Meditations on Water, Mei Saraswati

Meditations on Water, Mei Saraswati

Meditations on Water, Mei Saraswati

Carefully curated programs A, B and C take the Proximity Festival’s audiences along distinct pathways of experience, whether individually or as a marathon effort of 12 consecutive unique engagements. At the Art Gallery of Western Australia, works are performed in a selection of open spaces and behind-the-scenes locations, sometimes mingling with gallery patrons in the festival’s new daytime schedule. Also new this year is a Day Spa facility, serenely superintended by Ian Sinclair, himself a veteran Proximity artist. The Day Spa offers an oasis of calm, complete with cucumber slices, green tea and goldfish, as well as guided meditation recordings: a space to decompress, unpack and process the Proximity experience.

The performers have undergone an extensive selection process, as well as a two-week lab experience, working with Guest Provocateur Helen Cole from In Between Time, UK (RT129, p8). This year’s works each provoke in different ways, from subject matter to presentation to startling self-revelation. Some site-specific works engage closely with the gallery’s surrounds, history and architecture. Some intensely personal works depend upon the audience’s own internal resources. Some are contemplatively conceptual and some see the audience become part of a public art piece.


Program A: surreal

Program A embraces the surreal, each 15-minute experience leaving the audience bemused and wondering “did that really just happen?” Mish Grigor’s Sex Talk brings intimate revelations into the public gaze, with artist and audience at a plinth reading out transcripts of interviews about Grigor’s relatives’ sexual experiences. Malcolm Whittaker ambushes an unsuspecting audience in his engaging persona of enthusiastic volunteer usher, artfully steering the conversation and audience back to a plinth to experience the oddly intimate sensation of having one’s teeth brushed by a friendly stranger in his piece, Once of Twice Daily. Monopolly is set away from the daily life of the gallery in the sumptuous Foundation Club Room, where a calmly business-like Chloe Flockhart discusses with you the financial potential of investing in another human’s parts.

Jackson Eaton’s Current Mood uses the gallery space to explore art, modern relationships and connecting via social apps. The time between bells signalling the start of each session is crammed with a crash course in Snap Chat use on iPhone. The helpful usher is patient, but I am already distracted, wondering in what ways this experience will differ for those already familiar with this app and device.

Set loose in the Gallery, my first message arrives, a wittily annotated picture of an artwork. I look around, take a picture of a detail in a painting, put my own caption to it and send. The next missive arrives nearly instantly. Is there a theme here? Are we being randomly flippant? Is this interaction or swapping posts? Getting the hang of this, reducing mighty canvases to transient smartphone fodder, I am on a roll when the tone of incoming messages changes. “I thought we could make a connection.” “I don’t know if this is working.” The sudden change from jaunty confidence to plaintive self-doubt is disarming.

“Can I touch you?” appears on my screen, as Eaton appears in front of me, makes sustained eye contact as he raises his hand slowly towards my face, before abruptly snatching the phone out of my hand, turning on his heel and walking rapidly away as the next bell rings.

The experience raises a flurry of questions in its wake, encompassing the nature of engagement, communication, technology, distraction and the etiquette of art appreciation. Eaton’s deft manipulation of Snap Chat raises doubt over the validity of my responses.


Current Mood, Jackson Eaton

Current Mood, Jackson Eaton

Current Mood, Jackson Eaton

Program B: existential

Program B is existential in outlook, challenging audience perspective. In Micronational, the audience is gently guided by Tom Blake to discover their own state of being, then create their own State. Caroline Garcia’s Beings-Unlike-Us is a capsule of Filipino culture across time and taste, enfolding the audience member into a whirl of flavours, habits, melodrama, costume, dance, karaoke and Pacquiao posters before an abrupt return to the gallery concourse. Phillip Adams’ beautifully conceived and presented After is inspired by alien abduction—featuring mirrors, movement, flesh and auditory isolation. The question as to which party is the abductor and which the abductee, is cleverly ambiguous.

Mei Saraswati’s Meditations on Water is grounded in the vanished geography of inner Perth, a chance to experience the history of the gallery site. A degree of trust is required as the artist takes me on a blind tour through bygone wetlands. Senses are heightened in the dark, leaves crunch underfoot, releasing eucalypt scent. Fingertips are taken on their own journey through bowls of fine sand and leaves. The feel of water droplets connects with Saraswati’s vivid descriptions and a soft soundtrack of nature’s movements. The sudden sensation of sunshine on eyelids as an external door is opened brings the large water feature by the side of the gallery to new life and cacophonous birds seem to perform myriad antics in the trees around the edge. Saraswati’s description continues, relentless, explaining how and why rich wetland life disappeared.

