutes is just right and I should do this more often, get to know the system better, build up a relationship.

Intimate Transactions isn’t a game, there is no sense of moving to an outcome or nearing the end. It’s a piece of experience design, an opportunity to enter a world like ours but different. I left excited, alert, and without immediate memory–inside the work the experience was too engaging to allow for the hiving off a little bit of brain to run an analytic commentary for later.

Intimate Transactions has been awarded an Honorable Mention in competition at the forthcoming Ars Electronica 2005, Linz, Austria.

Intimate Transactions, transmute collective; director Keith Armstrong; choreographer/performer Lisa O’Neill; musician/sound artist Guy Webster; furniture designer Zeljko Markov; networked between QUT Creative Industries Precinct, Brisbane and ACMI, Melbourne; April 28-May

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 26

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

Christian Marclay, Video Quartet (video installation)

Christian Marclay, Video Quartet (video installation)

Two recent exhibitions in London highlighted the diversity of contemporary moving image practice and the increasingly central role of the art world in educating and supporting moving image makers. Both Daria Martin’s work in 16mm film and Christian Marclay’s video artworks are examples of the kind of formal innovation that is hard to imagine increasingly conservative film bodies encouraging, but which fortunately finds support in art institutions.

Christian Marclay is the embodiment of the modern multidisciplinary artist. Equally known for his musicianship and his visual arts practice, he has collaborated with luminaries such as Sonic Youth, John Zorn and Merce Cunningham, rejecting distinctions based on material or disciplinary boundaries. Marclay’s practice takes place across the spectrum of object construction, work with found objects, sculpture, installation and most recently, video art. The unifying thread through all his work, as befits an artist with a musical background, is a central aesthetic of sound: from his early performances with turntables (he was one of the first and most notable musicians to ‘play’ turntables and has been referred to as “the most influential turntable figure outside hip hop”) to sculptures entailing instruments and installed objects using or referencing record cover art. The hilarious False Advertising series of mock concert posters, featuring the artist in the daggiest of costumes and poses advertising fictional gigs, suggests a mockumentary impulse (or the worst of the parental record collection).

More explicitly ‘about’ sound, one of the most fascinating pieces in Marclay’s recent show at the Barbican was the terrific installation Tape Fall, which uses a reel-to-reel recorder sans take-up reel, perched high on a ladder, spilling tape onto an ever-growing pile on the gallery floor. The experience of simultaneously hearing the incessant trickling drip-drip noises as the silky red-brown pile snakes slowly upwards is hypnotic and beautiful.

Engaging though these pieces are, they simply can’t compete with Marclay’s stunning Video Quartet. Sampling musical, concert, sung, and instrumental segments from 700 (mainly Hollywood) films from the golden era to the present in 4 side-by-side screens, it is a sonic extravaganza. Kaleidoscopic in its range and dizzying in its intensity, the piece begins pianissimo and builds, over 13 minutes, to a thundering crescendo that threatens to overwhelm. However, despite the exhilarating speed of the images flying by and vertiginous split-vision effect, the piece is surprisingly coherent as Marclay carefully loops, repeats and reverses some segments to maximise the musicality of the composition in a way that the viewer can instinctively ‘read’ musically. While the parade of recognisable faces is a reminder of how films are a collection of ‘moments’, their recontextualisation in this collage creates an artwork that backgrounds stardom, narrative and drama and foregrounds the sonic, and particularly percussive qualities of many films. Marclay’s musician’s ear is revealed in the brilliance of the composition, which is much more intelligent than many of the plunderphonic arrangements flooding contemporary music. Reversing the traditional ocularcentrism of cinema, Marclay’s remix is a powerfully sensual interpretation of ‘film as found object’ in which skilful montage transforms film samples into instruments in an innovative video orchestra.

Daria Martin’s film work similarly exemplifies the innovative approaches to the moving image by artists untroubled by the conformist groupthink often encouraged in film schools. Many of the UK’s finest experimental filmmakers came via art schools and though Martin’s work is representational and uses human figures, its aspiration is more aesthetic than narrative-dramatic. In the beautiful Closeup Gallery, recently at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of the Beck’s Futures exhibition, Martin uses a sleight-of-hand artist and his frilly-frocked assistant to explore ideas of illusion and artifice. Coloured cards are shuffled, spread, dealt, turned over, flicked around and painted rhythmically to a delightful tinkling jazzy sound track. Spread on a spinning circular glass table with metal spokes beneath, the controlled palette of emerald green, fire-engine red, cobalt blue, black and white suggests near-constructivist abstraction achieved via material objects (which are still very much moored in their social context by the activity of the film’s subject).

Unlike some young moving image artists whose work unknowingly repeats past experiments or proceeds in ignorance of the incredibly rich history of experimental film, Martin has demonstrated a strong understanding of the continuum of artists’ cinema. Though projector problems disappointingly prevented the much-anticipated screening of Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen at the film night Martin programmed at the Tate, her other choices (Carolee Schneeman, Kenneth Anger, Guy Sherwin and others) nevertheless revealed an informed and discerning taste. Martin’s Closeup Gallery avoids the pitfalls of ignorance, its deceptive simplicity not immediately suggesting (nor trendily referencing) other artists’ work but making an aesthetic point of its own. Revelling in the scopophilia of its subject matter and tinged with nostalgia for a bygone era, Closeup Gallery is a unique artwork that positions its maker at the forefront for the lucrative Beck’s Futures awards.

Christian Marclay, Barbican Gallery, London, Feb 17-May 2; Daria Martin, Closeup Gallery, 16mm film, Beck’s Futures Exhibition and Awards, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, March 18-May 15

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 27

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

He introduces himself as S* from Baxter IDC. He spends his time in detention with nothing to do but write and write as the days fade by. He wrote his first poem after spending days on Christmas Island mingling with children and families, enjoying seeing the kids going to school. Now in Port Hedland he is separated from their smiles and writes to remember the faces of his sons. He produces a regular newsletter to “unveil all the hidden suffering inside electrocuted fences.”

I introduce myself to S* as a member of PEN, a writers’ group that supports other writers wrongfully imprisoned in jail and in detention. When I begin to write letters I struggle for words, the right tone. Do I tell him what I see through the window on the train winding through the Blue Mountains? Does he want to know about the diversity of cultures, the beauty of landscapes; that there’s more to this place than red dirt, warped heat, hatred and endless languid days behind barbed wire? I start to create my world on a page with a new perspective. I re-create it for him and for me.

And so our dialogue begins. I send S* a program of the play I saw last night, Through the Wire, which offers accounts of relationships that have slowly developed between Australian women and men in detention seeking asylum. Similar themes are explored in documentaries: Clara Law’s Letters to Ali and Tom Zubrycki’s Molly and Mobarak. The play’s power comes from exploring the dynamics between the Australian women, one of them Jewish, and the men they want to help. The women, who include a psychologist, a guard and a lawyer, become mums, minders, activists, and one a lover, to the men–roles they perform well. A daily voice on the mobile, an unexpected birthday cake on the doorstep. My own voice is echoed in the script as the women negotiate how to communicate, even celebrate, slowly unfolding lives on different sides of the fence.

After its Sydney season, 22 suburban and regional centres lined up to present Through the Wire. However an application put by Performing Lines to the Playing Australia fund of the federal government’s Department of Communications, Information Technology and Arts (DOCITA) was unsuccesful. Surprised but undaunted, writer and director Ros Horin toured the production with Performing Lines and the assistance of the NSW Ministry for the Arts for 4 weeks in NSW and one week in Canberra to near sell-out seasons and standing ovations in most centres. Horin raised funds from many sources (“a kind of people power”, she says) and got the support of the Melbourne Theatre Company, who marketed the play gratis, to present it at the VCA’s Grant Street Theatre where it enjoyed another successful season.

The script of Through the Wire is based on words spoken by asylum seekers. It is theatre stripped back to essentials in both its stagecraft and performative elements. Writer/director Ros Horin has shaped the play over a number of years. She says she works like a sculptor, paring the dialogues back so new details are slowly revealed.

The asylum seekers are played by actors–except for an Iranian actor/playwright Shahin Shafaei who, it is revealed at the end, is one of the authors sharing his lived experience:

It is prison, you know, the detention centre, the whole shape of it…You have no idea how long you are going to be there. There is…no information about what is your status or situation here…at the second day of arrival, there are some people coming along to interview you…who ask you “Why did you come to Australia?” You would tell your story. If you don’t mention that I want to seek asylum in Australia, you will be considered a screen-out, so you are not entitled to seek asylum in Australia because you have never asked…my people smuggler wasn’t that smart to tell me you should say that.

This dynamic between performance and tragic reality reframed my experience of the play. In one of the most harrowing scenes a camera is set up in front of the actors, zeroing in on each face as they describe the circumstances that led to them fleeing their countries and families: smiling at tourists in a hotel, exposing corruption in local courts, writing theatre and performing it illegally, finding friends murdered because they’ve dared to question authority. The men’s voices mingle, rise and fall softly. A close-up of the actor’s face on a large screen above the stage means there is no place to hide and it’s hard work–a dense monologue, haltingly painful, at times beautiful imagery.

The first time I see Through the Wire I am least engaged by Shahin’s performance. This unsettles me for weeks but when I go the second time I realise this man tells his story with the distance and abstraction of a writer/actor through necessity; he can be deported at any time. How can he juggle such emotions and fears day to day in front of an audience, given that writing, acting and watching plays was what led to his being persecuted and fleeing Iran in the first place? Actor Wadih Dona (who plays Farshid) also had to flee his home (Lebanon) during the civil war. I ask him about working with Shahin:

Shahin is still on a Temporary Protection Visa…He has had his final interview as we were on tour and we still don’t know. It is incredible to watch him…but he is playing himself as a character in a director’s vision of who he is in a play that we are performing! The first reading, Shahin couldn’t even finish his story. He got up crying and left the room. It was so moving for me…because that was the first day I met him and I really got it in my heart how important this play is to him. It is not another theatre job, it is about his fucking life.

Wadih and the other actors in Through the Wire are fully aware of the crossover between perceptions of reality and performance in this work. When Wadih originally auditioned, he was in the unusual position of being up against the real Farshid for the role:

He was the real guy so you can imagine how I felt in hindsight. I didn’t actually know that it was him in the room. I though it was some exotic actor that [Ros] had selected to read as well. Later I put it all together when I met him onstage after we did opening night at the Sydney Festival. Shit, that’s Farshid! Oh my god that was the guy from the audition!

All actors were approved after the audition process by the men who had originally spoken/written about their experiences in detention and prison. But Wadih sees no difference between performing a fictional role and his characterisation of Farshid:

Word are words…it does not matter to me what their origin is. I don’t believe in psyching myself up in order to get into a certain emotional state to tell Farshid’s story…it’s like surfing to me. You go on the wave of the story and hope you can ride it to the end! Just commit to the ride and don’t worry where you want to take it.

The strength of a play like Through the Wire is its resilience and continuing topicality, as more is revealed about the government’s lack of mental health care for those in detention, about how up to 200 Australian citizens may have been deported by ‘mistake’, about the harrowing treatment of Cornelia Rau and others like her. The show continues to tour, hitting regional areas and giving asylum seekers a voice. Performing Lines has been instrumental in this. Their programming policy and regional tours encourage and nurture plays that are innovative, unique and of ongoing benefit to performers and audiences. Performing in intimate venues in places like Penrith, Wagga, Albury and Griffith, the actors get to gauge a wide variety of responses, from those who know a lot to those who know a little. A mark of the impact of the play is that audiences sometimes have difficulty differentiating the actors from the characters. Wadih tells the story of a little old lady who approached him after a performance and said tenderly:

‘I really hope you get to stay in Australia’. But the usual reaction from the audience is a profound sense of shame…and they usually ask us what they can do.

Like most in the audience of Through the Wire at Penrith, west of Sydney, I left the theatre angry. But the encounters between the asylum seekers and the women–and between the men and their writing, art, theatre, music–continue to nourish and sustain, inspiring me to write more letters to S*, to be less afraid of giving him glimpses beyond the walls. Only one thing now bothers me. Where are the women’s voices from detention?

Shahin Shafaei’s comments are taken from an interview with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope.

Through the Wire, writer, director, Ros Horin, performers Ali Ammouchi, Wadih Dona, Rhondda Findleton, Katrina Foster, Eloise Oxer, Shahin Shafaei, Hazem Shammas, Jamal Alrekabi; designer Seljuk Feruu, lighting Stephen Hawker, sound Max Lyandvert, music Jamal Alkrekabi, costumes Genevieve Dugard, film Heidi Riederer, Nick Meyers; producer Ros Horin with Performing Lines

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 28

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

Matthew Whittet, Journal of the Plague Year

Matthew Whittet, Journal of the Plague Year

Matthew Whittet, Journal of the Plague Year

Ham Funeral & Journal of the Plague Year

Though Max Gillies’ The Big Con was the official titleholder, it was The Ham Funeral and Journal of the Plague Year which really inaugurated Malthouse Theatre’s first season since its transformation from Playbox. Both shows opened in the same theatre on the same day, featured the same cast and, perhaps most importantly, the same director: Malthouse’s new Artistic Director and very visible face of the overhauled company, Michael Kantor. After the many changes announced since his appointment, this was the opportunity to see precisely what sort of theatre Kantor is committed to producing.

The more striking of the 2 works was Plague Year, written by Tom Wright after the story of the same name by Daniel Defoe. The play is structured as a series of tableaux covering 12 months in the plague-infested London of 1665, and features Robert Menzies as Defoe, guiding us through a society whose external sickness is mirrored by an internal decay. The rest of the ensemble take on multiple roles as denizens of this Dante-esque world.

One of the difficulties posed by the task of adapting Defoe’s tale stems from the original’s status as a kind of mockumentary: billed as journalism, many of the text’s stylistic devices exist almost purely to test the credulity of its reader. An abundance of trivial details, diagrams and first-person reminders of the narrator’s position as a kind of embedded reporter work to bestow an aura of authenticity. Lacking this requirement, however, the staged adaptation struggles to find a reason to include such devices; Wright must not only convert Plague Year to a new medium, but reinvent its generic setting as well. In fact he inverts the original by shifting it into the realm of the fantastic.

In freeing Plague Year from its original meanings, there is the danger that it will not find anchor elsewhere. Though a vague air of allegory permeates the production, it isn’t clear how we are to interpret the significance of events, an especially peculiar fact considering that a fatal pandemic plague has such obvious metaphorical resonance. Contemporary events are occasionally invoked (a passing reference to biological weapons, for example), but these potentially fertile references are rare.

Kantor’s ‘more is more’ approach sees the employment of a bewildering array of theatrical modes: mask, dance, farce, song. There is a sense that the real theme motivating directorial choice is simply the theatre itself as a vehicle for the production of wonder. If this is the case, Plague Year is an unabashed success. However, I find it slightly (though thrillingly) problematic that this production relies on an apocalyptic vision to achieve its effects. Apocalyptic visions can be seductive: lacking the psychological intimacy of tragedy, they instead use impersonal destruction to connote cleansing, starting over, even the possibility of rapture. Certainly, the mounting chaos engulfing Plague Year’s narrator is played out with ecstatic abandon, at one point incarnated as a very literal carnival. Here Kantor and Wright’s earlier work with Barrie Kosky’s Gilgul Theatre is revealed. Kosky has long been an exponent of carnival, grotesquery and excess.

The gleeful, heterogeneous vulgarity of Plague Year is echoed in the excesses of The Ham Funeral, but is moderated by the play’s iconic status as a misunderstood moment of shocking modernism in Australian theatre history. Viewing the work now, one can’t help but measure it against that which came before its controversial 1961 opening in Adelaide. More damagingly, one must compare it to what has appeared since. It’s not an especially challenging work to audiences weaned on absurd irony, black humour and alternatives to realism. It’s still a powerful piece of writing though, with Patrick White’s control of language shining through from the first lines of dialogue. The Ham Funeral is White doing his best Peggy Lee: if that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing, break out the booze and have a ball. It’s revelry borne of despair, though there are times when this dips dangerously towards undergraduate angst.

An anonymous Young Man (Dan Spielman) moves into a squalid hotel/rooming house run by the basement-bound Mr and Mrs Lusty, a bloated, gluttonous pair. When her husband dies abruptly, Mrs Lusty announces a grand funeral featuring the titular ham, a dramatic absurdity which doesn’t bear quite the same vulgar connotations it may have when White first penned the play in 1947.

The performances are uniformly strong: Dan Spielman brims with confidence in a daunting role, inhabiting the character while retaining its ambiguous status as stand-in for White himself. In contrast, the rest of the ensemble tackle their roles with a vigour verging on the (entirely appropriate) hammy. Julie Forsyth and Ross Williams are the grotesque landlord and lady of the Young Man’s lodgings, and their bawling, belching banter carries most of the piece’s comic weight. Forsyth’s Mrs Lusty is a delirious rendition of the monstrous feminine, the antithesis of the somewhat ridiculously angelic woman upstairs (Lucy Taylor), whose disembodied voice and spectral presence obsesses the Young Man. He finds his libido pulled in contrary directions by carnal Lusty and her lofty, intellectual opposite–the symbolism is laid on with a trowel. The Jungian figuration of these and other characters comes across a little creakily, and this is perhaps the one area in which White’s script has not aged well. At the same time there is a joyous eulogising of outdated theatrical forms. The Young Man asks us “Is this a tragedy, or just 2 fat people arguing in a basement?” The answer to that question, I expect, holds the key to your appreciation of the piece. Both Journal of the Plague Year and The Ham Funeral are actors’ pieces, and it would seem that the new Malthouse is very much an actors’ theatre.
Anita Hegh, The Yellow Wallpaper

Anita Hegh, The Yellow Wallpaper

Anita Hegh, The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper

Another work which used a classic text as the launching point for a performance testing the boundaries of theatrical convention was Anita Hegh and Peter Evans’ The Yellow Wallpaper at The Store Room. The slim volume written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1899 offers us a narrator confined to her room for a “rest cure.” We are made witness to her slow descent into madness as the room’s wallpaper begins to take on an hallucinatory life which mocks and mirrors the woman’s own incarceration.

Hegh’s performance is all in this production: a plain set and simple lighting allow us to focus on her hypnotic portrayal of a woman driven to hysteria by patriarchal dictates. If the style of presentation is not overly embellished, neither is it minimalist: Hegh’s monologue is occasionally interrupted by pre-recorded voiceovers continuing the narrative, and at times she dons a pair of sunglasses and grabs a microphone to continue her tale as a spoken word slice of punk protest. The performance is note-perfect, reverent to its source but willing to stray from it, illustrating the power of the performer to reinvest texts with new meanings.

Journal of the Plague Year, writers Tom Wright after Daniel Defoe, director Michael Kantor; performers Julie Forsyth, Dan Spielman, Lucy Taylor, Ross Williams, Robert Menzies, Marta Dusseldorp, Matthew Whittet; The Ham Funeral, writer Patrick White, director Michael Kantor; performers as above; Malthouse Theatre, April 11-May 8

The Yellow Wallpaper, based on the novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, director Peter Evans, performer Anita Hegh; The Store Room, Melbourne, March 15-April

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 29

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

Elise May, Brian Lucas, Churchill’s black dog

Elise May, Brian Lucas, Churchill’s black dog

Elise May, Brian Lucas, Churchill’s black dog

Beneath his gruff, no-nonsense exterior, Winston Churchill experienced a world of darkness and depression manifested in violent mood swings, emotional doubt and personal insecurities. Churchill called it his “black dog.” In a new work created by Clare Dyson in collaboration with performers Avril Huddy, Brian Lucas, Vanessa Mafe-Keane and Elise May, the dog takes centre stage. Churchill’s black dog is the result of Dyson’s tenure as artist in residence at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, and had its first public showing in Brisbane in April prior to a full production in Canberra later this year.

Churchill’s black dog attempts to choreograph depression and make physical the effect on sufferers’ family and friends. It’s an ambitious aim, but this collective of established Brisbane-based artists, working under the name Subject to Change, has created a strong exploratory piece that slips in and out of historical specificity (ie Churchill’s 1940s) to creatively respond to questions such as: what was the effect of the illness on Churchill’s wife or Virginia Woolf’s husband? Is the black dog a metaphor for conquest or acceptance; familiarity or ownership?

In an unsettlingly silent prologue, the piece opens with 2 naked bodies vulnerable against a brick wall. The stage is littered with autumnal leaves and, in a far corner, there is a bathroom. As a house’s inner sanctum, the bathroom harbours private turmoil and here Huddy silently flails in a bathtub of despair; while at a sink the everyday rituals of cleansing and shaving continue on empty faces.

The dulcet tones of popular 1940s music begin as a man in long johns (Lucas) hunches over a table purposefully reciting the micro tasks involved in the simple act of signing off and posting a letter. The process of naming and listing each action is a survival strategy, a way for this character–could it be Churchill?–to maintain a semblance of control over the present. Later, the table becomes a sanctuary, with the tall man curling into a foetal position beneath it while a voice-over narrates common familial refrains: “I am really worried about you…You can’t just lie there…You need to make more of an effort…You’re pathetic…You’re not trying hard enough…Sad and pathetic.”

Throughout the performance, the torment and anguish of the mind seeks bodily expression. At times, a well-worn physical vocabulary of mental illness is relied upon: anxious twitching, frenzied scratching and butoh-esque muscular strain. All 4 performers follow their own trajectories around the confined space, appearing not to see each other as they play with shadows and sweep up leaves. In theory, this individualised action seems appropriate to the dislocation and isolation of depressive illness, but the longer it is sustained, the more dissipated the energy of the piece becomes. Where are they taking us? Is the historical context meant to clothe each performer in character or are we meant to read this as an everyman/everywoman experience? The ensemble has worked together to create some strikingly original images and text but they are mostly disconnected moments–which is perhaps the intention. For the most part, the audience’s eye is drawn inexorably toward Lucas who best embodies mental turmoil with a startling clarity and fluidity of movement. With him, depression builds as a slow eruption from within.

There is brief respite in a series of delightful knock-knock jokes posed by Lucas as he sits inert facing a door. But the atmosphere soon darkens again as the performers gravitate together in a paranoid calling to the abyss: “Does it matter if you lose your favourite game?…Does it matter if you lose your mind?…Does it matter?” The choreography shifts to convey an angsty and torrid wretchedness. The solo energy that has characterised most of the performance finally becomes collective and, in turn, more forceful and compelling. We are torn from the 1940s as the performers drop and writhe in cold blue light. In time, each finds the fortitude to stand again and, although one woman continues to collapse, the overall image is of strength gained in a momentary togetherness. A sense of hope, perhaps, in the body collective?

Returning to the sepia light and wartime songs, the context turns historical once more. Churchill is in the bath, though he soon disappears. May sits at the table reading aloud from a newspaper: “Dr Genie’s tips for stress-free living.” Lucas reappears pushing the entire bathroom set-piece across the stage and turns it around, away from the public gaze.

We are left with the women, carrying on as usual with a public veneer of competence. Despite internal eruptions of their own, they continue with the laundry, with listing, with ordering, with dressing. Lucas returns to the open door to await the comforting arrival of a cat, but “the dog has come to stay for a while”–and in this performance we have glimpsed its true estranging effect.

Churchill’s black dog, creator Clare Dyson in collaboration with performers Avril Huddy, Brian Lucas, Vanessa Mafe-Keane, Elise May; lighting designer/production manager/photographer Mark Dyson; text advisor Gordon White; music Sia and Sunno; sound Chris Neehause; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, May 27-2

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 30

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

Opening his solo performance Nothing But Nothing, asylum-seeker Towfiq Al-Qady immediately engages his audience by repeatedly asking “Are you my friend? Can you help me?” The answer is yes, of course, but backed by a giant “NO” constructed on the otherwise bare stage of Brisbane’s Metro Arts Theatre, Towfiq replies: “Really, I want to stay with your yes. I have missed this word for a long time. But between yes and no I have spent all my life.”

With this the dramaturgical framework for the performance is established and, as a newborn audience-community, we bear witness to Al-Qady’s life story: a beleaguered search for ‘yes.’ From childhood dreams and youthful passions to a gruesome ‘choice’ of either becoming a refugee or being executed, we see Al-Qady as an artist and young lover keeping his dreams alive by rejecting everything about a war in which “beautiful things have no meaning.”

Born in Iraq, Towfiq Al-Qady is a painter, cartoonist, actor, writer and director. When he was young, his father, like many other adult men from his region, disappeared without explanation. This had an enormous impact: as Al-Qady explains in his performance, his “dreams were stolen.” When as an adult Al-Qady refused to join the Iraqi army, he was told that he could continue working as an artist only if he painted portraits of Saddam Hussein. Instead, he became a political cartoonist and participated in political theatre, mainly in Syria. Exhausting other avenues to freedom, he emigrated to Australia by boat and was recently held in Curtin Detention Centre for 9 months.

Al-Qady’s depiction of his time at sea is harrowing. Constraining himself within the oval “O” of the onstage “NO”, he plea-bargains with the boat and the sea: “Please, boat, help us…Sea, I like you but I am scared of you.” After enduring the vessel’s motor failure and a life-threatening lack of food and water, he joyfully dances at the long-awaited sight of land. Yet, perhaps as a measure of his graciousness, Al-Qady refrains from lingering on his experience as a detainee in Australia. While in the program notes he describes this period as “very hard” and “not healthy”, in the performance the experience is indicated simply by a short strand of razor wire and a barrage of bureaucratic questioning. Like the off-stage bloodshed of a Greek tragedy, we are left to imagine the pain. In a poignant portrayal of the double-edged ‘compassion’ of Australian authorities, Al-Qady rests his weary cheek against the sharp wire as he plays a waiting game: “Will you say yes? When will you say yes? I should wait? Sorry. OK.”

Currently living in Brisbane on a Temporary Protection Visa, Al-Qady continues to paint and create theatre. He is an active member of Actors for Refugees Queensland, an organisation which has raised awareness of refugees in detention with readings of Michael Gurr’s Something to Declare, devised in collaboration with Actors for Refugees Melbourne using text from detainees’ letters. Nothing But Nothing takes this awareness-raising a step further by creating a unique opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. Strongly supported by Brisbane’s Iraqi community, Al-Qady’s performance allowed for vibrant post-show discussion with his diverse audience.

Nothing But Nothing lays bare Towfiq Al-Qady’s tortuous journey facing a series of ‘nos.’ Yet this artist’s resilience, passion, and ultimate dream of peace make this performance remarkably optimistic. Nothing But Nothing is infused with Al-Qady’s positive attitude, while refusing to shy away from the immense physical and emotional toll this journey has had: “The war destroyed everything: my life, my love, my heart…My dreams become very small, alone, empty…NO–you are a very small word, but you have a very big impact on my life.” If only this performance was mandatory viewing for Australian politicians, they might finally realise that, in Al-Qady’s words, “I do not make me a refugee. War makes me a refugee.”

Actors for Refugees Qld, Nothing But Nothing, writer/performer Towfiq Al-Qady, musical accompaniment Taj Mahmoud, directorial assistant Leah Mercer, Metro Arts Theatre, Brisbane, May 10-1

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 30

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

Katrina Gill, Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, Politely Savage

Katrina Gill, Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, Politely Savage

Katrina Gill, Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, Politely Savage

The last few months have provided some inspirational performances, not something that can be claimed very often of the always hard work of making art, but when companies of young artists like Sydney’s My Darling Patricia and Melbourne’s Squealing Stuck Pigs Theatre realise haunting visions that thrill with their meticulous crafting and assuredness, the pleasure is palpable, the word is good and faith in the future of performance is restored. Both companies mix their media into a seamless totality–performance as installation, acting, movement, puppetry and film. Add to these the work of Matthew Lutton in Perth (p37), version 1.0 in Sydney (see RT68), Lucy Guerin’s Aether (p14) and the new lease of life for Melbourne theatre in the form of Michael Kantor’s Malthouse (p29), and the sense of possibility, of invention and renewal is pervasive.


Politely Savage

This is a very, very strange experience. We are greeted in the tiny PACT foyer by 3 young women (Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Katrina Gill) all a-flutter like 50s cocktail hostesses in matching full red dresses, high heels and fixed smiles, speedily distributing bland snacks, cheap champagne and snippets of party banter. A nearby crash plunges them quaking into shocked silence, a sudden nervous fragility revealed, a crack in the façade followed by brisk recovery. A no-nonsense housekeeper (Cecily Hardy) arrives, announcing that she will be our guide, and leads us into the PACT performance space to encounter…a house. A very complete 2-storey ruin of a house through which we are led, first down a corridor of tattered wallpaper, splintered timber and embedded signs of life–old postcards, photos and clippings. Our hostess speaks ominously of someone who once lived here, a dry woman in a dry landscape, waiting to be flooded with feeling as much as with rain. She recalls the flooding of the Todd River in Alice Springs every decade, always leaving behind unidentified bodies. Our transformation is well underway, from innocent party guests to guided visitors, to curious confidantes.

We are led into a claustrophobic, dimly lit dusty room where our giddy girls appear in sombre mood to show a film (silhouette puppetry of a child barked at by increasingly monstrous and interchangeable women and dogs) and to act out 2 grim little vignettes with puppets. The first skinny puppet child plays with blocks, throws them away, becomes anxiously aware of us, is strapped to a chair, blind-folded and left, only to make a furtive escape. To the sound of wonderfully mock-Japanese music (toy piano, a high-flying voice) the second child puppet, with its outsize moon-face, is painstakingly, agonisingly coaxed into walking by its red-dressed manipulator, but then cruelly dumped. Dust pours down from the ceiling, instant karma perhaps, over the woman. She remains impassive. Shocked, we are taken upstairs.

We find ourselves on a rooftop looking deep down into the house, into a pool where 3 bodies float face down in water. Our hostesses in petticoats. The frightening vision expands, the walls are mirrors, and we are observed–a girl sits by the pool, lifelike, but, we soon sense, a mute witness, a statue, There are signs of life in the pool, the women slowly emerge and climb the stairs. They pass by like ghosts, treading a narrow bridge over the void to a newly revealed bright field of long grass into which they sink, only to be resurrected on film in their red dresses, movance & dramaturgy Chris Ryan; PACT Youth Theatre, Erskineville, Sydney, April 20-30 ing into the far green distance. As in Noh theatre, we have been entertained and then haunted by the dead–our hosts are ghosts, but have been released from their purgatory of drought and repression (with its child victims) into idyllic pastures.

Now you might not want to reflect too deeply on all of this: it’s iconic gothic Australia–Picnic at Hanging Rock, lost children, The Ghost Wife. The power of Politely Savage comes from its consummate realisation and the idiosyncratic way it deals with these familiar images, making them strange once more. It would be an astonishing achievement for any performance company let alone an emerging one. The performance is considered, carefully shaped and its personae and rhythms meticulously realised and sustained. The 4 young women (Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan and Katrina Gill) who comprise My Darling Patricia wrote, performed and designed the work, made and operated the puppets (with the assistance of Sam Routledge), built the set and collaborated with a team of artists. A blend of performative styles, puppetry, film and sound, the live-in set for the audience with its alarming changes of perspective, all suggest a confidence in practice and vision. As for the title, it’s just right, Politely Savage, well-mannered gothic–mythic rural darkness beneath suburban veneer.

Christopher Brown, The Black Swan of Trespass

Christopher Brown, The Black Swan of Trespass

Christopher Brown, The Black Swan of Trespass

The Black Swan of Trespass

With a like sense of totality, vision and conviction, Melbourne’s Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre create an intimate and inverted but seductive world, and with Australian iconography again at the core. While My Darling Patricia built a house for us, Stuck Pigs have created a tiny old-fashioned stage world (red curtain, foot lights, pedal organ) for a small audience, using only half the space of Belvoir Street Downstairs. Such intimacy is just right for this fantasia in which writers Chris Kohn and Lally Katz present the creations of the anti-modernist hoaxers of the Ern Malley affair as cartoonishly real: the dying, mechanic poet Ern and his sister Ethel. Their grim, restrained lives and Ern’s bursts of creativity, pain and unrequited sexual desire are framed by the hoaxers’ narrative (Harold Stewart and James McCauley hilarious as a stuffed cat and rooster respectively), period songs from a fine crooner (Gavan O’Leary doubling as Ern’s mosquito antagonist, Anopheles) in a tux and a musician (director Chris Kohn) on organ and guitar. Christopher Brown as Ern is all quivering, junked-up vitality in a performance that is physically virtuosic and which, against the odds of the poetry that pours from him and the ruin that is his life, becomes increasingly real. So too does Ethel (Katie Keady) as she reveals her quiet possessiveness for Ern and her fear of the world. And the poetry makes better sense than its customary rejection as mere parody or the acclaim for its inadvertant modernist achievement by 2 significant poets. Ern’s naivety, his verbal fecundity, his delirium and his desires, the popular songs that haunt him, and a dark Albert Tucker milieu (especially in Princess [Jacklyn Bassaneli] the goddess-whore of Ern’s affections) churn and meld, vomiting up lines from his unconscious that the poet can barely grasp as his own.

The Black Swan of Trespass has enjoyed success in Melbourne (where it returns soon to a Malthouse season), New York (where it picked up a NY Fringe Festival prize and an invitation for the company to return) and now Sydney. Aside from wanting more integrated roles for the singer and musician, I found this an exhilarating work, both in its theatrical inventiveness and its creative response to the Ern Malley story.


The New Breed

The Melbourne based National Institute of Circus Arts made its first visit to Sydney with The New Breed, featuring final year students in a demonstration of individual and collective skills. The show was directed by Brazilian circus artist Rodrigo Matheus with choreography by Carla Candiotto and NICA’s Guang Rong Lu directing the circus routines. Loosely centred on the theme of miscommunication, especially when it comes to love, The New Breed entertained on many levels with a judicious distribution of expert solo routines and duets, verbal and sight gags and sudden surges of collective action keeping the show well-paced and rhythmically engaging. Hoops, stilts, bungy, trapeze and bicycle work kept soloists busy. A worker casually climbs chairs stacked by his mates indifferent to his spectacular balancing. Particular challenges came in the execution of routines while engaged in conversation (a xenophobic paranoid niggles at a slack wire artist) or while being verbally abused (a man balances virtuosically on bricks which are later snatched away by an angry woman). A woman reflects on love while adroitly manoeuvering a giant wheel, herself at its centre.

Some of the best and most confident collective work involved the tall poles distributed across the space. Performers matter-of-factly scaled them, sometimes travelling upside down, or leapt from one to another with simian ease, or kicked each other to the floor in climbing competitions to the strains of a grand waltz. One of the most effective scenes took the shape of a fight between 2 gangs. Tautly choreographed it involved dramatic gesturing and sudden flights through and over a fence, comic moments in which individuals find themselves on the wrong side, and bodies appearing to be magically sucked back through holes in the fence. Other crowd moments, like the repeated pedestrian routine where walkers took on ever stranger animal-like and insect shapes and movements, worked well, but not so the group juggling with clubs, which faltered badly and seemed to breed a wider nervousness early in the show.

The New Breed proved to be a promising advertisement for an important institution. Although unevenly scripted and acted (not all of these performers are going to excell here and nor should they have to), occasionally flawed in skill execution and sometimes too thematically loose, the show kept its audience eager for more and the performers were rightly rewarded with generous applause.


PVI: TTS: Australia, Tour of Duty

The Perth-based PVI new media arts collective focus their gleeful attention on the impact of the Australian government’s response to terrorism–it’s an excuse for an open assault on civil liberties. Despite the sombre mood induced by being lined up for TTS (Terrorist Training School), checked over and checked in at Performance Space prior to boarding the bus on a tour of Sydney’s terrorist target hotspots, the tone soon switches to madcap. We’re sworn in like fascistic Cubs and, once on the bus, we find our leering guide is masked, half-naked and has a severely limited vocabulary. In case of accident we are instructed to “wait until the smoke reaches your chest” and, helpfully, “not to fuck with daddy.” The video entertainment in the tiny bus is a protracted performance art account of interchangeable terrorist/anti-terrorist training replete with brutal body scrubbing, explosives detailing and associated gruesome tales (our host cackles at an incineration story). For the duration of the trip we can’t escape the video. It’s torture, perhaps not PVI’s intention, but a pertinent thematic side-effect. However, we are gratefully distracted, if anxious for, the ‘red man’ in track suit and runners who pursues us across the city, catches up and crouches in a start position for the next leg of the journey. His is a surreal presence as we course through the city.

At Hyde Park, while watching balaclaved tai-chi practitioners and a police car cruising around the fountain, we are told that the park’s fig trees are highly flammable, and we are given our first ‘pop quiz’, which includes guessing what kind of burns you get from battery acid–2nd or 3rd degree? We indicate our answers with the provided card, but our success at getting the answer right is not confirmed, here or in most future tests. It’s that kind of educational trip.

Of the locations we visit, the Opera House is the most memorable on a couple of counts. First, the lights are out, like some war-time blackout; it’s one of those rare nights when no shows are on in the building. From the far side there’s a sudden burst of fireworks from some event or other. Then it’s dark again, Small groups of determined tourists and security guards with dogs look on as we follow the instructions from the headsets we’ve been given, creating a weird collective miming of bomb chucking at the Opera House. We’re not arrested. When we’re parked outside Centrepoint Tower, a passerby traps her heel in the pavement, creating a momentary 2-way diversion between performers and public. Snaps are taken. Beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge we are joined by a host of PVI extras who fling themselves to the ground, as if reacting to an explosion we have not sensed. But unlike the Opera House moment, we’re observers more than participants.

There’s more to this trip, a few more locations, more quizzes, and, at one stage, a tougher (“smiling is not permitted”, “losing is hateful”), sonically-distorted guide who briefly ups the terror tension when he replaces our loopy host who goes off to send our protest postcards to the Telegraph. Looking back on it, TTS was impressive, a logistical and performative challenge involving all kinds of police, council and security negotiations and management of a cast of extras from the Sydney performance scene. There were striking images, like the red man and the initial impression of our tour guide, or the extras dotted across the already dramatic Sydney cityscape, or our own performance beneath the Opera House. Some more moments of heightened participation like this would have been welcome. What disappointed was the sense of a show petering out as we headed to the terminus. Our host seemed lost for words, there were no PVI staffers to receive us at Performance Space, the bar was closed, there was no dialogue, no post-mortem on the terror scenario we’d shared. And whatever happened to the mysterious red man? However, despite the desire from time to time to scream, “Is there a dramaturg on the bus?”, it was a trip worth taking, not least for its mad mocking of the anti-terror regime. The accompanying TTS: Australia Critical Reader, edited by Bec Dean, proved a highly readable bedtime substitute in the absence of a de-briefing.



The Song Company’s latest Easter celebration is the first part of a projected trilogy, a music theatre creation that merges song with dance as singers and dancers move as one; interpolates the responsories of Gesualdo’s nocturnes for Passion week with Jeremiah’s Lamentations in plainchant; and gradually and ritually extinguishes the light. The audience crowds onto the Sydney Town Hall stage, witnessing voice and movement fill the vast dark space before them. But the core of the performance is intimate and sensual, the performers joining us on stage, their bodies entwining, forming a constant flow of images–sudden non-literal evocations of collapse, the wrack of pain, the lowering from the cross, the laying out of the dead and the pieta. Kate Champion wonderfully and distinctively through-choreographs the performance, ever attentive to the demands on the singers but integrating them seamlessly into it, their brave bodies raised, lowered and embraced; they, in turn, shaping the dancers. The singing is immaculate, refulgent with Gesualdo’s idiosyncratic blend of the chaste and the sensual, and like images are realised in the movement with the fall of hair, a look into the audience, the care that becomes caress. Song Company Easter events are now a significant part of the cultural calendar: the collaboration with Champion’s Force Majeure and the ambition of the trilogy are welcome for believers and atheists alike.