Then we go to another place, the former lakeside site by night, and on opening my eyes find vessels of water, gentle night sounds and cool native vegetation. Sitting on a stool, I work with Saraswati to create sound loops with the water. Splashing, dribbling and stirring to learn the song of the ripples creates a meditative recreation of a vanished place. Returning to the bright, dry gallery, a subtle palimpsest lingers of a mighty lake that once dominated this landscape.


Program C: introspection

Program C is an exercise in introspection, with an emphasis on audience contribution. Guided by Jo Bannon’s voice from the other end of a rotary dial telephone in a hidden nook of the gallery, Dead Line raises practical and metaphysical questions about our mortality. Raised by Brutalism fills a stairwell with stark lines of raw concrete, snarling bass stylings and a personal response to being immersed in isolation, courtesy of Leon Ewing [Black en Masse]. More interactive, but still contemplative, is Emily Parsons-Lord’s daytime stargaze on the rooftop, exploring the power of naming objects and the fundamental chemistry of the universe in You Will Always be Wanted by Me.

Brett Smith musically occupies another stairwell in When You’re Here, I’m Nowhere. The audience is taken to the roof of the gallery and left at a door. Walking down the stairs inside, the warm yellow glow of the hanging light bulbs with their tangled filaments leads the way, fading again above and behind. Piano chords, full of notes, sound from below. As I arrive at the grand piano, Smith looks up and smiles at me and keeps on playing. I perch on a stool provided across the strings and watch him play.

Smith develops his chords, improvises. The intensity builds. He is lost in his keys. He starts to sing, a voice easy on the ear, but conveying intense emotion: “When you’re here, I’m nowhere,” a simple lyric, repeated. The chords change, the style changes and the same lyrics take on other shades of meaning.

Each audience member will experience this piece differently, a salute to the intense subjectivity of the world of music. Smith presents it and his audience must take on the raw experience and a slightly voyeuristic sensation with an intimacy and ambiguity that may be encompassing, trigger a fly-on-the-wall response or even exclude them from the performance. The strength of this piece lies in its openness to subjective engagement.

Proximity Festival breaks new ground in 2015, both with the profile of its hosting venue and in the careful selection of provocative pieces. No work seems included for novelty value alone, performers having developed tight conceptual expression and working to a consistently high standard. The efficient organisation that has marked previous festivals remains in place, individual maps, timetables and co-ordinated bell-ringing combining with friendly and helpful volunteer ushers to make even the most convoluted route through loading bays safe and quick. Curators Sarah Rowbottam and Kelli McCluskey continue to develop the skills and sensibilities of performers and audiences in the peculiar challenges of one-on-one performance, driving not only Proximity Festival’s future scope but possibilities across the entire form.

Proximity Festival 2015, co-curator, director Sarah Rowbottam, co-curator Kelli McCluskey; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 28 Oct-8 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 12

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

Writing in the Rain, FX Harsono

Writing in the Rain, FX Harsono

Writing in the Rain, FX Harsono

No, we’re not ailing. It just so happened that our choice of cover image of a performer in an MRI machine coincided with our decision to go totally online. It’s a scene from the great Italian artist Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses, which features in the 2016 Adelaide Festival.

The image by Indonesian FX Harsono on the opposite page feels more apt. Chris Reid, in his review of the visual arts program of the OzAsia Festival writes, “In his video Writing in the Rain (2011) we view [Harsono] through a sheet of glass repeatedly writing his name in Chinese over the same spot on the glass. Water, representing rain, then begins to wash the ink down the glass.” Although Harsono is reflecting on the fragility of identity under dictatorial power, the image resonated with us. Magazines are ephemeral. With each edition we wrote our names, and again in the next and the next as previous editions became like ghosts. But the hard copies were there and archived in several libraries. Paper ages and ink dries, but with likely longer staying power than the word online which is vulnerable to crashes, hacking, solar flares and the endless redundancy of platforms that defeat archivists. But that’s where RealTime is going, online, in good faith.

We’ve been printing and distributing 20,000 copies every two months to 750 locations across Australia for 20 years, delivering online and holding out well against the incursions of internet publishing. But we’ve had to face market pressures, distribution challenges, the high combined costs of print, freight, distribution and mail and the burden of a large carbon footprint (though the toys, devices and power consumption of the digital world are not much less problematic).

Our vision of free access, highly responsive and constructive reviewing and a focus on innovation and experimentation across the arts remains intact. And the internet will allow us to do the kind of things which we can’t in print: dialogue directly with you, stream live from festivals, host forums, commission and curate online works and link you to great sites and events around the world that foster experimental art.