My Darling Patricia, Politely Savage, created by Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan, Katrina Gill; performer Cecily Hardy, puppeteers Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, additional puppet-making Bryony Anderson, lighting Richard Manner, sound Phil Downing, music Marcus Teague, Phil Downing, film Sam James, costumes Jade Simms, Kirsty Stringer, Tanya Aston

Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre, The Black Swan of Trespass, writers Chris Kohn, Lally Katz, director-composer Chris Kohn, performers Christopher Brown, Katie Keady, Jacklyn Bassanelli, Gavan O’Leary, design Danielle Brustman, sound Jethro Woodward; B Sharp, Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, April 14-May 1

NICA, The New Breed, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 4-15

PVI Collective, TTS: Australia, created by Kelli McCluskey, Steve Bull, Kate Neylon, Chris Williams, James McCluskey, Christina Lee, Jackson Castiglione with Jason Sweeney; Performance Space, Sydney, March 17-27

Song Company & Force Majeure, Tenebrae Trilogy–Part 1, musical director Roland Peelman, artistic director Kate Champion, lighting Sydney Bouhaniche; singers Clive Birch, Richard Black, Tobias Cole, Mark Donnelly, Ruth Kilpatrick, Nicole Thompson, dancers Tom Hodgson, Shaun Parker, Katerine Cogill; Sydney Town Hall, March 28

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 32

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

Thomas Cauker, Passport to Happiness

Thomas Cauker, Passport to Happiness

The third 10 Days on the Island arts festival celebrated the richness of island cultures through a diverse program presented in locations across Tasmania, from Flinders Island to Couta Rocks and Southport. Modelled on a Spiegeltent and made in New Zealand, the Pacific Crystal Palace on Hobart’s Parliament Lawns provided a new focal point for the festival and a venue for world music, cabaret, theatre, forums and a late night lounge. Sue Moss reviews 4 productions from the main festival program.

The Garden of Paradise

Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s production of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Garden of Paradise (1839) is based on the premise of promise. A raked bare stage leads the eye upward to an imagined garden. A prince begins his obsessive search for a mythical garden described by his grandmother. As in all inter-generational tales her story is leavened by partial truths and exaggeration. She warns him not to become mesmerised by the magical flower. His task is to carry a message from the phoenix. If he fails to deliver it the garden of paradise will disappear.

Jason Lam animates his body so that it doubles as dancer and puppet. Lured by his grandmother’s story the young prince walks too deeply into the forest and becomes captivated by the alternately visible and invisible fairy princess (Emee Dillon). Too wilful and brash to grasp the distinction between myth and reality, the prince obsessively follows the fairy princess into the cavern of the 4 winds.

The prince’s journey is told through the magic of silhouette puppetry against a stage-wide diaphanous scrim. Constantine Koukias’s sound score, including a harp played live by Christine Sonneman, evokes an ethereality associated with magic and other-worldliness. This is a subtle production, with director Benjamin Winspear deploying the performers as both stagehands and puppeteers, the ambiguity of roles enhancing the sense of mystery and strangeness. Lam and Dillon’s forest pas de deux is redolent with power, memory and forgetfulness. The garden of paradise sinks into the earth and the prince wakes on top of the tallest tree. After failing to deliver the message he is banished to the mortal world. Another cycle of 100 years begins.

Tempting Providence

Tempting Providence is based on Robert Chafe’s finely crafted biographical script. It is the story of British nurse Myra Grimsley (Deidre Gillard-Rowlings) living in the isolated community of Daniel’s Harbour after signing on for 2 years as the only nurse on the remote coast of Newfoundland, where she remains until her death at 100. Entering this lonely and isolated world, Grimsley practises duty without sentiment, observing “there’s nothing that catches my eye or my peripheral vision.” The nearest doctor is 200 miles to the north. The islanders fear Nurse Grimsley yet need and appreciate her medical skills. She brings efficiency and officiousness to her task of ministering to injuries while assisting in an unusually high number of breech births. Only later does she make the connection between the number of babies being born feet first and women in advanced pregnancy repeatedly leaning over to harvest and lug potatoes before the onset of winter.

As the seasons change so does Nurse Grimsley. While caring for the Daniel’s Harbour community, there are times of loneliness and doubt, a sense of absence and emotion “as still as the grass.” Despite this ambivalence, it is the shared commitment, strength and generosity displayed by 8 men who assist after a saw-logging accident that removes her uncertainty. This mercy dash involves reattaching her brother-in-law’s near-severed foot and trudging 100 kilometres through winter snow to reach the nearest doctor. Nurse Grimsley enters the province of providence and stays. Her story is performed with nuance and precision by Theatre Newfoundland Labrador.

The Island of Slaves

The theme of exile continues in The Island of Slaves, local writer-director Robert Jarman’s adaptation of Pierre Carlet de Marivaux’s 18th century work first performed in 1725. Stories located on islands often involve inversion of existing social hierarchies. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies to the Reality TV of Survivor, this inversion results in the emergence of behaviours characterised by experiment, foibles and violence. De Marivaux commented on the uncertainties that arise when class and social protocol are sufficiently challenged to disturb the optimism of the Age of Reason. This in-the-round production by Tasmania’s Big Monkey Inc places 4 castaways (Brett Rogers, John Xintavelonis, Susan Williams and Noreen Le Mottee) on an island beach. Tutored by an island resident and former slave (Les Winspear), roles and rules are reversed. Each begins to usurp the protocols and behaviours of the master and servant relationship. The result is vengeance, mayhem, farce and ultimate redemption.

Passport to Happiness

Passport to Happiness is the story of Thomas Cauker from Sierra Leone, who fled his home in Bonthe on Sherbro Island to spend 3 years in a refugee camp before arriving in Tasmania. Cauker’s story conveys the reality of a contemporary and terrifying inversion of reason. It is told through video and visual theatre, physical performance, percussion, poetry and narration.

Set in the claustrophobic confines of a shipping container, Cauker tells his story by enacting the joy and ease of life on Sherbro Island. Invasion by rebels and subsequent deaths, family dispersal and existence in a refugee camp dramatically alter his life. Cauker inhabits a world of khaki tents, open pit toilets and frustrating UNHCR bureaucracy. He inscribes his name beside hundreds of others on the metal wall of the container and waits for the processing of his passport and the eventual realisation of his dream. Refugees, he observes, are like shipping containers. They do not know where they will be “dropped down.”

Directed by is theatre’s Ryk Goddard, Passport to Happiness is direct and powerfully engaging. In the opening sequence Cauker offers water as a blessing and a welcome to the narrative of his life. We sip and proceed to witness Thomas Cauker’s journey of tragedy, despair, humour and renewal.

Ten Days on the Island, director Elizabeth Walsh, artistic advisor Robyn Archer, Tasmania, April 1-10

The Garden of Paradise, director/co-writer Benjamin Winspear, artistic advisor/co-writer Scott Rankin, choreography Graeme Murphy, puppetry director/designer Ann Forbes; puppeteers Tim Denton, Kirsty Grierson; dancers Emee Dillon, Jason Lam; Theatre Royal, Hobart, April 1-3; Tempting Providence, writer Robert Chafe, director Jillian Keiley; Playhouse Theatre, Hobart, April 1-5; The Island of Slaves, writer Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, direction/adaptation by Robert Jarman; Hobart Town Hall, April 3-6; Passport to Happiness, performer Thomas Cauker, director Ryk Goddard, Salamanca Square, April 8-10

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 34

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

Darcy Grant, This Text Has Legs

Darcy Grant, This Text Has Legs

Darcy Grant, This Text Has Legs

Circa’s latest work This Text Has Legs blends contemporary circus, improvisation, music and multimedia. The audience is invited to leave their mobile phones on and their text messages are projected onto a screen and incorporated into the performance. This evokes the rare feeling that what happens on stage is at least partly in your hands.

Fumbling in the dark for your mobile, you break one of theatre’s traditional taboos to be rewarded by the temporary thrill of seeing your tiny private message projected onto the screen for all to see. This level of mild titillation is what initially grabs your attention. You want to know who wrote “2moro i will be reborn as a chicken”, or “CSI Toowoomba cow abduction unit.” There is also the constant question of the degree to which the performers’ actions are responses to the SMS messages.

More than anything, this is a performance that thrives on accumulation. At first it seems like nothing more than a highly skilled Viewpoints exercise, an interesting use of time, space and gesture. Initially this is purely mechanical, as if the audience is watching a warm-up. What becomes clear is that this is also the audience’s warm-up period. The first 20 minutes or so was a texting rehearsal, and as we got better so did the performance.

It’s a show in which the performers’ actions–the usual expertly executed circus tricks (juggling, jumping through hoops, skipping on a unicycle, doing the splits on a tightrope)–are secondary to what the audience does. When the SMS “is the other lady only part time?” appeared on the screen, “the other lady” (Rockie Stone) moved more centrally into the action. Her series of ‘Strong Woman’ stunts prompted another SMS: “I bet she could kick your ass part time.” From this point the to-ing and fro-ing between audience members, and between audience and performers accelerated until after a particularly stunning trick it culminated with the message “part timer you rock my world.”

The set piece was what I’ll call the ‘Patrick Swayze’ episode. It began after a particular trick when the SMS “i saw that in dirty dancing” led to a running gag centred around the movie. How this unfolded demonstrated the possibilities of improvised interaction. Suddenly the soundtrack is Swayze’s She’s Like the Wind, one of the performers is quoting from the movie and an SMS is asking “whatever happened to patrick swayze?” For an audience rarely authorised to exercise their creative muscles, the power of making narrative choices (or not) dawns on them slowly. It only really became clear after the event when, considering all these moments together, a predominately whimsical performance experience now seems more lively and lucid than it did at the time.

It’s both a revolutionary way to enrich the connection between audience and performance and a revolutionary way to order beer, like the smart arse who texted, “may i have another boags please?” And that’s just it; you’re at the mercy of the audience, they can raise or lower the tone, or most likely keep it hovering somewhere in between.

Circa, This Text Has Legs, artistic director Yaron Lifschitz; performers Darcy Grant, Chelsea McGuffin, David Sampford, Rockie Stone; composers Zane Trow, Lawrence English; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, March 22-26

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 35

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

Lone Twin

Lone Twin

Lone Twin

Sydney-based performer Rosie Dennis appeared at the third National Review of Live Art held in Midland just outside Perth. The parent festival, directed by Nikki Millican is based in Glasgow. Dennis performed her Access All Areas at NRLA in Midland and, on return, kindly met our request to describe the works in the festival that interested her. Eds

The UK’s Bobby Baker opened this year’s National Review of Live Art in Midland with Box Story. For those unfamiliar with Baker’s work she almost always works with food and adopts a housewife persona: Box Story begins with Baker lugging on a huge refrigerator box in very high, very expensive, very uncomfortable electric blue shoes. The box is full of other boxes: a wine cask, washing powder, matches, juice–about 10 in total. Each box comes with a personal anecdote attached, most of them tragic, ranging from the trivial (a failed perm) to the bleak (the death of her father). The contents of the boxes are used to make a map on the floor. The mess she has made comes to represent the world. Individual dark chocolates (from the final box) are thrown amongst the mess to represent the innocent victims of incest, of plane crashes and of wars.

Baker has a cheeky stage presence; she’s got a great smile and wins the audience over within the first few minutes. However, the structure becomes a little tired, especially since all 10 boxes are revealed at the beginning. After only 30 minutes I find myself counting how many remain.

Lone Twin (Gary Winters and Gregg Whelan), also from the UK, have been making work together since 1997, most of it involving walking and some of it dancing. Sledgehammer Songs is a culmination of the stories collected on their travels over the last 4 years. It evokes the mystery of the medicine show, the poetry of pub rock, the loneliness of the European busker, and the drawings of the great and the cursed.

We are invited to stand outside under rain threatening clouds, just as Whelan, dressed in thermals, gloves, hiking boots and layers of polar tech, finishes dancing. He’s been dancing for about 40 minutes, to 21 songs taken from a tape Winters listened to as a child: a guitar practice tape with no lyrics. He’s hot and sweaty. We are each given a cup of water. Cat Stevens’ Wild World blares from the amp and Whelan strips off, inviting us to throw water on his body. He is trying to make a cloud. We watch as condensation rises from his shoulders. Success! From that moment he is known as Gregg The Cloud.

The performance moves inside. We walk the length of the great Midland Hall–about 200 metres–and settle in to watch the 21 stories. Only this time the roles are reversed: Whelan narrates and Winters dances. Winters’ aim is to become Gary The Cloud (at the moment he is Gary The Revolver). During the next 80 minutes there are bull rushes, Bruce Springsteen and tales of lost love. All the while Gary The Revolver dances, adding more layers of clothing and dancing more and more complex choroeography. Finally we are invited outside again; the temperature has dropped and the sky cleared, making way for the clouds that now rise above the shoulders of Gary The Cloud.

Singapore’s Lee Wen has been performing variations of Yellow Man since 1992. We arrive and sit in a semi-circle of chairs. He is already standing in the space. He has objects laid out in anticipation: a paper bag, a plastic shopping bag full of PK chewing gum, local newspapers, a branch and yellow paint. He is quiet and intense. Over an hour Lee Wen moves through each of the objects on a clear trajectory, from punching his fist in the air inside the paper bag, to filling his mouth full of PK–causing him to dry retch–while repeating the mantra: “the state domesticates the artist as soon as the artist calls the state home.” He undresses, revealing an extraordinary body; perhaps the worst scoliosis I have ever seen. This serves to heighten an already politically charged and provocative performance. He uses his shoes as fists and beats himself, one cheek and then the other until his face is dusty and red. The branch is used to whip his tired body. I look around at the audience, people are wiping tears from their eyes. This was a beautiful and deeply moving work; although created 13 years ago many of Wen’s images seem more relevant than ever.

Cat Hope’s Voyeurgers (Australia) is a contemporary investigation of the journey. The work consists of travel footage Hope shot over the last 5 years. Ten distinct journeys are projected onto 10 bare backs to stunning visual effect. Each body sits on top of a 44 gallon stainless steel drum. Each has a voice recorder in their mouth to amplify the sound of wind. The audience moves in and around the bodies, invading the personal and metaphorical spaces of Hope’s travel memories…

Other works presented at NRLA worth mentioning are Grace Surman’s Midland White (UK), a quirky and whimsical take on the assistant, ever ready to serve the non-existent master. She popped toast, crunched apples and chased rubber balls. Bangkok-based Varsha Nair unpacked, stacked and built shapes from her childhood house in in-between-places. Croatian artist Zoran Todorovic gave the audience the opportunity to have their hands washed by 2 Serbian women, using soap made from his own body fat. A photographic installation accompanied this durational performance. Canadian sound artist Alexis O’Hara closed 2 nights of the festival with I Require Electricity. Outfitted as a nurse and plugged into her sampler she attempted to answer our questions–some more successfully than others.

There was a strong line up of Australian artists this year, most of whom had attended the national laboratory Time_Place_Space. A blindfolded Domenico De Clario performed Codependent Arising: bathed in blue light, he played piano from midnight until sunrise. Carolyn Daish offered 2 video installations, caravaggio heart and You Can’t See Me, exploring the play between the projected and real self in space. Kerrin Rowlands invited us to adorn her naked body with objects that included bunny ears, shaving cream, a cap gun and pegs in Rastro (meaning residue or canvas in Spanish). Anne Walton stretched time and lycra, moved ladders and shaped space in her time-based projection installation per:former, assisted by sound from Michelle Outram. Collectively they added texture to a festival that allows artists from the UK, Asia and Australia to exchange ideas about practices and politics, and present provocative new work.

The National Review of Live Art, curators Sharon Flindell, Andrew Beck, Nikki Milican; Block 2, Midland UK; April 8-1

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 36

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

For the first time, the hybrid arts research and development laboratory, Time_Place_Space, makes strong regional connections with its choice of visual artists Shigeaki Iwai from Japan and Ahn Pil-Yun from Korea as facilitators, joining open-air performance maestro Threes Anna from the Netherlands and Australian facilitators Derek Kreckler, Elizabeth Drake and Teresa Crea.

Shigeaki Iwai’s recent works deal with communication and multicultural phenomena in cities and rural areas, often involving long-term fieldwork and extensive filming. For Dialogue, Iwai filmed speakers of 58 languages across Europe and Asia between 1996 and 1999. His works incorporate sound, text, video, and installation. He has exhibited internationally and across Japan. He lectures at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

With Korean shamanistic rituals at the centre of her work Ahn Pil-Yun attempts to transcend the social constraints on the artist at the same time engaging with computer technology to explore issues of cultural identity in a globalised world. Threes Anna is a novelist and filmmaker “who creates visual stories based on extreme places and circumstances”, and was artistic director, writer and director of Netherlands’ site-specific theatre company, Dogtroep, from 1989 to 1999. The company’s largely open air performances, drawing huge audiences, have been staged on the remains of the Berlin Wall, at the Winter Olympics in France, in the slums of Uzbekistan and on an artificial lake at the World Expo in Seville.

The artists who are attending T_P_S4 represent a spectrum of practices from physical theatre to sound art: Greg Ackland (SA), Kirsten Bradley (VIC), Sohail Dahdal (NSW), Sam Haren (SA), Noëlle Janaczewska (NSW), Elka Kerkhofs (NT), Jason Lam (NSW), Fiona Malone (NSW), Stephen Noonan (SA), Simone O’Brien (VIC), Abigail Portwin (NSW), Bec Reid (Tas), Sarah Rodigari (VIC), Jodi Rose (NSW), Yana Taylor (NSW), Ingrid Voorendt (VIC), Sarah Waterson (NSW), Tim Webster (VIC). RT

T_P_S4, curators Teresa Crea, Sarah Miller, Fiona Winning; produced by Performance Space; Adelaide Centre for the Arts, July 9-24; www.performancespace.com.au/tps

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 36

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

Michelle Fornasier, The Visit

Michelle Fornasier, The Visit

Michelle Fornasier, The Visit

Swiss-German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s (1921-1990) work has recently entered the English language repertoire, much as George Büchner’s did before him. As a result Dürrenmatt’s place within European dramaturgy has been much debated. He is typically identified as reconciling Bertolt Brecht’s political theatre with the moral-cosmic dramas which Martin Esslin proposed as the basis for his existentialist reading of Absurdist theatre. Under this uneasy alliance, Dürrenmatt’s The Visit is placed alongside Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, their complex meanings being distilled into a critique of the ease with which the individual submits to social pressures and becomes complicit with fascistic aggression, violence and retribution.

The Visit is certainly a moral allegory. The now fabulously wealthy Claire Zachanassian returns to the debilitated town she was driven from as a pregnant and abandoned youth, with no recourse in law to appeal her unjust expulsion. She offers to give the town a billion marks if they kill her former seducer, Alfred Ill. Despite their initial horror, the townspeople gradually succumb and rationalise their decision. But is this all the play has to tell us? That money corrupts, that poverty speaks, that justice is a sham, that few individuals can resist the tide of communal violence, craving and complicity? This is not a new message, now that, as director Jonathan Miller describes it, the “mixture of excrement and edelweiss” which underwrote Austro-German fascism and its lingering aftermath has been repeatedly identified.

In his production for youth company BSX Theatre, director Matthew Lutton does not reject this interpretation. The climax of the staging is the final town meeting in which the schoolmistress–the last to hold out against Ill’s execution–argues with force for its moral necessity. This differs from Simon Phillips’ 2003 Melbourne Theatre Company version, which climaxed with the last, somewhat reconciliatory visit to the woods by Ill and Zachanassian. Phillips rendered Dürrenmatt’s social satire as a humanist drama of love lost. For Lutton, the piece remains a drama of ideas, a portrayal of (sub)human conversion.

Lutton offers more than just dramaturgical doodlings in the textual margins to realise this on stage. His production is non-realist and highly dynamic. A pair of screens at the back are adorned with blown-up images beamed live from a camera resting inside a sad little grey model of Guellen’s railway station suspended from the ceiling above the action. The lack of colour in the image and the station’s hard, blocky architecture suggest indifference and inevitability. Actors periodically retrieve this object and move it forward, before the camera is finally collared about Ill as he commences his death march.

The stage begins awash with clothing, as though a flood of detritus has clouded the theatrical space, before Zachanassian’s arrival reawakens the populace. Zachanassian brings a coffin with her, which periodically grows along with the townspeople’s complicity. Chairs and tables are moved about by the cast to serve as miniature hierarchical stages.

There are other performative flourishes: a pleasing evolution of colour in costuming and make up and open wings where the actors are seen changing. One could ascribe meanings to these motifs, interpreting the central space as a kind of cabaret of moral decay, but in the end there are too many devices to fully cohere. The train arrives in Guellen as a dazzling floodlight is rolled out from behind the rear screens. It passes back and forth several times before Zachanassian’s silhouette steps through. This is a great image, creatively solving the problem of how to represent the train. However, the exaggerated posing of the cast every time it goes past, like refugees from Gustave Munch’s The Scream, is an ostentation on top of an already established sense of doom.

Lutton is not celebrating a sense of theatrical excess or purposelessness, as Daniel Schlusser did with the carnivalesque exaggeration of his 1999 Melbourne production. There is nevertheless a sense of sheer performative invention spilling over the sides of the moral, political and cosmic meaning implied through the spoken text. By staging so much, Lutton makes the production exceed its stated import, performing for us without leaving us quite sure what is being performed. While this may not be intended, Lutton’s overweening theatrical imagination complicates the play sufficiently to add an engrossing sense of unease regarding the now commonplace and hence banal interpretation usually ascribed to The Visit, cutting through these interpretive traditions to suggest something more arresting.

The Visit, writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, director Matthew Lutton, BSX-Theatre, Melbourne, May 10-28

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 37

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

The Lens Project is an ambitious attempt at delineating the relationship between literature and performance, while ruminating upon the mind of a man who has lived an uneventful life. Leonard Stone, a fictitious Melbourne spectacle maker, is the central character of a real book by Megg Minos. Seven days after the book’s launch, Leonard is the subject of a performance written and directed by Willoh S Weiland.

At the book’s launch, the author sells copies of Lens from piles on a trestle, but this is really Leonard Stone’s show. Objects indicating Leonard’s past are precisely arranged throughout the space. A city made from cardboard, Leonard’s home in miniature, a varnished wooden case containing various types of spectacles, and a delicate piece of lace. As those attending engage in raucous chatter, a woman appears, glides through the audience, sits in a chair and mouths words from a recorded song. Drenched in nostalgia, her voice wafts in and out of earshot: a memory from the life of Leonard Stone. Meanwhile, a technician has set up a microphone stand, only to return and dismantle it a short time later. Like the furtive imagination, Leonard Stone is enigmatic, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, until I am quietly informed by the technician that Leonard’s life story has just been launched.

In the book, Leonard Stone’s entire life is on display: his birth in a rural town, the death of his father, Leonard and his mother moving to Melbourne, the First and Second World Wars, and the economic opulence of the 1950s. Within these personal and historical episodes further detail is extrapolated: Leonard’s mysterious illness, the family home as convalescence facility for returned servicemen, Leonard attending university, then opening a spectacle business. The 2 constants in Leonard’s life are his ubiquitous mother and his failing sight. In contrast, Leonard is introduced to the spectrum of light, initially by a convalescing painter, and then a university physics lecturer.

Leonard senses the possibility of life as an artist–perhaps a writer–only to be pressed into a career as a spectacle maker. Irma, his literature loving friend from university escapes to Egypt, and Leonard is left alone to trudge the streets of Melbourne in the winter of his years. The book ends with him meeting the apparently blind woman Grace. Upon this meeting Leonard Stone is: “…calm and free from the dialogue of eyes.”

How can a book that covers a time frame of 50 years, populated by 12 or so characters across several locations, find expression in a performance of 40 minutes? This project implicitly asks how is literature made theatrical? What should be included and excluded in the transition between literature and performance?

The staged version shifts between Leonard Stone’s business premises, the streets of Melbourne, Leonard’s home, and a rowboat on a river, without a designating word. The performance excludes the 2 World Wars, uses a dress to indicate the omnipresence of Leonard’s mother, and centralises the character of Grace, who is a minor character in the book. Leonard’s existential fear in the performed version finds expression in a spatial configuration that swings between intimacy and alienation, isolation and obsessiveness, with astute, considered performances from Merfyn Owen and Nicki Paull.

The Lens Project, writer-director Willoh S Weiland, writer Megg Minos; performers Merfyn Owen, Nicki Paull; fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, March 23-April 2

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 37

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

Debon Dwyer, Close to the Chest (Breast pads and T-shirt transfers)

Debon Dwyer, Close to the Chest (Breast pads and T-shirt transfers)

Alice Springs has always been a crossroads for travellers, explorers, seekers and pioneers. The surrounding space, the clear air and the shimmering colours of the landscape inspire adventure, challenge perceptions and inspire artists.

Watch This Space, a local artist run initiative, has been a centre for creative action during the 12 years since its inception. Its current space in George Crescent is near the railway station where the Ghan pauses on its way across the continent. There is a large gallery with studio spaces for artists out the back.

It began in 1991 when artist Pam Lofts, who had majored in sculpture and installation at Sydney College of the Arts, came to make art about country. She had exhibited at Sydney’s First Draft and knew of 24Hour Art in Darwin but found there was nothing similar within a 1500 km radius of Alice. Anne Mosey had lectured at the College of the Arts and moved to Alice in 1989. She’d been involved in a community pottery gallery in Glebe and the Old Flour Mill Studio in Newtown. Jan Mackay and Angela Gee, artists from Redback Graphics who’d come to Alice, were missing Sydney’s contemporary arts activity.

Initially they met in each other’s homes to talk about work in progress and then about finding a gallery space as a network focus. They were interested in experimental work and no-one had their own studio at that time. Pip McManus, a ceramicist who had moved to Alice, was asked to join the others and put in a joint proposal to the Australia Council. The 5 artists needed a shared studio to play around and experiment in, with exhibition space.

A charter was drawn up stating that it was essential that Watch This Space be an artist run space; it would provide a forum for works in progress and resolved works; it was not only for fully fledged professionals but a non-commercial space with no pressure to sell; it was to host an exchange between artists around Australia and internationally with 50% local and 50% visiting artists. There was a strong emphasis on collaborations and all media. In 1993 they were granted $7,500.

Pam discovered the ice factory, a cobwebby, concrete-floored industrial building down a small alley behind Mbantua Aboriginal Gallery, in the heart of town. The rent was low and huge working bees were organised during the hot January of 1994.

The name evolved from the potential for something to link with the space in the desert. This first space matched the original vision as it had installation possibilities and hanging space. It would nurture exposure to artists practising cross-disciplinary art who came through Alice. Everyone was excited and keen to show. There was often a show a week in the early days.

A curatorial committee was established and in 1997 and WTS became incorporated. Many local artists have served on the committee since. It has a huge following in Alice as an ongoing participatory community event for everyone in town interested in art.

Local artists exhibit and explore ideas and artists come from the coastal cities to share their work. There have been too many events to detail fully, but some memorable ones include: a performance by Tess de Quincey and later her Triple Alice workshops; Alice Prize winner, Chris Barry’s green bra installation which later expanded into a photographic exhibition entitled Country: I come from a Big Breasted Woman and Soft Skin; and Jenny Taylor’s Rooty Tooty All’s Fruity celebration of the desert blooming.

As Mbantua Gallery grew, WTS had to find a new space. Smarter premises were found off Todd Mall with a back office but less creative space for experimental work; still the amazing exhibitions continued.

Following Pam Lofts, co-ordinators have included Christine Leonard from Aboriginal Arts, Cath Bowdler, who moved on to run 24Hour Art, Harriet Gaffney from the commercial art world, and Catriona Stanton, a new media artist who first appeared in the Space one hot summer night performing Gutted and Filleted in a diving suit among real fish and blocks of ice.

Adelaide trained installation and performance artist Joy Hardman joined the committee and brought in Sue Richter, a graduate of the SA Art School who had explored new media and performance art since the 1970s and studied at the AFTRS in the 1980s. Shows in that period included Joy’s video installation and performance exploring the assumed emptiness of the Centre; the striking photographic works of Michael Riley (sadly missed); Ruark Lewis’ Water drawings: red yellow and blue from his Raft installation based on text from Arrernte Songs translated from German and English by Strehlow; Siamac Fallah’s durational piece transferring Bahai sacred texts into a 9-pointed star; Anne Mosey’s Might Be on the sorrow and harshness of Aboriginal community life; Indonesian installation and performance artist Dadang Christanto producing with local performers the highly political and heart wrenching Reconciliation; the Artists’ Camp in the ancient dry Finke River bed beyond Glen Helen with visiting artists John Wolseley, Kim Mahood and Wendy Tiekel as well as locals. Where works were produced on site, artists gave talks and work from the camp was shown at WTS.

Then WTS had to move on again due to high rent and lack of funding. The committee and members searched for more appropriate and affordable space–but the art did not stop. Over the years many events have evolved in non-gallery spaces. Works in the Outsite sculpture competition were shown in the Desert Wild Life Park; Passage, a collaboration between Catriona Stanton, Sydney poet Tim Doon and local filmmaker Declan O’Gallagher was projected at the old drive-in cinema with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop; artists’ camps, music and sound events have been staged in the dry river bed; The Red Shoes ensemble’s site-specific performance of Unspun traversed the landscape of descent out among the rocky hills beyond Alice.

For a brief time the Space paused in a house on Stuart Terrace. Isabelle Kirkbride co-ordinated an amazing members’ show which attracted 250 people on the opening night. The present Space was found by the sculptor Jbird (who died tragically last year). Ben Ward took over the co-ordination of WTS which now includes studio space for members to rent. The opening exhibition was the video and sound installation Lalila from the Solar Polar new media and alternate energy event in Tasmania.

Last year the co-ordinator was dancer Anna Maclean. Shows included Sue Richter’s retrospective of experimental video and TV dramas over 2 decades; the What is new media art? forum with visiting speakers; Rendezvous, a collaboration between local visual artists and writers; and Sue McLeod’s paintings and prints of desert scenes, dogs and camels.

The present co-ordinator, Kieren Sanderson is a new media artist who studied film at Griffith University where she made digital photography and video works. She’s organised Multiverse, a new media exhibition opening in June. It will bring together her collaborations with Scott Large and work by 3 visiting artists (Janet Gallagher, Anne Maree Taranto and Amanda King) who are all coincidentally making the overland journey to the Centre.

People involved with Watch This Space over the years feel it has enabled their arts practice to expand and grow in a way it could not have done if they had worked alone. They feel the dialogue between Alice, interstate and international artists is important and needs to grow. The town of Alice Springs and the country of Central Australia attract people of energy and vision so WTS survives as new, enthusiastic artists involve the community and push boundaries and arts practice. Everyone knows more funding is needed but WTS should continue as an artist run initiative with grass roots objectives and opportunities to encourage the diversity of experimental and contemporary arts practice. Artists from everywhere are encouraged to get in touch.

Watch This Space, 9 George Crescent, Alice Springs; wtsalice@bigpond.net.au,
wts@wts.org.au; www.wts.org.au

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 41

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

Topshop, Berlin

Topshop, Berlin

In 2004 Australian artists created cheap multiples for sale under the title NUCA (Network of Uncollectable Artists), their droll ‘salespeople’ appearing with cases at art events around Australia. Adam Jasper reports on a like venture in Berlin, though initially in a shop, but now online. Eds.

There are benefits to a depressed real estate market. Along the northern extension of Berlin’s iconic Friedrichstrasse can be found an array of abandoned shopfronts, derelict warehouses and despondent government buildings. Specialist stores have made way for $2 shops, which in turn have shut their doors and papered over their windows. In their wake, galleries of a diverse nature have colonised the city, taking advantage of the cheap rents and desperate beauty that a decaying urban environment provides.

Topshop is a movement set up and run by a group of Berlin artists whose project bears witness to the capriciousness of a marketplace that has alternately indulged and neglected them. For 2 weeks of September last year their flagship locale was one of Friedrichstrasse’s failed dime stores. Modelled on an imaginary supermarket chain, the store was decked out with wire shelves, products helpfully highlighted by ‘Magenta Spot’ specials, 99c bargain tables and special offer corners.

A Topshop is different from an ordinary supermarket in a number of ways. Firstly, instead of tight regulation of prices in line with supply and demand, original work is sold at an arbitrary price by the artist, with the emphasis on the absurdly cheap. Topshop artists tend to produce Fluxus-style multiples–usually small, cheap objects that have been manufactured in limited runs. The way they are sold follows the financial logic of mass produced commodities (pile it high, sell it cheap) but their production shares in the logic of exclusion associated with fine art (the object is the unique work of an artist). Samples and failures, as well as misguided concepts and mistakes, are sold for 99c a piece.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Topshop encourages the unrestrained copying, appropriation and modification of artists’ work. In the discount area, the exhibiting artists are free to decide which objects they will classify as “material for reproduction”, but any work under that classification can be photocopied by shoppers at machines near the checkout. This cheerful encouragement of brazen piracy is offered as a sort of defence against the assault of industry on the last bastions of avant garde notions of authenticity and originality. Industry appropriates innovations so fast that it is impossible for innovators to keep up. If it’s impossible to be authentic, because being original means owning a pair of Chuck Taylor Originals, then one might as well camouflage one’s self with inauthenticity, with derivative ideas, with objects and concepts so far removed from their origins that they don’t have owners anymore, and consequently can’t be sold.

Many of the pieces enter into an explicit, knowing and mocking dialogue with the notions of value, price and prestige that inform the economics of the art market. Christian Romed-Holthaus, for instance, sold his artworks–small, egg shaped concrete sculptures–by weight, as if they were fruit. His work then becomes not so much the objects as the act of selling art as if it were primary produce.

Another play on the economic relations of supermarkets and their standardising power was made by Inga Zimbrich with her European Day Trip Bar Coder. The barcoder draws on an archive of generic experiences within European cities to generate a completely normal looking EAN–compliant 13 digit barcode recording the events of your day. Within the archive are all the activities, locations, methods of transport and equipment that might feature in a day trip, as well as descriptors, ranging from hectic to placid. An unintended advantage of the bar coder is that any standard bar code also corresponds to a random set of experiences. This means that ordinary consumables gain a set of connotative experiences. Weetbix will always be linked to a maudlin day in a sultry Athens with an umbrella and bicycle. Your day or someone else’s, it barely matters.

One potential criticism of Topshop is its overt inclusiveness. Photos, clothing and pranks make repeated appearances. Catherine Shea’s garishly coloured badges declaiming “Saying It Loud Makes It True” made sense, in that they are designed to be smuggled into stores and left for consumers in a reverse form of shoplifting that both commodifies the artwork and reduces its price to zero. However the contribution of Berlin duo Good and Plenty just seemed a joke, although admittedly one in the Fluxus vein: Genuine Yakuza Slippers, consisting of 2 concrete blocks and a belt. However, as Ulrike Brückner (who along with Sabine Meyer is Topshop’s convener and founding member) pointed out: “The exhibition contained works of vastly differing aspiration. We were initially concerned that this would result in the denigration of some of the more serious works. But it was actually quite the opposite; the result was deeply exciting. To see these works of varying quality next to each other–for instance, a piece of museum-shop giftware next to an artwork with a rigorous conceptual content–had an astonishing effect. The statement of the artwork only became stronger” (my translation).

Chicks On Speed, the art school electroclash band and erstwhile darlings of New Musical Express were also prominently featured in Topshop, perhaps as representatives of the Berlin art scene currently most favoured by the vagaries of commerce. Chicks On Speed sold their new book It’s a Project in conjunction with their new album 99¢ (I couldn’t establish whether this album is named in honour of the Topshop bargain tables). Both book and music are marked by a pronounced DIY aesthetic, as if Chicks On Speed were never meant to be a real band, but a fake approximating a pop sensation better than most real bands. They also feature the only current Australian contribution to Topshop: band member Alex Murray-Leslie.

So is Topshop political art or a trendy prank? Collective vision or agglomeration? Futuristic or retro? Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ of the 1920s (a bottle drier, a urinal, a snow shovel) constituted the most corrosive assault on pre-modern assumptions about art, but paradoxically also embody one of the few art manoeuvres that has never tired. They assert the peculiar right of an artist to simply declare their output art, as if by fiat. It is a strategy that reaches its dialectical endpoint in Manzoni’s 1961 Merda d’artista (the shit of the artist) but has not ceased to resonate as a tactical possibility. But the commodities sold in Topshop are not exactly readymades. As Dieter Daniels (Professor in Art History and Media Theory at the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig) observed at the Topshop Panel Discussion:

“The readymade is a mass produced object that has been isolated from its kind. It is released from the masses, taken off the shelf, and set upon the stage as something unique. The multiple…is something produced in high numbers by an artist and could potentially end up in a shop, on a shelf.” (My translation.)

It is therefore in Fluxus that the Topshop movement finds its appropriate historical roots, in the creation and dissemination of ‘limited edition’ artworks that are sold at such low prices they refuse to be identified as artworks, and are instead confused with prank objects, objets d’art, and novelty gifts.

In August a workshop on Topshop will be held at Estonia’s Art Academy of Tallinn. Readers are encouraged to investigate the Topshop concept further and, in line with the official Topshop endorsement of piracy, are welcome to franchise, steal and misuse it.

Topshop, Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, September 16-26, 2004,

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 42

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

Dennis Beaubois, Constant (video stills)

Dennis Beaubois, Constant (video stills)

Recent video portraiture evokes the stillness of photography, but also includes minimal facial movement over limited duration. The line between stillness and mobility blurs with potent effect. We can still attend to detail in the same way we respond to photographs, reading the idiosyncratic textures of skin, bone structure and the expression that suggests personality. But slight movements on video and subtle expressive changes provoke new musings and re-readings.

When I saw the Asialink-ACMI touring exhibition, I thought I knew but I was wrong, in Singapore as part of MAAP04, I was absorbed by a number of makers’ attention to faces: Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s volatile child subjects in Forced into Images (2001); Lyndal Jones’ weeping men in He Must Not Cry (2004); David Rosetsky’s morphing subjects in Without You (2003-04); Marcus Lyall’s patient victims of food assault in Slow Service (2003); and the vivid ‘gallery’ of family faces in Ivan Sen’s Blood (2002). These are very different works but the duration of each maker’s gaze allows us the luxury of intense familiarisation and, as well, most of the subjects look back at us in the tradition of much of classic portraiture. The children in Forced into Images are reserved, lively and agitated in turn, but we are with them long enough, even when they are masked, to immerse ourselves in interpretation. Sen’s video is a very different matter, a welter of home-video faces and bodies, intensely re-coloured and overlaid, but with rhythms and repetitions that soon suggest the recurring physiognomies of blood relatives. These videos and others–the gentle turnover of faces with their eyes shut as if sleeping in Merilyn Fairskye’s Eye Contact (2000)–suggest a reinvigoration of portraiture.

Face Value: video portraiture from the Pacific at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney takes portraiture face-on. The standout works are in fact the ones that work close to tradition, allowing us duration, attentiveness and the curious pleasure of being eye-to-eye with an absent subject. Lyndal Jones’ He Must not Cry is again on display, if on one screen (as opposed to its multiscreen and more effectively theatrical presence earlier at Artspace) but still drawing painful attention to the effects of weeping (incipient or repressed) on pores, blood vessels and the soft tissues around mouth and eyes, as well as on the whole, wrung-out demeanour as some subjects abandon saving face.