We know many of you will sorely miss the look, feel and leisureliness of the print editions, so will we, but our weekly e-ditions (growing to twice weekly) will, without undue pressure, keep you happily in an expansive arts loop. We hope you’ll come with us from page to screen, whether on your computer, phone or tablet.

We wish you a very happy holiday season, thank you for being a loyal print reader and look forward to being digitally-conjoined in 2016.

Keith & Virginia & the RealTime Team

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 3

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Joseph Mitchell’s first festival was highly anticipated, promising a reinvigoration of OzAsia through an emphasis on cross-genre work by a younger generation of artists with thematically and stylistically diverse and fluid practices. Indonesia was the geographical focus of this year’s Festival but, aside from Eko Supriyanto’s enthralling take on North Maluku tribal dance, Cry Jailolo, it was the program’s Japanese cohort that most embodied this recalibration. The acknowledgment of global trends such as the resurgence of body-based performance art and relational and immersive practice represented a welcome shift of focus from the visually lavish though formally and politically conservative works that have dominated previous festival programs. I detected instead, in works conceived within highly specific local contexts but rigorously engaged with contemporary global politics, a new and stimulating internationalism.


The Streets

The immersive dance-theatre work The Streets situates its audience members as citizens passing through a crowded street in one of Indonesia’s big cities—Jakarta, say, or Yogyakarta, the university town where director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin’s Teater Garasi was formed while Suharto was still in power. Beer and soft drink are offered to us on arrival, our nervous occupation of the mostly empty space temporarily eased. The presence of a roving street preacher and karaoke singer, however, projecting their respective fealties with the aid of homemade amplification devices, returns us to a state of vague unease. The work builds incrementally around us, a streetlight erected by two boiler-suited road workers here, a marching band who look like they are on their way to somewhere else there. As our awareness of this contested space develops, sights that provoke discomfort and incomprehension come into clearer focus—prostrate bodies coiled tightly in rough-hewn sleeping bags, vivid street art spliced with tattered political posters. I spot the anarchist circle-A symbol and some graffiti in Indonesian I translate later as “Mulu work like the witless buffalo.”

Eventually an official instructs the scattered audience to divide into two groups—the performance’s first, but not last, imposition of order on a chaotic situation—the members of each group settling, traverse style, on either the floor or one of the provided cushions. Wooden panels, like those used to board up vacant houses, are placed in front of us, obscuring our view of the performers. We’re informed we can move to a better vantage point if we can find one but most of us don’t, comfortable I suspect with the idea that an unobstructed view of the street would lack verisimilitude. By this stage a live band has asserted its presence, its carnivalesque, hard rock-infused improvisations a suitably ad hoc accompaniment to the bustling though tightly choreographed mosaic of street life that follows.

Indonesia’s class system is vividly dissected in overlapping vignettes that also expose the country’s richly complex interplay of local and global, its context the decentralisation of political and economic power brought about by reformasi. At various points the bodies in sleeping bags—Indonesia’s legion homeless—rise up to claim their share of the space, jostling with cops, hookers, cashed-up tourists and puffed-up bureaucrats. We hear a monologue about a soybean cake seller who suicides when the global price of soybeans surges, and a recording of a Suharto oration—disturbing reminders of the unstable present and the omnipresent past. As supple dancers sometimes violently intertwine their bodies with sheets of corrugated metal that are also used to construct temporary shanties, a voiceover intones, “What is order, what is chaos?” Both states are problematised in The Streets, making the work possible to read as a celebration of post-New Order Indonesia’s democratised vibrancy and an anxious meditation on the social disharmony produced by conflicting political, economic and religious interests.

The Streets, Teater Garasi

The Streets, Teater Garasi

The Streets, Teater Garasi


Quantum mechanics explains the physical behaviour of matter and energy at the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. Its language, in contrast to classical information’s bit (0 or 1), is qubit—0 and 1 in a superposition of both states at the same time. Bit is digital and discrete, qubit analog and continuous. It is these binaries, minute and intersecting, that Japanese composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda amplifies visually and sonically in Superposition. It’s a large-scale installation that combines high-contrast, high-resolution graphic renderings of data with an electronic soundscape and live performance that, ultimately, is submerged by the work’s furious display of light and sound. It begins temperately enough, a series of downstage screens lighting up in quick succession to a soundtrack of iPhone-like bleeps. This movement of light, soon overlaid with cascading, indecipherable data, adds up to a remarkable visual choreography, flawlessly synchronised between screens—there are two rows of 10 screens, plus a single floor-to-ceiling screen at the back of the theatre—and with a soundscape that, in its forays into uncomfortably low and high frequencies and sheer volume, made me reach several times for the earplugs audience members are given before entering the auditorium.

Singularly in Ikeda’s body of installation-based work, Superposition is deepened by the presence of two performers (Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould) who sit at an overlong table. The relationship of their actions—tapping out Morse code, poring over old punched cards and crossword-like puzzles—to the ‘datamatics’ (Ikeda’s word for his visual representations of normally imperceptible data) is often obscure. But it also yields memorable synchronicities such as when Garin and Grould strike a series of tuning forks and the resulting sounds are visualised in real time as sine waves. The phrase “information is not knowledge” takes its place within the ever-accruing streams of data and this, I think, points to Superposition’s formal and thematic resonances. The bombardment of information is overwhelming, vexingly impenetrable in the absence of a discernible framework of meaning. There is a certain satisfaction to this on a conceptual level, and also, undoubtedly, in the work as a feat of digital programming, but its transference from art space to theatre is problematic. In this setting, I found the presence of the two performers strangely dispiriting, their seeming lack of energy and agency emphasised not only by the work’s sterility but also by its unsuitability for the proscenium stage. (See Lauren Carroll Harris’ response to the Carriageworks’ showing on page 29.)



Meanwhile, Dancenorth and Japanese Butoh collective Batik’s fusion of contemporary dance, live music and digital sculpture Spectra underscored the rich potential of emergent cross-cultural performance. Its conceptual source is Buddhist philosophy rather than quantum physics—the notion of dependent origination, one term among many for the endless succession of causes and conditions that precedes all things. The choreography, by Dancenorth’s recently appointed Artistic Director Kyle Page in collaboration with Amber Haines, Alisdair Macindoe, Japanese-Australian Josh Mu and Japanese performers Mamiko Oe and Rie Teranishi, extends this idea, in itself a basic choreographic principle, into an intense embodiment of causality’s chain-like nature.

The work opens with a single performer, Macindoe, warmly and intimately lit in a beautiful design by Niklas Pajanti. He opens his body to the space slowly, a speck of cosmic matter—or, perhaps, a life form in infancy—feeling for the first time its connection to energies outside itself, its closed loop of origination. His arm, seemingly animated by an external force, undulates robotically and the action, equal and opposite, is repeated on the other side of his body. The presence of other bodies in the space allows the broadening of this principle of movement without compromising its simplicity, the dancers propelling, obstructing and interlocking with one another in largely unbroken sequence. The work is fired by an improvisatory energy and freighted with sensual, carnal gestures of bodily consumption and emission drawn from Butoh’s viscerally expressive language: orgiastic eating, violent seizures and the exchange of air between the mouths of the dancers. The simple manipulation of ropes, thrown into sine wave-like ripples by the dancers, is a further, elegant rendering of the concept.

The eclectic Japanese composer Jiro Matsumoto contributes an atmospheric live score, his bluesy, sustain-heavy guitar playing and largely indistinct vocals supplemented with the use of effects pedals and looping. Tatsuo Miyajima’s set—dozens of white and red LED timers suspended at various points and heights around the stage—sits above the work in both a literal and figurative sense. However handsome, this extension of Miyajima’s longtime practice as an installation artist feels like an imposition on, rather than a complement to, the compelling display of physical and cultural collision taking place beneath it.


Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker

We’re asked, as we wait to be shown into the performance space, to remove our shoes and socks and place them in a plastic bag. A transparent rain poncho is then handed to us with the warning that we’re likely to get wet during the show. Water isn’t the half of it. Minutes into Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, the air is filled with not only the contents of dozens of buckets of water but also seaweed, tofu and any number of discarded props and items of costume. Half-way into the show, the floor is inches deep in water and cheap shop ephemera: glow sticks, tickertape, confetti, toy swords and helmets, placards, wigs and plastic bags.

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker is a spectacle of self-eviscerating excess, the detritus its necessary corollary—the flipside of an increasingly attention deficient and evermore disposable popular culture writ large. Directed and choreographed by Toco Nikaido—who sits on a ladder at the back of the auditorium throughout the show, taking, we’re told during a long preamble, “thousands of notes”—the show flaunts a bewildering array of influences, from Japanese game shows and otaku (geek) culture to manga, idol TV, alternative theatre aesthetics and even, if I’m not mistaken, Shinto ritualism. Its costume design is equally eclectic, drawing on cosplay and flamboyant Japanese subcultural fashions like Lolita and kawaii. In its kitschiness and high energy, soundtracked by booming J-pop and techno, it plays like a relentlessly peppy high school eisteddfod, one song and dance routine following another at breakneck speed. Wall-to-wall projections flit like test patterns from one lurid mélange of colour to another as the performers strut and leer in engaging but never intimidating proximity to the audience. We’re handed props and signs to hold throughout the show and invited at its finale to exchange places with the performers, our gaze inverted as we, now the idols ourselves, are swallowed up by reality TV’s irresistible contract. But, of course, it’s only for a Warholian moment, the performers already ushering us out, the floor awash with tomorrow’s landfill. “Who,” asked Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” Who indeed?