Denis Beaubois’ Constant (2004) offers a familiar idiom, faces morphing one into another, but does it with such precision and sensitivity that the transition from one life-size face to another, even from one race to another, goes unnoticed until it has passed you by, consumately making its point. Constant suggests a shared human face, beyond the distinctions and politics of race, but without ever sacrificing the individual idiosyncracies of its 11 subjects. There are 1,000 transitional frames in the movement from just one face to another in Beaubois’ digital video. Constant’s dialectic is that it is never constant, but always so. John Gillies’ remarkable My Sister’s Roomm (2000) is built from humbler and very different transformations made by the artist holding a video camera in one hand and photographs of his late sister in the other. The photographs pixelate into shimmering yellows and golds and the occasional wavering of the artist’s hand eerily triggers apparent movements in the face. The work becomes a moving meditation on the act of looking at photographs.

James Pinker and Mark McLean’s South video documentation 01/02 (2003) at 60 minutes liesurely, even meditatively, superimposes engaging video portraits of Maori couples, friends and families over the urban landscape of South Auckland as shot from a moving car, while Vernon Ah Kee’s whitefellanormal (2004) at 30 seconds is a stark if poetic face-to-face encounter with dispossession. Christian Thompson appears as famous alter-egos in Gates of Tambo (2005) but the photographic series of the same work is preferable for the intensity of its not always ironic vision. The other works in Face Value are all interesting in themselves, especially in introducing us to New Zealand artists, but curatorially represent a 90s explosion of the concept of portraiture that has little bang left. Face Value is nonetheless a fascinating starting point for reconsideration of a genre.
Panos Couros, Omphalos

Panos Couros, Omphalos

Panos Couros, Omphalos

At the nearby Kudos Gallery, Panos Couros’ Omphalos is an engrossing, immaculately crafted installation comprising a circle of seven 2-metre tall, elegant, white ceramic urns with a smaller one at its centre. Sound swirls through the gallery: long, ethereal notes, distant voices, a rush of wind, tumbling water, a soaring chorus. The sound is everywhere, emanating it seems from nowhere, until a voice speaks from the central urn inviting you to approach, to face down into it and ask a question. A surge of sound is followed by an answer (from a selection made by the artist from various divinations). I ask, “When will the drought end?” The oracle replies: “Make a serious commitment to your new project.” I resolve to pass this advice on to the government. A friend is quite taken with his response.

By the entrance there are explanatory notes about the Oracle at Delphi which inspired the work and, intriguingly, a small Byzantine statuette of Mary and the baby Jesus. In a work that combines classic ceramic skills (Neville Assad-Salha) and computer-driven interactivity (Adam Hinshaw, Alex Davies), Couros juxtaposes the era of the oracle with our own information age, raising questions about belief. Belief aside, Omphalos (Greek for navel, and for the oracle at the centre of the world), is an engaging, contemplative multimedia experience.

Face Value: Video portraiture from the Pacific, curators Rilka Oakley, Annabel Pegus; Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney, April 14-May 14 and touring

Panos Couros, Omphalos, Interactive Sound Installation; Kudos Gallery, Paddington, Sydney, April 20-30

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 43

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

Leah King-Smith, Buttons (from Beyond Capture series), archival inkjet on cotton rag

Leah King-Smith, Buttons (from Beyond Capture series), archival inkjet on cotton rag

When the discourse surrounding archival ethnographic photography came under the control of Indigenous artists and writers in the 1980s and 90s, modes of representing and deconstructing Aboriginality moved out of the hands of white Australia for the first time. In her Patterns of Connection series (1995), Leah King-Smith was one of many contemporary Australian artists to engage with 19th century ethnographic archival photography. This recombinant, ‘Indigenous’ media art, colliding with the visual culture of Australia’s colonial past, did much to reveal the mediated nature of Indigenous oppression and present a cogent visual history of the camera’s constructions of whiteness.

However this late transition in Australian visual cultural discourse aligns the camera itself with a suspect politics; furthermore, the success of these artists in exhibiting and communicating their work to the burgeoning postcolonial consciousness of white Australia has presented new anxieties. Leah King-Smith finds ways around the camera’s historicising functions as a means of liberating herself from the ‘onus of representation.’ Her latest works continue the process of excavating and re-framing colonised visual cultural histories. However, by connecting her practice with visual cultures and colonial histories outside of the Australian imaginary (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), and by increasing the degree of abstraction with which this iconography is treated, the terrain of her inquiry becomes more personal, ambiguous and arguably universal.

King-Smith’s Beyond Capture series (2004) consists of 10 cotton rag prints constructed with the artist’s signature layering technique. Landscapes and native plants are juxtaposed over fragments of nearly imperceptible images of Koori figures painted from photographs. The prints Buttons, Dresses and Ferns employ the same 19th century ethnographic prints used in the aforementioned Patterns of Connection series (1995); they exude a similar ghostly presence here. Interestingly, this is achieved by merely referencing fragments of those earlier photographed figures. Liminal Interstices: The crevice in ambiguous space (2005) is the artist’s most recent work: a 12 minute animation in 9 sequences, composed from drawings, sound, analogue and digital photographs, digital prints, and Super 8 film (and unfortunately drained of much colour by the high light levels of the exhibition space). Nine digital lamda prints from the animation take up the last wall of the exhibition space.

In Liminal Interstices… ghostly, animated photographs of Australian native plants and grasses double over the surface of equally transparent historical images and cultural icons. Kitsch Singaporean tourist pamphlets of colonial era paintings–of urban landscapes, and of Singaporean women in traditional dress (collected by the artist from street stalls on a recent visit)–form the background to many of these juxtapositions.

In the Sand sequence, line drawings made in sand on a beach and captured in colour photographs squiggle playfully over a colonial era painting of HMS Lady Nelson (1879). This ship was captained by John Murray during his celebrated discovery of Port Phillip Bay over the French, who had set out to explore the same coastline during this period. A shadowy figure with a walking stick appears momentarily, looking on–but to which era? Skewed temporal references to events within early colonial paintings are repeated in Sky, where a modern window frames a lithographic depiction of settlement by French artist Deroy, a prolific lithographer and engraver of historic events within the colonies (Singapore, the South Pacific, and even North America). Both of these paintings were sampled by the artist from the online exhibition Why Melbourne?, a quaint, didactic journey through the maritime adventures and settlements of Victoria’s colonial past.

Beyond the disconnected historicity of these references it is possible to detect a tentative narrative interconnecting the notion of chance and the interpenetration of (visual) cultural languages (Indigenous/settler, ‘Pacific’, ‘Singaporean’), with a philosophy of perception in which the past is coexistent with the present. Soundscapes by the artist’s partner, Duncan King-Smith, shift from tranquil environmental ambience–birds, insects, grasses and foraging noises–to more ominous, momentous sounds of church bells, drumming and thunder. The interplay between sound and image constructs a presence beyond the frame, thereby building upon the sense of ambiguity and the experiments with under-representation evident in the artist’s double-exposed digital cotton rag prints. In an interview King-Smith discusses her new engagement with time-based media as a continuation of the conceptual focus of her cotton rag print-making:

The intention is that these digital prints are all moving. We don’t see them as moving, but they are, and my idea here [in the animation] is to have them moving–these are all animated photographs. When people look at my work they have a static sense of time in an aesthetic sense, a formal sense. So the animation has become a psychic enterprise…for the soul, rather than engaging very established terminologies and aesthetics.

King-Smith talks about the trajectory of her practice as an intuitive leap away from the monotheistic drive of Western thought, into a personally constructed poly-cultural aesthetics, using found images and scraped mirror surfaces to explore simultaneity as a philosophy of perception. This emphasis on simultaneity is rooted in the artist’s own double-exposure to Koori (mother) and white Australian (father) cultures, and the irreconcilability of this double-autobiographic experience. The new injection of Singaporean visual culture into Liminal Interstices… further deconstructs the binaries within discussions of King-Smith’s practice, and works against the specificity expected of Indigenous Australian artists in their artistic references to spirituality and place. By consciously constructing a sense of ambiguity the artist intends a conceptual and perhaps political strategy of movement around and through categories of identity, and multiple historical truths, as much as an abstraction away from them. King Smith explains:

The issue is really about the prevalent view that several views can operate at the same time. That is what ambiguity is. Meaning might shift from here to there, depending on whatever psychic framework is operating…and that’s why I’ve called this Liminal Interstices…, because an interstice is a crevice or a place right on the ridge between something which is beyond our threshold of perception, and it only just makes it into our understanding. That’s what I am trying to navigate. And it seems like it is perfectly alright for me to do that. But at the same time it’s very hard for me to claim that ideology–it’s always shifting or I’m always trying to find what those terms are.

Leah King-Smith, Liminal Interstices: The crevice in ambiguous space and Beyond Capture; QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, February 17-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 38

© Rachel O'Reilly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

James Lynch, Earliest Memories (2004, installation)

James Lynch, Earliest Memories (2004, installation)

James Lynch, Earliest Memories (2004, installation)

Like so many towns in the Western Australian wheat belt, Kellerberin is dissected by the Great Eastern Highway. Two and a half hours east of Perth, it is a strange and remarkable place in which to find oneself, particularly in the context of producing art. The International Art Space Kellerberin Australia (IASKA) program, initially set up to support international contemporary artists from non-English speaking countries, now includes a broader range of work. This year’s program and exhibition, curated by IASKA director Marco Marcon has grown from an 18 month series of residencies and includes a range of Australian artists.

The title of the exhibition, From Place to Space, proves to be a surprisingly accurate description of the process and ultimate manifestation of the IASKA project. Most of the work traverses the playful and personal, but there’s also a sense that the artists are trying to capture something that is slipping away. Perhaps they have found this to be the inescapable destiny of country towns, where populations are ageing and younger people are leaving in record numbers. Ironically this may also be why Kellerberin is so supportive of the IASKA project.

Some works in the exhibition are more successful than others. Wilkins Hill’s The Samboy International Challenge (2004) is oddly mesmerising: a video that contains a series of sometimes funny credits, facing a wall of incomplete circles under a green tent-like construction. If only the work was explored further, even in some accompanying text. Sadly it is the only piece in the exhibition where none is provided.

White Cock (2004-5) by Hayden Fowler is hard to pin down, but it stayed with me. I found myself enjoying the anti-aesthetic of his gold-framed video projection of a cockerel that crows and moves every now and again, despite being attached to its perch by a gold chain.

The most atmospheric work is Untitled (2005) by Anna Nazzari, the sound and quality of the black and white DVD akin to early Dada films. I was disappointed, however, to so quickly comprehend the narrative which explored the never-ending presence of the train-line that hugs the Great Eastern Highway.

Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy present Maintenance (2004), comprising large orange geometric shapes protruding from the portals of an abandoned farmhouse, as if a new support structure is emerging from within and taking over. Both beautiful and sad, this work responds eloquently to the dynamism of the surrounding landscape so often overlooked by the unsympathetic eye.

Youth Club (2005) and Afternoon Tee (2005) by Bruce Slatter are plinth-based models of recreational areas within Kellerberrin. Though beautifully constructed, something of the town and the artist seemed to be missing in this work–perhaps this is the point. I had hoped for more evidence of the complex social interweaving of these places–the tension between the memorable and the mundane experiences of outback life.

In Frontyards (2004), Izabela Pluta sensitively records the attempts by Kellerberrin residents to transform the red dusty soil of their front gardens to reflect the lives within. The photographic process she employs flattens the landscape from a bird’s eye perspective; bits of rubbish, children’s toys and rubble mingle with carefully tended plants, enlarged on 2 metre vinyl prints. Pluta makes us aware of the minuteness of detail and the narrowing focus that occurs when our frames of reference encroach on us.

Matthew Hunt reminds us that escape is in fact possible in Helipads (2004). The artist painted a series of helicopter landing pads on an abandoned concrete slab, formerly an engineering works that could not sustain itself. While dealing immediately with the population decline in rural areas, the work also makes reference to wider social issues of asylum and escape. In the exhibition Hunt displays 9 images of the site.

Tom Nicholson’s After a Marching Season, Kellerberrin (2004-5) is a work inspired by an image of local students holding a Union Jack on the occasion of George V’s coronation in 1911. The artist organised 2 banner marches through the town, which concluded with a communal meal.

Raquel Ormella focuses on physical remains. In Remnant (2004) she traces cardboard outlines of items she happened across in her journey through Kellerberrin’s streetscapes. These things are clumsily, but somehow carefully, depicted on cardboard while the names of birds who rely on the maintenance of local natural habitats for survival are painted over the work. The cardboard cut-outs sit casually propped up with water bottles like the set of a children’s play. Ormella is one of my favourite Australian artists and her work provides a whimsical but sinister dimension to the exhibition.

James Lynch’s Earliest Memories (2004) consists of 4 DVDs and a ‘stuffed log’ set up as a viewing platform for monitors sitting on the floor. This comic style runs through the video as well: like a collage, hand drawn animations interact with actual footage of the town focussing on the early memories of some of the townspeople.

The Nat and Ali duo presented 2 of what may be their last works as artistic collaborators: Honk 4 Art and Feeling Groovy (both 2004-5). The work contains all the self-mockery that has made their work so successful and unique. Nat, 7 months pregnant, dances along railway tracks in a bathing suit and cowboy boots in Feeling Groovy. Honk 4 Art, part of a video series produced throughout outback Australia, shows the 2 artists pitched with camping chairs and knitting needles on the side of the Great Eastern Highway, dressed in anything they could lay their hands on from the Kellerberrin op-shop and holding up placards to passing motorists and road trains.

IASKA is one of the only contemporary art spaces in Western Australia to regularly develop and tour exhibitions in regional Australia. From Place to Space had its shortcomings, but also featured some very strong work. The exhibition is a commendable demonstration of the range of ideas that can arise out of such a program. From Place to Space will tour to 13 regional venues around Australia in 2005-2006.

From Place to Space, curator Marco Marcon, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, March 31-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 40

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

Pat Brassington, Angel Lust

Pat Brassington, Angel Lust

Pat Brassington has on the tip of her tongue a taste for flesh and blood or, to put it mildly, the mysteries of physical presence. Compared with her images, words fail. Entering her latest exhibition, You’re so Vein, feels like falling into some powerful infantile fantasy. Here are partial views of the body, sensuous and disturbing maternal images from the subconscious rendered in soft focus, like dreams. I sink into the capacious lap and watch until, as in all memories from childhood, images morph into elongations, dismemberments, form little fetishes of mouth, hair, shoes, neck, pink-of-petal nipples, stockinged thighs, powdered feet. I make way for the fearful distortions, the leaks and slippages: animal appendage or human genital?; flesh, flower or fruit? Hybrid visions from when the world was one. All feeling. All sensation. I am the milk and the milk’s in me. Now I know why babies cry.

And who is behind these strange visions? At her Artist’s Talk at Stills Gallery, Pat Brassington reveals that she started out as a mature-aged student. Now one of Australia’s leading photomedia artists, she lives and works in Tasmania where she’s been practicing for 22-years. She is blatant about her role as an experimentalist which she sees as “not a bad thing to be.”

Her source material is mixed and heavily appropriated. As well as photographing her own body, she favours unidentified images by unknown artists and putting them together to make compilations “of previous lives.”
Pat Brassington, Vivian’s Spring

Pat Brassington, Vivian’s Spring

Apparently, there are some images that recur in her work: a foot, a red hand pressing on something, and a pillow (“a big lumpen thing”) that belonged to her mother.

Some of my favourites among her works are arranged in what might loosely be called ‘narrative series’ but Brassington sees this exhibition as the antithesis of narrative. Her work springs from early life experiences, she loves film, has been through her “horror” phase. There are too many influences to elaborate and they cross all artforms.

Some images are “straight” but in this exhibition, all except one are manipulated. For some time now, Brassington has been exploring the possibilities of pink, the tinted colours and tones of flesh. She’s experimented with the blue/green end of the spectrum but abandoned it.

Though the technology she uses might suggest otherwise, Pat Brassington works slowly. As she conceives her images, she and her partner (“like chalk and cheese”) must live with them over time. She likes to have them “in and around her.” With some in this exhibition, like the lolly pink ‘penis’, she thought, “That’s gross!”, but visitors to the house said, “I like that,” and it stayed. She’s interested in the personal, emotional responses of others. She doesn’t censor. She has a big reject file.

The enigmatic titles come last: Close, Until, Angel Lust, Topography in Pink, Varnish, Crush, Drummer, The Wedding Guest, Vivian’s Spring.

Pat Brassington admits to a penchant for the “uncanny”, that psychological space where things that are barely familiar are made strange. In psychoanalytic terms, she says, she might be assumed to have suffered some trauma. She doesn’t know what she’ll do next. It’s not concepts that lead her on so much as a reservoir of images and her intuition. And she’s hard on herself.

Entering the labyrinth of Pat Brassington’s exhibition reminds me of the seductive spaces of Jenny Kemp’s theatre, the installations of Sophie Calle or Lyndal Jones or Rosslynd Piggott, Monica Tichacek or Susan Norrie. “Entering a room of works by Susan Norrie”, says Victoria Lynn, is “like being engulfed in a temporal process of shifting ideas and curious connections that slows down our perception to a quiet and thoughtful pace” (V Lynn, “Laminae”, catalogue essay, Susan Norrie, AGNSW 1994). Tranquil or transgressive, these are female domains in which another kind of contemplation is offered. They are places that hum with possibility.

Pat Brassington, You’re So Vein, Stills Gallery, 26 Gosbell Street, Paddington April 20-May 21, 2005. Informal notes on the Artist’s Talk, April 30, provided by Stills Gallery.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 44

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

Joan Brassil was a late starter to investigative art practice, but she more than made up for lost time. While I never had the pleasure of collaborating with her, she had a longstanding collaborative practice of great distinction. Many who worked with her, the sound artists, musicians, dancers, scientists, filmmakers and other visual artists can attest to her gifts as a collaborator.

Her contributions to the whole fabric of cultural practice in Australia were multiple and varied. She was particularly supportive of emerging artists and women in the arts. Her practice was a great inspiration to countless young creative people. One of my great pleasures was to sit facing an audience of super cool young art students when Joan Brassil got up to speak about her work… You could almost read their minds, ‘Here come the flower paintings’… As she spoke, there was a pattern of recognition that began with disbelief and ended with uncool admiration.

For me, the most wonderful thing about Joan’s practice was that she shamelessly took her process right into the gallery when she was setting up an installation…This infused the work with a tremendous sense of the immediate, partly because of the risks of being creative in the here and now. As she collaborated with each person associated with the installation, they exchanged sensibilities, skills, humour and life experiences and the result was a unique poetic experience shared between them in the special time and place that is an installation in an art setting.

She responded to these unforseen, often serendipitous, encounters by improvising with them, which only the bravest and truest souls undertake because of the intensity and rigours of this kind of exposure. She was often totally depleted after putting up a work, because she often gave more than her body had in reserve. But after a few days rest, she was up and dreaming the next work. She revealed much of herself in her works, abstractly and poetically, bared for all to experience. And the response to her works matched her level of sensitivity and revelation.

Joan Brassil was a great storyteller. She once told me a story that over the years has become the abiding image of her spirit. She was out camping with her two young sons. They were staying on a bush property and sleeping under the stars on cots or in swags. She said the old bushy who was their host woke early and sprinkled food for native birds all around the sleeping Joan. At dawn, the birds began to feed, to fly in and out, surrounding her as she awoke. I have always thought that the bushman truly understood Joan’s spirit and her inquiring mind. At the same time that she was entranced by the beauty of native fauna she so loved and celebrated in her art works, she was no doubt thinking of the vortices in the air caused by wing movements and the aerodynamic lift of birds.

Our colleague and friend is gone now, we have only our memories of her. But our mentor lives on in the legacy of her works. We have the practice to continue to inspire us beyond ourselves. She lived the latter part of her life almost exclusively for art, she LOVED art (and frequently said just that).