2015 OzAsia Festival: Teater Garasi, The Streets, director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, Space Theatre, 24-26 Sept; Superposition, concept, direction, music Ryoji Ikeda, Dunstan Playhouse, 29-30 Sept; Dancenorth/Batik, Spectra, concept Kyle Page, direction Kyle Page, Amber Haines, Space Theatre, 29 Sept-1 Oct; Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, direction and choreography Toco Nikaido, Dunstan Playhouse Rehearsal Room, Adelaide Festival Centre, 30 Sept-3 Oct.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 4-5

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

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

This year’s OzAsia Festival music program included two highly innovative and absorbing musical performances: Taiwan’s M.O.V.E. Theatre produced a homage to John Cage that involved dance, light displays, technological gadgetry and audience participation as well as sound, and the Australian Art Orchestra combined with musicians and performers from Sichuan to create a unique and hypnotic musical form.

M.O.V.E Theatre, Dear John

Ten minutes before M.O.V.E. Theatre’s performance commences, we’re let into Nexus Cabaret to find a darkened room with many curious spotlit objects spread around the empty space. The only sound is of water dripping from an electronically controlled container hanging beneath the ceiling, into a beaker on a wooden crate, a meditative sound that heightens our awareness. More crates are scattered around the room and dozens of tiny coloured lights glow in the dark. What really catches the imagination is the guts of a dismantled piano, mounted in a timber frame with lengths of twine attached to the hammers and extending across the room where they are stitched to a jacket hanging mid-air. There are suspended metal and bamboo wind chimes with dangling strings; as we wander around the space we brush against them, accidentally making sounds. On stage, more wooden crates form a bench covered with what looks like science-lab apparatus.

The performance commences when a dancer puts on the hanging jacket and activates the piano hammers by dancing. This is prepared piano modified to an extreme level, not just with Cagean screws and bits of rubber—the piano is completely re-imagined. The dancer and a percussionist then compete at the piano, the percussionist playing the strings and the wooden frame with mallets while the dancer simultaneously scrapes objects over the piano strings and even throws herself onto the strings to dampen the sound. The audience crowds around this spectacle as they might at a cock-fight.

As the performance unfolds, the dancer moves from apparatus to apparatus, drawing the audience with her. At an array of light bulbs, she invites a child audience member to join her in rapidly switching the lights on and off, creating a spontaneous dance of light. In another corner she dances on a platform inside a cube outlined by beams of light. The sound of a mechanically rotated rain-stick is occasionally heard, lights flash and electronic and acoustic sounds emanate from around the room without warning. The percussionist uses mallets to play the resonant metal staircase at the rear of the space, using the architecture as instrument. The dancer performs with a lit bulb and then plays a tiny concertina taken from another crate. Dear John playfully explores the intersection of sound, movement, light, technology and audience, and the meditative sound of dripping water closes the performance.

Afterwards, there’s a Q&A session with the director, performers and audience discussing the work’s concept in depth. There can be no better homage to Cage than to extend his experimental approach. After the Q&A, we’re invited to play with the equipment ourselves, breaking down the final barrier between performer and audience and encouraging our own experimentation.

Water Pushes Sand

Water Pushes Sand

Water Pushes Sand

Australian Art Orchestra, Water Pushes Sand

The Australian Art Orchestra’s concert opens dramatically as two percussionists on stage play gongs heralding a procession of the wind players and an actor entering from the rear of the auditorium. Fusing jazz with traditional Chinese musical forms and instrumentation, the ensemble is led by pianist and composer Erik Griswold, who arranged the 10 pieces, and comprises five AAO performers on piano, percussion, trumpet, saxes and contrabass, four Sichuan musicians playing gongs, the double-reed suona, the banhu, bamboo flutes and the gu zheng, and charismatic actor-vocalist Zheng Sheng Li.

The music is characterised by driving jazz rhythms, but the sensibility is imbued with traditional Chinese flavours by the instrumentation and the melodic lines based on traditional songs using the pentatonic scale. The bamboo flute makes a perfect jazz instrument and even the suona, with its high-pitched, reedy sound, blends into the ensemble. In one piece, the sax player and the suona player face off in a musical duel that reaches a thrilling climax. In the final work, entitled Changing Faces, Zheng Sheng Li in costume virtuosically performs bian lian, the magically quick changing of masks worn by actors in traditional Sichuan opera.