Joan Grounds

Our thanks to Joan Grounds for providing at short notice this excerpt from her tribute to Joan Brassil which she delivered among many others who spoke about the artist’s life and work at the memorial gathering, Campbelltown Art Gallery, April 30.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 44

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

Thomas Buchanan, Paul Rohan, Viewing Point (video still), 2005

Thomas Buchanan, Paul Rohan, Viewing Point (video still), 2005

The work of Adelaide artist Thomas Buchanan hovers curiously between states. At first glance it seems firmly grounded in the traditions of representational drawing and painting. However, by colliding this mode with performance, video and animation, Buchanan manages to work both at the edges of drawing practice and within a traditional idiom.

In 1999, motivated by a passion for drawing and an ethic of accessibility, Buchanan began making drawings live in several of Adelaide’s nightclubs, accompanying bands, DJs and electronic musicians. Working on an ambitious scale, he creates ferocious drawings that resonate with the club environment and reflect the artist’s love affair with mark-making, gesture and rich, charcoal-dusty materiality. These drawings are held in a constant state of flux, erased and reworked until the last moment when the artist walks away. The drawings exist parallel to the music which is by nature ephemeral and experienced in the moment. The drawings are often perceptual, depicting their immediate surroundings, but frequently feature invented architectural spaces, like the work of Giovanni Piranesi re-imagined in an urban framework. Buchanan is aware of this lineage and also cites Jeffrey Smart and Edward Hopper as influences, evident in his definitively urban aesthetic and subject matter. However, the artist’s live drawing in particular suggests that the real subject of Buchanan’s work is drawing itself. His frenetic mark-making, fuelled by hundreds of visual decisions per minute, recalls artists like Frank Auerbach, Alberto Giacometti and Cy Twombly.

Early in his practice as a ‘performance drawer’ (for want of a better phrase), Buchanan began documenting the club sessions on video. He has since extended the video aspect beyond documentation into short films that act as adjuncts to his drawings, as well as being works in themselves. The videos are collaborative affairs, his primary partner being digital artist and filmmaker Paul Rohan. The videos also feature soundtracks from the bands that Buchanan accompanies in Adelaide’s clubs: in a nice reversal the musicians compose music to complement the drawings.

Using very simple and direct techniques, video works such as Viewing Point and Transition explore the artist’s fascination with drawing as a time based activity. The archaeological quality of Buchanan’s drawings, densely layered with strata of decisions and marks, suggest that for him, time is as much a material in his work as paper and charcoal. The medium of video has allowed the artist to manipulate elements of time, dissecting his process and compressing the evolution of a drawing over several days into a single event. Both the aforementioned video works have been edited to operate as loops and the films are cyclical in both form and content.

In Viewing Point a split-screen, time-lapse sequence shows Buchanan creating a large scale, heavily worked charcoal drawing, which then plays backwards to return to a pristine sheet of paper. In Transition, the artist ‘draws’ a line around Adelaide by filming a circular journey through the city, arriving back at his starting point. Interestingly, the loop is also the building block of much of the music that features in the videos and that fuels Buchanan’s live drawings.

The Transition DVD also shows Buchanan’s drawings passing through the filter of video and coming out the other side. The work segues between moving images, stills and transcriptions into charcoal drawings. In shifting these images from video stills to drawing, Buchanan carefully transcribes the properties of the video–the focus, resolution, light conditions and so on–into drawing terms. In other words, the quirks and imperfections inherent in the video inform the drawing in a rigorous and meaningful way.

There is a strong sense that Buchanan is entering a new cycle of work, one that seems to be propelling him directly to the heart of his concerns with space, mark-making and the conventions of drawing. In the self-produced documentary/promotional video Fusion, his friend and mentor Christopher Orchard speculates on future directions in Buchanan’s work and predicts that the artist will “probably walk into one of his own drawings and just wave as he passes through the picture plane.” During a recent visit to his studio, Buchanan excitedly described to me his upcoming video work Detour, in which he plans to do just that. Informed by William Kentridge’s remarkable films, 7 Fragments for George Méliès, Buchanan uses animation to enter his own work, playfully confusing real space with the notionally illusionistic space of his drawings.

Other works currently in progress include paintings–or perhaps more accurately, drawings in paint–on perspex, enabling the artist to view his surroundings through the drawing surface. This allows him to play further with space, transcribing the environment in a very direct way, while all the time watching for the slippages and nuances that cause the work to shift.

In testing his drawing practice in so many varied ways and in collision with so many other modes of working, Thomas Buchanan takes on the role of a speculative thinker, searching out an elusive synthesis of disciplines, media and sensory experience. Throughout this search he is constantly asking ‘how many states can the thing exist in?’. He answers this question with increasingly eloquent propositions on the elemental business of drawing. Buchanan’s work is a powerful assertion that artistic innovation lives in the attitude of the artist, not necessarily in the advance of technology.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 45

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

In response to the growth and strengthening of sound arts, the last 5 years has seen the emergence of numerous small CD labels. This survey, though by no means comprehensive, looks at several of the labels to see what they make and why, and if recorded sound art is finding a market.

One of the longest running experimental labels is Dr Jim’s Records. The Melbourne-based label was founded in 1990 by Jim Glaspole and Edgar Lee and features releases by prominent artists such as Tim Catlin, Adam Simmons Toy Band, Philip Samartzis & Rasmus B Lunding, Sean Baxter, David Brown, Tim O’Dwyer and various combinations of the above under the different monikers–Lazy, Bucketrider, Western Grey and Candlesnuffer. With 35 releases over 15 years, and an impressive international distribution network, Dr Jim’s is evidence that running an experimental music label is not complete madness

Synaesthesia has also proved a fine example for many of the newer labels. Encouraged by Peter Rehberg of renowned Austrian label Mego, Mark Harwood’s first release was Fennesz + Rosy Parlane Live @ Synaesthesia in 2000. Since then he has released a prolific catalogue of CDs and vinyl by artists including Anthony Pateras, Robin Fox, Snawklor, Dèlire and Canadian artist Tim Hecker–19 releases by the end of 2005. Of particular interest is their latest 4LP set by Marco Fusinato, 0_Synaesthesia. Fusinato is a visual artist who has produced 4 albums of nothing–no actual intentional sonic content–instead concentrating on drawing the grooves that are then pressed to vinyl. This is the commercial realisation of Fusinato’s prior gallery explorations. Harwood has solved some distribution problems, not only for himself but for many other labels, by expanding his vision into a record store (Synaesthesia is also the name of Mark Harwood’s store, a place of pilgrimage for all experimental music lovers visiting Melbourne), stocking a vast array of local and international releases. While he has secured international distribution he is not too concerned about the size of the companies he uses, preferring to connect with smaller communities rather than massive networks. Next up on the catalogue is the ‘bedroom explorations’ of Francis Plagne, a split 12″ by luminaries Bernard Parmegiani and Phil Samartzis, and an LP by Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood.

In Sydney, Dual Plover is the brainchild of the always surprising and usually extreme performer Lucas Abela who decided to create a label to document his own work and the projects that interest him. The first release in 1994 was of recordings of his kombi van. Now run by Abela and Swerve, the label seeks “artists who share a maverick attitude to music making. We have had everything from the electro pop of the Funky Terrorist to the splatter rap of Suicidal Rap Orgy and now show tunes from Singing Sadie.” Abela isn’t completely sure who the audience for this work is, “quite possibly because I never pandered to them to start with. I’ll happily press a disc without knowing if anyone would be interested in it.” But he believes that “people follow the label so intensely [because] they like the surprise of what’s next?” On average Dual Plover would press 500 units which in the past would take around 5 years to sell out. Recently the new titles have cleared in around 2 years. The label has just secured US distribution through Revolver and has small distributors in various cities in Europe. “You need to choose between small niche distributors that love your work but have minimal clout or a large distributor with wide distribution but too much to deal with to realistically promote your label.” Abela believes the solution is to “consider publicists to create a label profile or, better yet, tour as nothing is more effective in creating interest in music than playing live in front of people.”

Just approaching its fifth birthday is Brisbane-based room40, run by Lawrence English. English started the label because he had “come across some incredible recordings [that] weren’t seeing the light of day.” He describes it as a “friends and family label”, having a strong relationship with all the artists he releases, and looking for “projects that have a unique voice–something that sounds intense and focused. I feel that’s an important quality for a document to have…it lends it longevity.” As well as his own work his catalogue includes releases by Ben Frost, Erik Griswold, DJ Olive, Chris Abrahams, Rod Cooper and several limited edition live recordings with visiting internationals such as Scanner, David Toop and Maria Rosenfeld. English isn’t sure who the label’s audience is but feels that a lot of his sales are off-shore, although he does say about international distribution, “I’m not sure if we’ve made any [large] effect as such, just another dedicated boutique label focused on releasing sounds that excite us and adding another layer to the discourse on sound and new music.”

Associated with the impermanent.audio performance events is caleb k’s impermanent.recordings. He started the label feeling that “there were…very few Australian labels who support[ed] truly experimental music. As with the live scene here at the time there were one-offs but no Sydney-based labels.” In 2002 he simultaneously released Stasis Duo’s Hammer & Tongs and Peter Blamey’s Salted Felt. “All of the artists are somehow related to impermanent.audio. The label does not accept submissions, instead it invites musicians to release work.” Not just focused on Australian artists, last year saw the release of Toshimaru Nakamura and Brett Larner’s After School Activity–Toshimaru’s event Off-Site serving as the inspiration for impermanent.audio. Caleb K has no illusions about the audience for this type of work, admitting that it is small, moving around 200 units. “A-musik who distribute the label in Europe (through Germany) stated that they believed Stern and Guerra’s Stitch was the best experimental release of 2003 [but it] only sold a small number of copies in Europe. They are having a tough time moving any stock let alone a label of obscure Australian musicians. Basically I am dreaming of a format somewhere between a CD and a CD-R. 500 units is way too many for this music but I don’t want to go into CD-Rs.” Impermanent.recordings fifth release, Arek Gulbenkoglu’s Points Alone, will be out in the next few months.

Relative newcomers are Cajid and Nature Strip both emerging in 2003 in Melbourne. Cajid is the creation of Jacques Soddell who states, “we have a preference for composed rather than improvised music and actively seek women composers.” Cajid has released albums by Thembi Soddell (his daughter), Bruce Mowson and Lawrence English with a new one by Camilla Hannan and Thembi in the pipeline. 500 copies are distributed via the internet, Synaesthesia and at gigs. “[It is] very difficult to get a response (even a negative one) from international distributors, despite excellent reviews in major publications like The Wire.” Cajid is planning a 12-concert national tour to further promote the work and Soddell hopes to release video art in the future.

Nature Strip founded by Hamish Sinclair, and now involving Joel Stern, has a clear agenda–”works must have an inherent connection between the music/sound and the/their environment.” Nature Strip has 3 releases–solo albums by Tarab and Toshiya Tsunoda, and a compilation of Tarab, Tsunoda, Stern and Lawrence English with one by Loren Chasse due for release in 2005. While acknowledging the audience is small, Sinclair believes it is global–”without international distribution we would not exist.”

So predictably, the audience for this work is passionate but small. Is CD production for small labels really viable? This is a question that Shannon O’Neill, founder of Alias Frequencies is tackling. Alias Frequencies was “founded in the late 90s after bad experiences (as artists) with other labels. We are driven by a love of interesting and under-appreciated music, but…we keep expectations low and don’t make promises we can’t keep.” The house genre tends to be “electronic music with a collage aesthetic.” After releasing 4 CDs (some with additional computer playable video) and 2 CD-Rs by artists such as his own duo, Wake Up and Listen, Puzahki, Hinterlandt and Rik Rue, O’Neill has decided to concentrate on “MP3 releases published on our website and distributed free through p2p [peer to peer], audioblogs etc.” Instead of paying, there will be an option to donate via Paypal, although O’Neill is realistic about how successful that will be. He justifies this approach–”Only a tiny proportion of (popular) artists have ever been able to make a living from CD sales alone…So far we’ve lost money releasing CDs which leads to cashflow problems, which slows down the release schedule. By releasing MP3s instead we can keep costs down [and] release a lot more…digital propagation of music is the underground musician’s best distribution option at the moment…The CD format is dead. Files are the future. Music recordings want to be free.” Bold rhetoric–it will be interesting to watch the development of this new strategy.




RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 47

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

While the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) functions primarily as a traditional concert ensemble, it also presents performances that explore the possibilities of placing a live orchestra in a multimedia context. Luminous was an instance of the orchestra collaborating with significant Australian artists: in this case photographer Bill Henson, sound sculptor Paul Healy and singer Paul Capsis. The ACO performed works beneath a screen onto which Henson’s photographs were projected. Paul Healy’s contributions were heard, while the staging was set, between the live music performances.

Although multimedia extensions of classical concert performances are not unheard of (including perfume occasionally wafting through auditoriums in 19th century song recitals!), they are still rare. While some contemporary composers conceive collaborative works with installation components–some of ELISION Ensemble’s performances are excellent examples–there are an increasing number of live performances by orchestras and ensembles providing music to film.

In Luminous most of the music and all of the photographs were conceived separately and later combined for the performance, an approach that resulted in both strengths and weaknesses. Imaginative presentation of a rich body of musical works in conjunction with other artforms may enhance the experience of both. There were moments in Luminous in which this was certainly the case.

Bill Henson’s photographs of adolescents–portraits capturing the sense of transition inherent in teenage life–have been described as “darkly glowing.” These, as well as his pictures of lonely, derelict urban landscapes, were presented on a screen in images which panned across and zoomed in and out of the original photographs. This sense of movement proved effective in its relationship with the music. It was not, however, a significant factor in the most powerful moments of the concert, when the combination of photographic subjects and music worked to suggest something more than the sum of the parts.

One of the many things music can do is suggest the progression of private thought and emotion. There were points in Luminous when this power of suggestion, combined with stills of adolescent faces and bodies captured in particularly expressive moments, produced a hauntingly evocative result. It was also a wonderfully subtle effect, as Henson’s work is often ambiguous: his images don’t tell a story so much as quietly suggest one. And the temptation to simply provide a blatantly emotional ‘soundtrack’ was generally avoided.

The main weakness in Luminous stemmed from the problem of pacing the images against musical works which, intended to be experienced only aurally, have an emotional structure dependent on the return of elements, their transformation, and the introduction of contrast. This was not such a problem early in the program with the Schnittke Trio-Sonata and music by the film composer Gabriel Yared. But in the second half, during the violin concerto by Peteris Vasks and Good Night from On an Overgrown Path by Janácek, there was a definite sense of disjunction between the play of images and the development of the music. There was also a problem generally in matching the images with fast music: images ceased entirely in the solo cadenzas of the Vasks, and then resumed whenever the music slowed.

Individual moments in Luminous were more effective than the concert as a whole. Highlights for the audience included Paul Capsis’ singing and Tognetti’s performance of the Vasks, as well as the opportunity to see Henson’s work. Other aspects did not cohere as one might have wished: none of the music matched the darkness of Henson’s photos for example (I don’t find George Crumb and Schnittke quite as shockingly sombre). And while Healy’s electronic compositions seemed to embody this character effectively, placing them around the live performances made them seem extraneous. That said, one can’t expect an ambitious attempt at such a combination of media to be without flaws.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Luminous, artistic director Richard Tognetti, vocals Paul Capsis, photographer Bill Henson, sound sculptor Paul Healy, City Recital Hall, Melbourne, April 10-1

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 48

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


As I explain in Innovation: in a word (p2), the ‘i’ word gets more use than usual on our pages. This is an edition full of innovators and reflections on innovation, whether in cultural exchange, arts festival programming, sound art, interactive and network art, documentary, experimental and Indigenous filmmaking, or the work of bold young performance makers like My Darling Patricia and Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre and established artists like Michael Kantor and Lucy Guerin.


University arts threatened

As part of the federal government’s rabid anti-union campaign (any union will do, blue collar, white collar, and now student unions), Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, has introduced a bill in parliament to prevent universities from collecting fees to support student services. This will jeopardise legal, employment and advocacy services, childcare, sport and especially the performing and visual arts. Many artists, including the 800 who signed a protest placed in the country’s major newspapers, acknowledge just how important university arts life, outside formal courses, has been for their broader education and, often, their arts careers and for the community in general. Protests are escalating.


Australia & Germany

This edition features the Australian-German connection in interviews with Dr Roland Goll, Director the Goethe-Institut Sydney, and Gitte Weise, the Sydney-based gallery director who now has a gallery in Berlin where she promotes Australian artists. Goll frankly addresses the not inconsiderable challenges of the cross-cultural relationship and how to improve it with benefits to the arts. Weise’s work parallels the Australia Council’s long term commitment to promoting Australian work in Germany. As well, Adam Jasper reports on a frisky new venture in Berlin with German artists selling idiosnyncratic, bargain multiples in-store and online.


Indigenous artists

Indigenous arts figure strongly in this edition. Theatre director Wesley Enoch reflects on his own work as writer and director in the broader context of Aboriginal art and performance. Lisa Stefanoff describes 25 years of successful Indigenous media production and broadcasting at CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association), based in Alice Springs. CAAMA’s birthday will be celebrated with screenings of their films at the Sydney Film Festival. Rachel O’Reilly visits Leah King-Smith’s latest exhibition in Brisbane and Sarah Jane Norman reviews Screenwest-ABC-FTI’s Deadly Yarns series of short films by emerging Indigenous filmmakers.


Farewell Dan Edwards

RealTime Assistant Editor and OnScreen Editor is leaving RealTime to work as Managing Editor of the Publications Unit of the Australian Film Commission. He’s been a hard-working and integral member of our tiny editorial team. He responded to the brief to build OnScreen’s coverage of documentary film with enthusiasm and increasing authority, introduced new writers to our pages and significantly increased the supplement’s explorations of Indigenous and Asian film. Although seriously sorry to see him going, we wish him well in his new venture, and we hope that he keeps writing. KG

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 3

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

Dear Editors

This is the letter I sent to, but did not appear in, The Age in response to Helen Thomson’s reviews of Malthouse’s The Ham Funeral and Journal of the Plague Year (April 18).

Over the years, Helen Thomson’s enthusiasm for staged literature as opposed to live theatre has become reassuringly predictable. I have lost count of the reviews that have failed to conjure any sense of the production and yet provide a thorough and approving account of the text, so long as the play in question includes some Shavian social do-goodery or is immediately available to a kind of Year 12 Literature essay-analysis.

If audiences have attended the dullest examples of dead theatre due to her advice, then her damnation of Michael Kantor’s productions of The Ham Funeral and Journal of the Plague Year should be read as an enthusiastic recommendation to all of us who still believe that going to the theatre can be a blood-pumping adventure full of unexpected, tough and unusual visions. I say these productions are just what we need and exhort inquisitive minds to go; you will find yourself an invigorated audience member in an invigorated theatre.

But there is a massive problem here. One that must be rectified by the appointment to The Age of a reviewer that can, at the very least, approach this new theatre with something more than a cinematic understanding of narrative value (in the Robert McKee tradition) and an insufferably patronising tone. Thomson is patronising both in her choice of words and in the assumption that the bold, clearly controlled choices evident in these productions have failed according to her own limited and prejudiced critical framework. It is unforgivable, even if damning a production, not to credit artists of this calibre with intelligence and intent. But this last point is subtle compared to the broad problem.

What occurred at the Malthouse Theatre was by anyone’s definition, an extraordinary event: 2 new mainstage productions, premiering on the same day in a re-vamped theatre under a fearless artistic director who commands an ensemble of our finest actors and pushes the technical capabilities of the theatre to its limit. Instead of giving us any sense of the excitement that was palpable in the audience, Thomson writes that we were “unmoved”.

Neither will any future reader of her reviews have any impression of the epic nature of the undertaking or the theatrical spectacle. Capturing the flavour of the event, describing it and the context in which it occurs is a basic journalistic requirement, irrespective of the overall critical opinion. But this largess is beyond Thomson who instead wastes valuable space pedantically explaining the “failings” of the productions with the arbitration on taste of a bristling school ma’am.