While the artists perform, there are videos of street scenes in Chengdu. In introducing the pieces, Griswold tells stories of the city, including that of a 300-year-old laneway that is being redeveloped. The final video is of the beautiful Anshun Bridge that crosses the Jin River in Chengdu. The concert ends as it began, the performers departing in a noisy, clanging procession.

Griswold and percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson’s regular visits to Sichuan have resulted in a highly appealing musical form. The performers revel in taking their music in new directions. The performance would work well in cabaret or a club—the traditional concert format seems too formal for such compelling music. As well as being accessible and fun, the form enlivens both cultures. Griswold speaks of the blurring lines between Chinese and Australian culture, and the music typifies this burgeoning hybridity.

These concerts exemplify the OzAsia Festival, which has grown in scale, complexity, interest and reach over recent years and whose influence is building cultural recognition and respect.

2015 OzAsia Festival Music Program: M.O.V.E. Theatre, Dear John, Nexus Cabaret, 2 Oct; Australian Art Orchestra, Water Pushes Sand, Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, 3 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 6

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

Jumaadi, Landscape of Longing

Jumaadi, Landscape of Longing

Jumaadi, Landscape of Longing

This year’s OzAsia visual art program foregrounded Indonesian contemporary art, focusing on the reflexive re-invention of the individual in a rapidly evolving world as evident in the works of eminent Indonesian artists FX Harsono, MES56, Eko Nugroho and Jumaadi who all reconsider cultural and national histories. The program also includes the Shedding Light exhibition of artwork by South Australian and Indonesian artists with disabilities, demonstrating the capacity of art to provide a voice for all members of the community.

FX Harsono

FX Harsono’s exhibition Beyond Identity focuses particularly on the events of the 1947-1949 killing of people of Chinese descent in parts of Indonesia and on discrimination against minority groups and the consequent loss of personal and cultural identity. The exhibition comprises a video and a set of five rubbings in vivid red pastel on long sheets of cloth. The rubbings, entitled Pilgrimage to History, were made from the tombstones at mass graves and show the names, in Chinese, of those interred. Harsono is researching the history of Chinese Indonesians, the Tionghoa, to produce a documentary and is looking for other mass graves. He learned of the massacre of Chinese Indonesians through photos taken by his father who had excavated and reburied bodies of the victims.

Harsono is Indonesian but also identifies himself as Chinese and Catholic. In his video Writing in the Rain (2011) (see p.2) we view him through a sheet of glass repeatedly writing his name in Chinese over the same spot on the glass. Water, representing rain, then begins to wash the ink down the glass. The artist writes using a calligraphy brush, symbolically representing a tradition that is itself washed away. A 1967 Indonesian law required Chinese people wanting citizenship to change their names to Indonesian. The name he writes on glass is his in Chinese, unused since 1967. As he writes, the ink slowly masks his face from our view. Then the water washes the ink away to reveal him, suggesting a process of personal reinvention. Today, art such as Harsono’s is no longer censored, but he notes that Chinese Indonesians were again attacked in the upheavals of 1998 that culminated in the resignation of President Suharto.

Eko Nugroho

Prolific cultural commentator Eko Nugroho’s Mooi Anomaly welcomes visitors to the Art Gallery of SA with five gigantic lanterns hung between the neo-classical columns of the entrance, creating a suggestive juxtaposition. The work’s ironic title recalls the colonial concept of Mooi Indi or beautiful Indies. The oversized lanterns are decorated with cartoon images of strange composite beings instead of traditional lantern imagery, as if grotesque, hybrid cultures have supplanted colonial and traditional culture.


The artist collective MES56’s evocative exhibition Alhamdulillah, We Made It, examines the universal and highly topical theme of displacement through the plight of refugees in transit. Established in the late 1990s, MES56’s experimental photography, which they pioneered in Indonesia, predates the Reformasi period that followed the end of the Suharto regime. This body of work at the Adelaide Festival Centre was inspired by their visit to the Yogyakarta Refugee Centre. The photos show the kinds of ideal locations to which the refugees wish to go, but the images are manipulated to show the refugees as silhouettes, as if they have been excluded or erased from the site. The captions provide just the names and origins of the refugees, and they thus remain distant and impersonal to us. But we can visualise ourselves in their place as we already dwell in their destinations.


Australia-based Indonesian artist Jumaadi makes paintings and sculptures and also videos of his shadow puppetry performances, examining, blending and reinventing Indonesian traditions and contemporary globalised art forms. His exhibition Landscape of Longing includes his Beehive Mountain, a series of large regional maps on which he has sketched images of people undertaking journeys as if they are mapping themselves onto the world. He states his map series is about travel and mobility, and in his sculpture and paintings he frequently depicts individuals carrying heavy loads or on a journey. The struggle of these individuals seems to be a metaphor for the reflexive process of responding to one’s location. The original maps represent the colonisation, control and ownership of territory and its inhabitants, and his appropriation can be read as the reappropriation or re-inscription of that region.

Jumaadi’s captivating video Give Me Back My Body and I Will Return Your Soul shows in split-screen format a shadow puppet play devised and performed by the artist with vocalists and musicians, and simultaneously shows the performers at work. The play opens dramatically with the portentous tolling of a gong accompanying imagery of headless corpses in a field. The story is of epic proportions—the dead are carried away; a monster arrives to devour a body; a heroic figure arrives and is angry at the devastation; a woman gives birth. The plot suggests the inevitable cycle of life and death, birth and destruction. Finally, the text references prophets and biblical figures — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Mohammed, Jesus, Jonah. The world is ultimately described as undifferentiated mud, a reference to the 2006 Lapindo mud disaster, which occurred in Jumaadi’s hometown, implying that our cultural and philosophical traditions are impotent in the face of environmental disaster.

Jumaadi’s bronze, figurative sculptures are collectively entitled 14 Stations. The title references the Crucifixion, but instead of carrying crosses, the figures bear emblematic objects such as a boat or an elephant. One bears his own amputated leg, as if defying any attempt to stop his journey. Another carries a refrigerator, referencing the looting that accompanied the 1998 Indonesian riots.

Jumaadi’s Strange Fruit paintings, on shaped sheets of cardboard sourced from fruit cartons, appear abstract but are symbolic, as dots or the outlines of heads in a crowd. Because Belgium was a colonial power, the artist uses cardboard instead of Belgian linen, suggesting the displacement or rejection of colonisation. The work’s caption states that Strange Fruit refers to the fig trees at Middle Head, Sydney, a species also found in Indonesia that is significant in Javanese cosmology, while the title quotes the song made famous by Billie Holiday about lynchings of Afro-Americans in the US South. All these ideas, Jumaadi says, coalesced in his mind and his art is an aggregation of disparate themes. By thus demonstrating his own thought processes, he shows how cultural identity is formed, disrupted and realigned through relocation.

Shedding Light, Tutti Arts/Perspektif

Shedding Light, Tutti Arts/Perspektif

Shedding Light, Tutti Arts/Perspektif

Shedding Light

Adelaide’s Tutti Arts, which provides opportunities for people with intellectual and learning disabilities to make art and develop an artistic practice, worked with their counterpart organisation in Indonesia, Perspektif, to produce an enchanting exhibition of work by artists with disabilities from both countries entitled Shedding Light. The collaboration provided the artists with mutual support and the opportunity to travel, and their work ranged across themes from popular culture including images of characters from fairy tales to observations from their travels such as exquisite drawings of shadow puppets and paintings of mobile food stalls. Their paintings and drawings are characterised by vivid colour and imaginative illustration, as each records their insights into their own and each others’ lives and cultures. The Perspektif artists included a series of small canvases covered with buttons or painted dots, delightfully balancing colour, form and materials. Each artist has developed a distinctive visual language, and their art is not only an essential form of self-expression, it establishes a unique and perceptive approach to visual culture.

Central to the exhibition is a video documentary, the Story Behind Shedding Light, in which Adelaide artist James Kurtze discusses his work and the genesis of the collaborative exhibition. A mobile stall in the gallery was filled with artworks for sale and there were performances and pop-up installations around the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Shedding Light draws attention to people who are often invisible or suffer discrimination and who are reinventing themselves through their art. Crucially, the artists are no longer identified as outsiders or by their disabilities but as artists. The inclusion of this work in the visual arts program embodies the mutual cooperation that is the raison d’être of OzAsia, and provides a foundation for future collaboration.

2015 OzAsia Festival Visual Arts Program: FX Harsono, Nexus Arts; Eko Nugroho, Art Gallery of South Australia; MES56, Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre; Jumaadi and Shedding Light, Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, University of South Australia; Adelaide, 24 Sept-4 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 8-9

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

Nani Losari, Topeng Cirebon

Nani Losari, Topeng Cirebon

Nani Losari, Topeng Cirebon

From the darkened space comes a rhythmic stamping, steady and implacable. Slowly, from the black, an eerie white spectre appears, then legs in loose red pants illuminated by a tight spotlight. We see a man, feet pounding, down on the ball of his right foot, then the heel of his left.