This reviewer quite clearly has control of the language (and we should never take that for granted) but the mental gymnastics that she performs in order to reconcile her cool authoritative tone with her strangely infuriated, reactionary agenda results in a description of a production that didn’t actually exist, peppered with revealing derogations (songs that are “merely amusing”, dialogue that is “merely unconvincing”) and conclusions that are nothing short of bizarre: the idea that today’s audience have “moved on” from a Jungian framework is hysterical (and would certainly amuse most of the practising psychologists that I know), her assertion that there exists a “genuine Absurdist” theatrical approach is positively alarming, if not oxymoronic, while referring to Kantor’s individual voice within the broad church of Expressionism as Kosky-esque is simply lazy journalism (Robert Wilson, whose Black Rider was seen at this year’s Sydney Festival, springs to mind as a more apt, potentially illuminating comparison for understanding Kantor’s approach.)

For an event such as this we need to demand a reviewer who can offer something more discriminating, useful to readers and historically meaningful. These are exciting times for Melbourne theatre, our daily newspaper has a duty to provide us with a reviewer who is up to the task.

Daniel Schlusser

See page 29 for RT’s Malthouse review.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg.

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

Naree Vachananda

Naree Vachananda

Naree Vachananda

Born in Bangkok, a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts (1997), explorer of Butoh and Ideokinesis, Naree Vachananda is about to premiere Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour. On September 11, 2001, writes Vachananda, “My sister, who works in downtown New York, just got out of the subway when she saw people flocking in the street. When she got up to her office with windows facing south, she saw the twin towers collapsing right in front of her eyes. When I spoke to her on the phone, she joked, ‘It’s just like looking at the funeral parlour.’”

At the time Vachananda lived in Fitzroy, on Moor Street opposite a derelict funeral parlour with a for-sale sign that read: “Revive the corpse!”. She also discovered that there was a coffin warehouse next to the parlour and that the coffin-maker used to live in her own house. She started a diary: “The result was not so much an emotional journey as a visual diary written in words.” She was also inspired by poet Jenny Joseph’s Persephone (Bloodaxe, 1986) and decided to create a dancework about mortality. “I looked at various streams of Buddhist thought–to my surprise, one link led me to quantum physics, another to the cyclic flow of life and death as parallel to the myth of Persephone. I chose these 2 ideas as the structural theme of the work.”

The work has been created in collaboration with sound composer Edward Kelly, the sonic component comprising a mix of the performer’s diary, Joseph’s poems and Kelly’s own compositions. With the support of Dancehouse’s Space Grant program, Yeap Heng Shen worked on the visual multimedia component. Vachananda says that a key visual image, among others drawn from Joseph’s poems, is of a train on a journey to an unknown destination. With 2 screens, one at each end of the performance space and the audience facing each other, Vachananda and her collaborators will evoke destinations both in our own world and the underworld. Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour merges local reflections and metaphysical musings in what looks to be an intriguing multimedia performance. RT

Naree Vachananda, Opposite My House is a Funeral Parlour, fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne; June 9-12; bookings 03 9662 996

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg.

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

Australia Council restructure

By the time you read this the Australia Council will have met to consider its Future Planning Task Force’s recommendations. Now, after a period of intense debate and hurried consultation, these are weighted with new perspectives, concerns and possibilities (see pages Gallasch, Bott, Harkin, Shaw et al). What Council initially announced as an internal restructure just had too many implications for the future of artform practices, especially in new media, hybrid and community arts, to go unchallenged. The New Media Arts and the Community Cultural Development Boards seem most certainly on their way to oblivion, but various guarantees, quarantinings and reviews will keep in place, at least in the short term, support for the vision and momentum of these fields. The proposed restructure has generated a more vigilant arts community with the formation of new peak organisations coming out of the many meetings held across the country by new media and community cultural development practitioners and organisations. It has also unleashed critiques of the limits of the restructure, specifically its failure to fully address the overall situation for contemporary arts practices, the further erosion of peer assessment, problematic appointments to the artform boards, and the little discussed changing role of the Australia Council, an area of serious concern. On the upside, a welcome dialogue between artists and Council has commenced; lets hope it continues.


For theatre watchers

RealTime’s commitment over the last decade has been to contemporary performance in all its multiplying, hybrid manifestations, and that includes, from time to time, plays. If we had the space we’d cover more, but our attention is on productions of cultural and formal significance that break with the predictable. Theatre has not had the benefit of a dedicated national magazine; a few valiant, short-lived attempts (Theatre Australia, New Theatre Australia, Theatre Australasia) did not get the support of either the industry or audiences that they warranted. It’s a mystery, one that perhaps could be addressed in the larger context of public and press attitudes to Australian theatre by Currency Press’ Platform Papers, provocative essays on the the state of the arts. (We’ll be taking take a close look at the series to date in RT 67.) In the meantime, there’s more theatre than usual in RealTime: Melissa Reeves’ Spook, David Hare’s The Permament Way, Ilbijerri’s Rainbow’s End, Red Stitch’s The Pugilist Specialist, Max Gillies’ The Big Con, Mayu Kanamori’s Chika , Brendan Cowell’s Bed, Bell Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses, and, coming soon to Sydney and Brisbane from South Africa, John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth.

And from those in contemporary performance who are expanding the notion of what is possible in and beyond the theatre, we have Romeo Castelluci, New York’s NYC Players, Radiohole and NTUSA, the UK-USA duo, Curious, Sydney’s version 1.0 and the UK-Australia collaboration Strangers and Intimacy at Melbourne’s Westspace. Movement-based and dance theatre is a critical component of this expanding vision and in this edition we report on Alchemy (Brisbane physical theatre artists working with John Burtt and Katie Laver’s of Perth’s skadada), the dance theatre of In the Dark, Martin Del Amo’s Under Attack, Kate Champion/Force Majeure’s Already Elsewhere and Bagryana Popov’s Subclass26A.



The Editors welcome the many new writers who have been joining RealTime over the last 12 months. Some have emerged from the RealTime-BEAP (Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth) Writers’ Workshop, some are in our mentoring program (a labour intensive business; we’re working our way through the list of patient mentorees), others come recommended by our Contributing Editors and some from the many emerging talents who contact us every month, sending examples of their work and knowing exactly what they want to write about and where it fits in the RealTime scheme of things. As always, a large number of these writers are practising artists. KG

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 3

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

There have been some benefits flowing on from discussions around the proposed restructure of the Australia Council. Consultation took place after being initially off the agenda, new peak organisations have been formed (the National Arts and Culture Alliance, focused on community cultural development, and New Media Arts Australia), current funding structures maintained in the short term, and community cultural development and new media arts are to be the subjects of reviews. It’s a pity that the reviews didn’t predate the restructure given the utter absence of research and consultation evident in the restructure documents and in the Task Force opinions that passed for considered thought. The consultative meetings were valuable, if frustrating in many respects, nevertheless initiating what we all hope will be an ongoing dialogue in which the new peak organizations play a key role. Unprepared for the impact of the restructure and too loosely allied, new media and hybrid artists and producers have learnt much in recent months. The workshop representatives (selected by the Australia Council for 2 meetings) were Lyndal Jones, Mike Stubbs (1st meeting), Caroline Farmer, Sarah Miller, Francesca da Rimini, Rea, David Cranswick, Kim Machan (1st meeting), Julianne Pierce (2nd meeting), Rachael Swain, Daryl Buckley and myself. Task force members included Michael Snelling, Terrey Arcus, Ian McRae and Council CEO Jennifer Bott plus members of staff.

An opportunity lost?

At the consultative meetings, Task Force members iterated their claim that they had acted out of the greatest respect for new media and hybrid artists, that they saw greater opportunities for these practices under the mantle of traditional artform funding categories. These arguments were less than convincing given that Task Force didn’t see these practices as constituting artforms, that they would no longer have their own funding categories, that they would not have a voice on Council and that the quarantining of their funds would have a limited life. So much for respect.

What became clearer was that the Task Force sees the restructure as an opportunity to force onto the other artform boards responsibility for emerging practices resiled from with the establishment of the New Media Arts Board. New media arts it seems is to be sacrificed for the greater good of contemporary art practices.

But just how long will these boards commit to new practices? And with what expertise, what accumulated knowledge of a rapidly changing field of complex practices that have such significance in many aspects of the lives of all Australians? That the Task Force cannot see the value of having a board capable of publicly fronting the engagement of artists with new technological tools, new means of distribution, of audience development and income generation, as well as partnerships extending beyond the arts, is one of the most shocking aspects of the restructure. It is the sign of a great opportunity lost. See the open letters from Brendan Harkin and Dennis Del Favero and other signatories on these pages.

A half-baked restructure

From time to time in the consultative meetings, we were accused of being fixed on a label, new media arts, as validation of our practice. It was also suggested that we were against change. Far from it. A number of us argued that the restructure was half-baked. Why hadn’t the opportunity been seized to review the structure that entails all the artform boards, not just new media arts and CCD? (See the 5th paragraph of Jennifer Bott’s letter.) Did we need artform boards at all? Why wasn’t the struggling Dance Board recognised as a critical example of a small board inadequately funded and better merged with the Theatre Board? Wasn’t there a bigger problem to be addressed, the expenditure on heritage arts at the expense of contemporary arts? Isn’t that the real issue, and right across Council? And, as Daryl Buckley cogently argued, peer assessment by Arts Minister-vetted board members is no way to support contemporary arts practices. As is being proposed for ABC Board appointments, it is time that Council and artform board members be independently nominated and selected, and strictly in terms of their appropriacy. This must be fought for and along with it increased core funding for the artform boards, so that contemporary practices are properly resourced.

Heritage salvation

While we were fighting for the standing and proper resourcing of contemporary arts practices, the Strong report on the state symphony orchestras was released, recommending diminution of player numbers (outside of Sydney and Melbourne), and the Sydney Dance Company announced a deficit of $600,000. Within days, instead of the issues being seriously grappled with by politicians, the media and the public, these organisations were rescued by Prime Minister Howard and Deputy Arts Minister Kemp in the face of backbencher fear of a voter backlash(!). I have sympathy for the state symphony orchestras and the Sydney Dance Company, their collective plights illustrative of the failure of governments to commit to long term planning (how long before like crises emerge again?), but I am horrified at the ease with which the heritage arts are so quickly accommodated.

Peerless future?

One of the major concerns raised at the meetings with the Task Force was how new media and hybrid practices would be adequately assessed in the new structure with its Inter-Arts Office (no longer ‘triaging’ clients to the artform boards, but conducting ‘referrals’) and a limited number of new media expert peers distributed across the artform boards. Where would the collective knowledge and current experience of the field be shared and analysed? One worrying response came from Jennifer Bott who argued that we should regard Australia Council staff members as our peers given their experience and knowledge of the arts. Was this a forecast of even further diminution of peer assessment and the adoption of an Australian Film Commission model, where staff are a part of the decision-making process?

A related matter is the status of the Inter-Arts Office which will all too soon swing into its referring role. The interim CCD division (as part of a reconstituted and retitled Audience & Market Development Division) will be set up under section 17A of the Australia Council charter, allowing Council to appoint members, rather than the Minister. Surely the same should apply to the Inter-Arts Office while it works out exactly how it is going to operate, especially in the matter of peer assessment. Under the proposed model, peers in the Inter-Arts Office assessment meetings will make recommendations for funding, but not final decisions–these will be made by the Director of Arts Development, currently Ben Strout. Strout argued that this signing off was just a technicality and would not interfere with the judgements made by the assessors. Bott argued that other divisions of Council, like Audience & Market Development make funding decisions all the time. But, as Rachael Swain pointed out, those are not grants for the fundamental making of work, they are about its marketing, a very different matter. It would seem a major breach of Council legislature to have a staff member make the final decision on a grant, at whatever remove, however much a mere technicality, without the legality of the action properly addressed or changes to procedure formally instituted. After all, the structures put in place with the establishment of the Australia Council were meant to protect staff from accusations of impropriety of any kind.

What’s in a name?

Briefly, at the end of the second meeting and after an exacting 4 hours of discussion, the issue of relabelling the Visual Arts Board was raised. Various titles like Contemporary Arts Board (too broad), Media Arts Board (confusing) and the Visual Arts Craft & New Media Arts Board (too elaborate) were tabled. I argued that it would be hypocritical of the Task Force to put new media art into a title if they couldn’t recognise it for what it was. But I did ask whether or not the grants booklet would clearly specify new media arts as an area of practice under the visual arts banner–I was assured it would. Until a proper review of new media arts in Australia is conducted (and sooner than late 2005 as planned) and New Media Arts Australia puts a strong case for the return of the New Media Arts Board–or the creation of a cross-industry equivalent outside the Australia Council–we need to closely monitor how the artform boards handle new media and hybrid arts.

The big picture issues of the funding of contemporary art practices, the status of peer assessment, the viability of the current artform board structure, the appropriacy of Board appointments and the precise nature of Council’s role (as it appears to be moving into producer mode), all need our attention.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 4

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

While noting the Australia Council has ‘done much to acknowledge and nurture new media and hybrid arts’, Keith Gallasch’s editorial (‘Australia Council unplugged’, RealTime, Feb-Mar 2005) implies that the Council’s planned organisational changes will leave this vibrant and growing sector out on a limb. Our intention and our belief is quite the opposite.

Rather than seeing new media and hybrid arts ‘erased or relegated to the small print’, they will be placed on a much stronger financial footing which will, in turn, boost their standing and influence in the arts sector. We have stated categorically that not one cent less will be spent on new media and hybrid arts under the new model, which we have designed to enhance funding opportunities.

Keith raises the issue of ‘loss of status’ by dissolving the NMAB. I would make two points here: that the status of any group depends on the art they create, not on the taxpayer organisations that fund them; and the (harsh) reality is that artists–including those in new media and hybrid arts-need money to keep going. As I said at the Paddington RSL, Sydney meeting on January 24, there has been a significant reduction in value of grants over recent years, a fact not lost on applicants, successful or otherwise. In the name of ‘status’, are we to sustain a system and structure that will diminish their funding?

It’s important to note that the planned organisational changes to the Council are not solely about new media and hybrid arts. We support artists and arts organisations working across the spectrum, and the challenge has been to shape a new organisation that meets a complex range of needs, many of them increasingly interconnected ‘out there’ but still ‘siloed’ operationally under the existing Council model.

New media is an integral and rapidly growing expression of contemporary arts practice. The underlying need is to move away from a 30-year-old, rigid model of grants and services towards one that generates ideas and partnerships. Our role needs to be increasingly about building bridges between various arts sectors, with wider society, business, government and other statutory authorities at all levels. Nobody has suggested this would be easy, but if we don’t address the issues now, the problems will multiply.

Since Keith’s editorial appeared, the Council has conducted numerous forums and workshops on the reorganisation, with robust debate, and we have employed substantial input from all arts sectors in refining the new operational models. As a direct result of these discussions, the Council intends to:

• -support a new media practice conference in September, in association with RMIT and the Australian Film Commission

• -conduct a scoping study of new media/hybrid art following the September conference, with terms of reference agreed by a reference group of new media arts leaders and Council staff

• -offer the normal closing dates for new media art on 1 November 2005 (New Work, New Work (R&D) and Residencies). This is to help the field with the transition to the new structure, and will be assessed in the same way as proposed for the 1 May 2005 closing date.

The Council has applied itself rigorously to what was always going to be a difficult task, and has outlined what it regards as the best model for supporting new media and hybrid arts. After the Council considers that model at its meeting in early April, we look forward to briefing interested parties at meetings around the country from May–a schedule will be available at www.ozco.gov.au/future_planning.

Yours sincerely

Jennifer Bott
CEO, Australia Council

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 4

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

18 March 2005

We the undersigned are most concerned about the proposed restructuring of the Australia Council entailing amongst other matters the dissolution of the New Media Arts Board (NMAB). Applying a deep, specialist knowledge of the complexities of New Media theory and practice, the NMAB has played a critical and foundational role in:

• -building an experimental arts culture in Australia

• -nurturing the careers of numerous new media artists

• -fostering the institutional embedding of new media arts across the disciplinary spectrum of visual art, dance, music and literature

• -exhibiting and publishing benchmark experimental arts work both in Australia and internationally

• -providing leadership in articulating the development of cutting edge new media research and practice bringing together collaborations between the very best in Australian art and science

• -bringing these collaborations to the mainstream through its groundbreaking co-operation with the Australian Research Council by means of the Synapse Program

• -ensuring a broad range of critical national benefits for contemporary Australian experimental arts

It is noteworthy that the Federal Government, through its “Backing Australia” Policy, has earmarked “Frontier Technologies” as a Government National Priority for funding. Included in this National Priority is “multimedia, content generation and imaging” requiring collaboration between artists and scientists, a core focus of the NMAB.

Australian experimental artists are at the forefront of developing these areas for Australian ICT and infotainment culture and industry. The ability of Australian culture and industry to measure up to and meet the global challenge in the digital media and experimental technology domain necessitates proactive support by Federal agencies in supporting research and development. Countries such as Germany, France, Italy, UK, Sweden, Norway, Canada, not to mention the extraordinary investment in this area by Singapore, make it clear that focused and scaled support in this domain are fundamental to Australia’s future.

Rather than undermining the domain’s official recognition, standing, accrued peer knowledge and voice on the Australia Council, the Council needs to be assessing the ways and means to enhance and magnify support, both financial and organizational, to ensure Australia’s long term artistic, scientific and technological position at the international level.

Professor Jeffrey Shaw
Executive Director
iCINEMA Centre for Interactive Cinema Research
The University of New South Wales

Dr Dennis Del Favero
Executive Chairman
iCINEMA Centre for Interactive Cinema Research
The University of New South Wales

Professor Neil Brown
iCINEMA Centre for Interactive Cinema Research
The University of New South Wales

Professor Ian Howard
Dean, College of Fine Arts
The University of New South Wales

Associate Professor Jill Bennett
Director of Postgraduate Research
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales

Professor Ross Gibson
Professor of New Media & Digital Culture
University of Technology, Sydney

Professor Mark Burry
Professor of Innovation
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Associate Professor Nikos Papastergiadis
Deputy Director
Australian Centre
University of Melbourne

Dr Scott McQuire
Senior Lecturer
Media and Communications
University of Melbourne

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 6

© Jeffrey Shaw et al; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Ms Jennifer Bott
General Manager
Australia Council for the Arts

March 17

Dear Jennifer,

I write to you as a long-time admirer of your outstanding professionalism, and your enthusiastic commitment and devotion to the arts communities especially in the areas in which I operate, the digital media industries. As I have been involved in many major public initiatives in digital media, across government, industry, commerce, and culture, for over a decade I feel that I am at least qualified to offer you, with every due respect, my professional perspective on the proposed changes at the Australia Council concerning “new media” art.

I strongly and sincerely believe that a commitment to a formal, specific, new media entity within the Australia Council, explicitly denominated as such and with a dedicated budget for funding “new media” initiatives, is absolutely necessary for the successful development of Australia’s commercial new media industries.

Within the project teams and small businesses that have participated in X|Media|Lab every team and project has, or is looking for, the creative difference that changes mere technology into a feasible business proposition. For example, the Director of Programming at Foxtel told me “nothing is going to happen in this industry [interactive television] until the creative people have the chance to play with the new technologies and start coming up with great ideas. If I hear from one more technical person with a great creative idea, I’m going to scream! It has to be the other way around”.

The Digital Media Arts are clearly one of the essential nodes in the new media economy. The art, skills and creativity of digital media practitioners is a decisive input, probably the decisive input, in the successful development of national, sustainable new media industries. Because of digital convergence, these industries include not only the entire span of traditional entertainment, film and television, but also now shape all educational content, electronic publishing, the entire information industries, the internet and broadband content, the music industry, computer games, animation and the whole future of mobile telephony and telecommunications.

The issues involved are of national critical importance, and are recognised as such. The Commonwealth government has committed to the development of a fully-scoped Digital Industries Action Agenda. This Agenda will certainly contain recommendations concerning the creative skills, training, and national innovation systems needed for Australia to succeed in these vast new media industries. The Australia Council’s input into these considerations is vital and anything less than a full-scale commitment to the new media arts will appear, in my opinion, inexplicable.

An explicit, full-scale commitment to developing and funding the new media arts is perfectly consistent with the cross-support mechanisms between the Digital Arts and Commercial Media industries I have seen in the past year in Singapore, Canada, the UK, the US, throughout the European Union, and, most strikingly, in China. The explicit commitment and support for the value of the Digital Media Arts is not only front-and-centre, it is the subject of significant increases in both financial support and visibility.

One small recent example amongst dozens: within two weeks of returning to Los Angeles from the last X|Media|Lab in Melbourne, where she was one of the international Mentors, the Director of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Enhanced TV Workshop changed the name of the AFI’s entire undertaking to the “Digital Media Creative Lab” in direct response to her Australian experience, whence she saw how we assume the inclusion of digital media artistic skills, perspectives and sensibilities in the development of commercial new media projects. Creativity is the heart and soul of success in the new media industries.

The future of the new media industries does not lie in technologies and gadgets; it lies in creative skills. The Australia Council’s explicit commitment to new media arts, artists, skills, projects, experiments and collaborations, internationally and between art and commerce, is a vital contribution to Australia’s immediate and eventual economic development in these industries.

Recently I have been involved with a number of industry bodies in having the interests of new media producers and practitioners included in any proposed Cross Media Ownership law changes. Our goal is to work towards a new media industry framework that: 1) enables satisfactory commercial opportunities and returns for Australian media and creative professionals, and that also 2) provides access to capital and funding for media producers, 3) creates demand for quality local content, 4) fosters skills and industry development as part of an overall creative economy agenda, and 5) provides careers for practitioners, along with 6) the chance of export success in the global media marketplaces.

The Australia Council has a role to play in every one of these objectives. But without explicit recognition, without funding and resources, without opportunities for professional development, and without the prospect of meaningful, successful careers as new media artists, not only will the creative practitioners in these ascendant new media industries wither and disappear, so will the prospects of developing local new media industries, and, along with that, any chance of Australia’s economic success in these vast, pervasive industries.

Australia has an excellent and steadily improving reputation in these emerging industries. Whenever a round of international mentors comes to Australia for X|Media|Lab (and there have been more than 30 of them now, from all over the world), I make sure that they all receive the latest copy of RealTime. The response is always the same–straightforward and genuine admiration. Not only for the obvious world-class quality of the publication, but also for the extent of Australia’s engagement, the high standards of work, the level of intelligent analysis and self-criticism, and the creative excellence of new media arts in Australia.

Regarding the organisational form of the existing New Media Arts Board, I have no comment. If it needs to change, by all means change it. It’s not the Board per se that counts; it’s the extent and the explicitness of the Council’s commitment to the art form that counts, both financially and formally.

To be frank, the extent of funding for new media arts in Australia is truly appalling! By international standards, funding for new media arts in Australia is virtually non-existent. If we compared new media arts funding in Australia to any European Union nation, to Canada, the UK, or anywhere in Asia (including, for example, even Thailand and the Philippines), our record is abysmal. As the primary advocacy body to government, the Australia Council needs to review its whole discourse on new media arts. Quite simply, Australia should be investing magnitudes more funding support into new media arts.

The Australia Council should consider investing in some hard statistical research into: 1) comparative national funding levels for new media; into the nexus between creativity and the innovation industries; 2) the economic importance of the digital media industries (in their ever increasing scope and reach); and 3) into developing appropriate strategies for investing significantly in innovation systems which productively combine scientific, technological, and artistic experimentation, on both grand and small scales, and which may eventuate in things which find markets and audiences.

I am convinced that we could radically alter the funding commitments to new media by re-casting and re-presenting these kinds of understandings and perceptions. We, the practitioners and the industry, really must work together with the Australia Council to reformulate a whole, new, invigorating discourse that is heard and understood in Canberra.

Viewed strictly as economics, these issues become even more potent. Australia runs an ICT trade deficit in excess of $16 billion per annum, and a Cultural Products trade deficit in excess of $4 billion per annum. To put this into the perspective, this means that we will spend the entire proceeds of the proposed T3 sale on our ICT and Cultural deficits alone in just 18 months. It is vital that we give the new media industries and new media arts their proper weight in this knowledge economy, based equally on skills and creativity.

In summary, I ask that you take into your consideration the views of someone who has chosen to work deliberately betwixt the strictly economic requirements of the commercial new media industries, and the creative skills and talents upon which every success in these new industries depends. Australia does not manufacture hardware or equipment; it manufactures talent.

As far as I can judge, removing the specific new media focus and its associated dedicated funding mechanism will inevitably come to be regarded as a poor policy choice, and a poor legacy. The only places it will be welcomed are in those economies and markets that are pouring investments into developing creative skills in the new media industries much faster, and with far greater determination, than we are.

May I conclude by saying, with all due respect, I know that you personally, and the Australia Council Board, undoubtedly possess the fair-mindedness and the rectitude to re-consider this particular aspect of the proposed organisational changes if you believe that you should do so. I therefore ask, that after you take all submissions into account, and with the benefit of your recent consultations, you conclude the consultant’s report to be in error on this particular matter; and that you make a commitment to the formal establishment of an explictly denominated new media entity within the Australia Council, with its own budget dedicated to funding new media initiatives. Such a decision will be welcomed as sensible, responsible, and forward-looking by all; and it will be a victory, not only for genuine leadership, but for the prospects of Australia’s economic and cultural future in these new media times.

Yours sincerely,

Brendan Harkin
Director, X|Media|Lab, Sydney

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 7

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

Destiny Deacon, Adoption (1993/2000), Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Destiny Deacon, Adoption (1993/2000), Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

The lift deposits visitors to the exhibition on the fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). A printed introduction to the right and lithographed tea-towels to the left are lost on the perimeter, to be read and examined on the next pass or exit. The little fish in the tank filtering the backwash of sunlight draw the visitor to the living/dining room that is modelled after Destiny Deacon’s own. She has, in fact, been living out of boxes since her furniture was exported for the show. The carpet was created to her design and resembles the mess of dolls, Twisties and crayons that might litter her own floor.

The living room seems almost miniature, dwarfed by the bric-a-brac with its vivacious clutter of colours. With so many playthings beckoning it’s like a dollhouse. Most unexpected are the wires at shin level restricting entry. A television set faces the couch, so viewers have to stand uncomfortably against the wires to watch some of Deacon’s earliest film works in soap opera style developing in complexity and quality. The first are shot in the artist’s even more cluttered living room and kitchen, depicting narratives such as a mother’s life in disarray as she drinks through the loss and kidnapping of her child. Later storylines have more developed characters with sets and camera work that mark a sharp increase in budget. The casts include actors and friends like David Page and Lillian Crombie, playing respectively, a transvestite and a grandmother.

On the wall over the television are 2 frames with collages of ideas for films that probably should be made, if only irony sold! On the dining room walls are posters from earlier exhibitions which anticipate the work around the corner, a retrospective of Deacon’s work spanning the last 15 years or so and informed by the activism she was involved in prior to launching her artistic career.

Back past the fish tank, the corridor is hung with blown-up photographs. Deacon blames her unique grainy style on technophobia, and it works to her advantage. The Polaroids, printed on a consumer level bubble jet printer, pull the viewer into the colour, action and emotion of her blurry images, many involving dolls brought to life by their environment. Anyone who knows Deacon’s work will be familiar with the black dolls used throughout her pieces. True, as she claims, they are easy to manipulate and they never complain; even truer is the incredible emotion that she elicits in her use of them.

Marcia Langton, in her 1997 essay “Black humour and the art of Destiny Deacon” (Walk and don’t look blak, MCA, 2004), says that Deacon’s work is “irritating” because of the artist’s ability to push the right buttons, kick-starting “memories, smells and emotions.” Langton describes the work as being able to “resurrect the images of our oppression, position her favourite dolls or people in her stage sets, and eke out discomfort.” Langton wonders whether the work irritates white people in the same way.

In her art, Deacon has explored her own history as depicted in photographs, matching them with portraits of her young mother as she grew up and moved south. It is a journey in which Deacon has simultaneously gathered a stockpile of insulting paraphernalia, reminding the viewer of the tough history of black Australia. This got under my non-Aboriginal skin and gnawed at me as I came upon pieces in the exhibition that mediate on Indigenous life in Australia now. Is it any easier?

The piece titled Adoption is a photograph of plastic baby dolls inside paper cupcake shells. It’s kitschy and humorous but full of irony in the connections it suggests with “shopping” for black babies at orphanages. “Humour cuts deep”, says Deacon in the catalogue. She is not so much baring her own soul as cutting deep into the world around her. From her first photograph, Koori rocks, Gub words (1990), to more recent films projected on a big screen in a dark alcove just past the cupcakes, Deacon’s art seems largely a reaction to what irks her. Both the film, Over d-fence (2004) about nosey neighbours (a pet peeve), and the photographic series depicting graffiti on a sacred site with the striking painted words “My Rock”, record and simultaneously reject acts of disrespect.

The jet print from the Polaroid, No need looking (A) (1999/2004), appears to indicate that there is so much for a black woman in Australia to contend with that even a UFO is no distraction. Further along the wall is a flat screen looping a short film from 1999 entitled, No place like home. The film’s eerie soundtrack includes clips from The Wizard of Oz featuring Dorothy whimsically repeating “There’s no place like home”, and more urgently “Oh Toto, come back!” This same soundtrack remained audible as I stood at the screen watching the silent Forced Images (2001) on the opposing wall. There it quietly (almost subliminally) increased my awareness of the 2 little 4 year olds resisting and at the same time searching for their own identities as they argued and then tried on masks of Indigenous faces. The soundtrack to No place like home matches the trance-like state of the character whose back we follow through city streets as she searches for safety and home. As Natalie King writes in her catalogue essay, “Episodes: a laugh and a tear in every photo”, there are “phantasmagoric apparitions inhabit(ing) Deacon’s funny and unnerving compositions” which match the interests and research that the artist has undertaken on the supernatural, cinema history and popular culture. As Deacon rhetorically asks on the placard explaining her period of work in 1999, “Why be a contemporary artist if you don’t know or care about what is going on?”

Deacon furthers a pointed interaction with the work of other artists by making the historical and the contemporary interact in her portraits series. In a striking self-portrait, Me and Virginia’s doll (1997), Deacon poses like Frida Kahlo except with cigarette in hand and a doll. It’s irreverent. She slouches on the bench comfortably. The photograph is grainy, suggesting that the shadows and light of the composition are more important than any crispness of face or figure. She looks down the barrel of the camera, but the focus is too blurred to imagine that the soul is laid bare. And the cigarette alight in her fingers, glowing and smoking, adds to the feeling that Deacon’s portrait is for herself.

Waiting for the lift and reading the description I missed on the way in, it feels like I know Destiny Deacon well enough from her work to see that these words are not her own. I imagine instead she might have written something like: “Fuck it. I made this. You’re welcome to figure it out for yourself.”

Destiny Deacon, Walk & don’t look blak, MCA, Sydney, Nov 26-Jan 30

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 8

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

Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence (1992) Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence (1992) Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Mona Hatoum responded to the conflict with a performance piece entitled The negotiating table. As in many early works, Hatoum used her body to explore universal notions of violence, oppression, confinement and displacement. She lay curled on a table for several hours, blindfolded and enclosed in a body bag covered with entrails, blood and bandages. The table, illuminated by a single bulb, was flanked by 2 empty chairs; the silence of the interrogation room jarringly punctuated by news reports of the war and leaders in peace negotiations.

Born in Beirut of exiled Palestinian parents, Hatoum has long been familiar with political unrest and environments in which cultural acceptance is uneasy at best. She found herself further displaced when civil war broke out in Beirut while she was on a short visit to London in 1975. Unable to return to her adopted home, Hatoum used the British citizenship claimed by her parents in Lebanon in 1948, and has since lived in London. Here, in a state of double exile, she commenced the exploration of cultural and physical dislocation with performance, video and installation while studying at the Byam Shaw and Slade art schools.

At the core of Hatoum’s performance and installation work is the experience and corporeal investigation of the ‘exiled’ as physically, culturally or emotionally displaced. Hatoum comments that the exiled ‘other’ exists in a space removed from their own skin, dislocated from their own culture. Her work implicates the spectator in this disrupted position of spatial discord, displacing the viewer’s preconceptions. Several performance works have focused on situations in which the body is confined and challenged: in Under siege (1982) Hatoum struggled for 7 hours to stand in a glass container full of wet and sticky clay, while Suspended (1986) saw her confined in a chicken coop at the Laing Gallery.

Early performance and video works used the effect of surveillance and audience participation to create scenarios in which the spectator alternately becomes the watcher and the watched. The voyeuristic nature of these performances continuously puts the audience in a state of unease and disturbance. In works that she has called “endurance performance”, Hatoum uses video as a third eye, collapsing the power usually afforded the voyeur. In Matters of gravity (1987) she was enclosed in a cell and could only be viewed through a spy hole that used a camera obscura lens to project her upside down. This affected complete visual disorientation for the viewer as Hatoum moved around the space and created a converse sense of place.

For the exiled the measure of distance is always in relation to their origin; what remains there and what is lost. In 1988 Hatoum explored the painful reality of distance in a video work entitled Measures of distance. During a visit to Lebanon in 1981 she recorded conversations with, and footage of, her mother. She layered the imagery of her naked mother in the shower with letters sent to the artist in Arabic, while Hatoum read the words aloud in English. This was further interwoven with segments of their conversations. The result is a narrative of Hatoum’s life as an exile that attempts to recall the intimacy of a relationship, memories faded by time and distance, and failed attempts to recapture the physicality of a kiss or the touch of a body.

In changing from performance and video work to installation and sculpture, the focus on Hatoum’s body as the vehicle for a political message shifted to an emphasis on the absence of the body: “Originally when I did performance, I used the body–my body–as a metaphor for social systems. Now I’m trying to set up situations where the viewer has a direct physical experience with the installation and becomes completely implicated by it.” (Anastasia Aukeman, ‘The body politic’, World Art 3, 1995). The viewer becomes the surrogate body caught in an in-between space, engaged in an exchange between the centre and the periphery, object and subject.

For Hatoum, space is fundamentally about its relation to the body. As an exile, her cultural space has always been discontinuous, at a point of disjuncture–neither here nor there. Her work has been about negotiating a position for the body within a state of simultaneous presence and absence, a body in conflict with extreme physical and spatial disruption. Light sentence (1992) forms a space which constantly changes as a light moves up and down, casting shifting shadows from steel lockers onto the surfaces of a room.

Corps étranger (Foreign body) (1994) represented a return to the body with the artist’s internal organs–respiratory tract, digestive system and intestines–projected onto the floor of a small cylindrical space. Upon entering, the viewer becomes trapped between the edge of the cylinder and the projected corporeal void. An edge or barrier is often used in Mona Hatoum’s work to define a space of separation, representing the “impossibility of communication across the social, political, race, class and gender divides” (interview with Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, MCA Press Kit, 2005).

The human endeavour to locate a place on this planet is explored in a piece inspired by Manzoni’s work of the same title, Socle du monde (Pedestal for the earth) (1992-93). A large cube comprising magnets with opposing poles creates conflicting orientations for iron filings drawn into a writhing and wriggling mass on the surface. Each iron filing battles for its own space, pushing and pulling to form patterns resembling entrails.

Hatoum chooses materials that create contradictory expectations and turns “the object into something dangerous or something that is unable to fulfil its function” (Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, 2005). These contradictions inform her swings made of glass, placed precariously close and facing each other, indicating potential collision; or her wheelchair that not only has sharp knives in place of its handles but also threatens to tip its occupant onto the floor. Many of the works from the late 90s are installations or sculptures that include domestic objects set apart from their familiar surroundings. Sculptures such as Mouli-julienne x 17 (1999), Grater divide (2002) or Cage-à-deux (2002) bring everyday objects such as a vegetable cutter, grater or birdcage into a sphere of danger, confinement and torture, with their extreme scale adding to the uncanniness of the work.

The domestic nature of much of Hatoum’s work undermines our initial reaction of familiarity and safety, as we recognise that what appears to be safe is in fact dangerous, sharp or foreign. For the exiled, this situation is understood, felt and breathed. For Hatoum it is a daily reality expressed in her work as a metaphor for the politics of location and dislocation.

Mona Hatoum: Over my dead body, selected and curated by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor from the Hamburger Kunsthalle solo exhibition, 2004; MCA, Sydney, March 23-May 29

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 10

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

Mahalya Middlemist & Justine Cooper, Vivid Fragments

Mahalya Middlemist & Justine Cooper, Vivid Fragments

You enter past a wall of coloured stills–spoon, book, bed, guitar and camera. In a plinth in another part of the room, a CD-ROM invites with its image of a Super 8 viewer–itself containing an image of a railway line leading into a tunnel. On the tracks, a mattress and a book lie abandoned.

Touch the mattress and you’re transported to a recreation of the room once inhabited by Eric Warburton whose disappearance is the focus of Vivid Fragments, the CD-ROM installation created by Mahalya Middlemist in collaboration with Justine Cooper and Joshua Raymond. A young man who lived in and around inner-city Sydney for over a decade, Eric Warburton hung out with squatters and street kids and with artists such as Geoffrey Weary, Milton Read and writer Henry Johnston, many of whom, at some time or other, included Eric in their work. John Conomos, whose essay accompanies the exhibition, recalls his own transitory acquaintance. “Eric’s presence was silent, ghostly, understated. All those twenty odd years ago in a city that was seemingly abundant with creativity and cultural and social experimentation.” Middlemist was also a friend. “When he went missing in 1987,” she remembers, “he was a ‘nobody’, his disappearance barely rating a police search or a mention in the press.” She was amazed at how little of him was left once he’d gone.

We enter a squat that friends remember as Eric’s shifting habitat. At one time, the mattress leans against a wall. In another it’s strung on ropes from the rafters. The meagre possessions now offer themselves to our curiosity. I pick up one of the books Eric liked to have around the place, though he was illiterate. Apparently, he disliked people reading in his presence; they appeared to him to be blankly staring into the pages. Touching these objects triggers fragments of memory manifest in a tiny film, a snatch of music (created by Derek Kreckler) or a spoken recollection from some of the people who knew this strange young man. There’s one precious trace of his voice. Each trajectory takes you back into the room, onto the tracks and into the tunnel.
Mahalya Middlemist & Justine Cooper, Vivid Fragments

Mahalya Middlemist & Justine Cooper, Vivid Fragments

In the early 90s, Mahalya Middlemist began compiling material for a documentary, a biography constructed from non-linear impressions and anecdotes. She started looking for traces of Eric Warburton’s life in photographs and on 16mm and Super 8 film. Then her footage and stills were stolen. Luckily, she’d made copies of some of it and this accounts for the texture of the work she describes as composed from “fragments of fragments.”

The experience of Vivid Fragments lies somewhere between meditation and séance and, like the best new media art, the materials are well suited to their subject matter. Middlemist observes that the people she interviewed all claimed a singular memory of this person but they were frequently conflicting. Here the artists give credence to them all while the non-linear architecture of the technology allows for random associations to connect in the interaction. Vivid Fragments is a deeply personal work that also highlights the power of collective memory and of a seemingly fragile community of transients, friends and casual acquaintances. The coloured photographs on the wall are the mute objects of disappearance. From the carefully rendered still, film and sound fragments, the visitor is invited inside this circle to reflect on a life which was, in Middlemist’s words, “marginal in every way.”

Vivid Fragments, CD-ROM by Mahalya Middlemist and Justine Cooper in collaboration with Joshua Raymond, sound design by Derek Kreckler with additional sound by Glenn Remington, Peloton Gallery, Chippendale, Jan 20-29

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 12

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