Cry Jailolo

In many ways Cry Jailolo, from Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto, is a study in repetition. The work plays off the rigid structure we’re exposed to in the opening moments through the rest of the work, melding elements of militarised marching, stylised fighting and traditional Javanese dancing with contemporary European choreography.

Composer Setyawan Jayantoro also melds influences: a driving electronic score woven through with traditional instruments, but always building from the rhythm of pounding flesh. His soundscape is imbued with the thud of bare feet on the stage and hands clapping slightly off the beat: unexpected rhythms forcing us to focus our attention.

Building the work from this lone man, Supriyanto slowly introduces two more courting each other in a fight, and builds again to seven men working in harmony, endlessly stamping as they track across the stage. Then, he breaks the rhythm: one man peels free, six move in unison; or they all circle and swirl around the stage, splintering out, each expressing their own physicality.

Supriyanto created this work with non-dancers drawn from the community of West Halmahera suffering from the environmental degradation wrought on their island. He works with them to evoke the beauty of a world that is being lost. Bodies swirl to represent the currents and the schools of fish for which these oceans are home.

The performers never appear untrained—they perform with skill and precision–but perhaps because they are, the signs of the physical demands of the work are heightened. They become physically worn by the unrelenting movement and rhythms: leg muscles visibly weakening, sweat shining on their naked chests, exhaustion carving curves in their spines. At one time, they stand in silence, breathing heavily and staring out at the audience. But as the work continues Jayantoro’s music and Supriyanto’s choreography become increasingly frenetic and the dancers’ bodies fall.

With his swirling images of the ocean and of dancers pushed to their limits, Supriyanto builds a physical manifestation of the fight against environmental degradation: endless, exhausting, necessary.Cry Jailolo

Cry Jailolo

Cry Jailolo


From choreographers and dancers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shantala Shivalingappa, the work Play is all in the title: the pair dance the play of childhood exploration; they play their cultural heritages against each other. Musical instruments are played; as is a game of chess. Hands play out a rhythm on a wooden table, projected large above the stage: a vision of music as choreography, the creation of music through play.

It is a slightly uneven work—an extended mask sequence plays too heavily on an outdated sense of humour; a blindfolded dance with an audience member jars. But when the work excels it’s compelling. The key to the passion and complexity of the work is found in Cherkaoui and Shivalingappa’s playing out of their dance vocabularies: contemporary European dance versus classical Kuchipudi from India.

In the moments of contemporary dance both performers are virtuosic, engaging with physical limits and expressing all the possible beauty of their bodies, communicating with each other and with the space they embody. In a solo passage Cherkaoui extends his body into a state of almost incomprehensible looseness: throwing himself around the stage, he extends his legs beyond what seems possible; he arches his back beyond the limits of the spine’s capacity to bend.

But as the pair begins to perform elements derived from Kuchipudi the limitations of Cherkaoui’s training in the form and the intensity of Shivalingappa’s show through. His wrists are never quite held at the right slant; his fingers don’t hold the same tension and power as hers; he never quite achieves the same angularity in the movement of his shoulders and head. This doesn’t diminish our view of his virtuosity; instead, it allows us to fully appreciate hers.

The pair play further with this idea. Hands clasped behind their backs they perform the same rhythmic footwork. Cherkaoui’s feet stamp in heavy black shoes. Shivalingappa’s barefoot soles pound the stage, her toes curling upwards. We see their movements as pure representation of the lineage of Indian dance alongside the European, both manifested here as resolutely modern and born of play.

Topeng Cirebon

While modern Asia was the focus of most of director Joseph Mitchell’s first OzAsia Festival, his curation also reached back to traditional art forms. From the West Javanese city of Cirebon, two dancers and a 17-piece gamelan orchestra presented Topeng Cirebon: a continuing tradition of masked dance performance, dating back 600 years.

With intricately carved wooden masks, performers Nani Losari and Inusi embody traditional characters: playing with ideas of nobility, gender and the devil. They show strength and control as they hold their bodies in squats; they intrigue us as the smoothness of movement in their wrists plays against juddering limbs.

The comfortable seats and LED stage lights of the Dunstan Playhouse feel somewhat at odds with the presentation of this traditional form, and the performance extends for perhaps slightly too long for anyone not knowing topeng and thus unable to pick up the intricacies in shifts between scenes and physicalities. But with only one performance in the festival, Topeng Cirebon is a work firmly aimed at Adelaide’s Indonesian community: an audience invested in this traditional form and excited to see leaders in the craft.

OzAsia’s strength is its focus on both the historical and contemporary art forms it brings to an Australian audience. It’s necessary to see work like Topeng Cirebon to more fully understand the culture of Cry Jailolo and the masks of Play. Still, to Western eyes the passion, power and talent of the region and its artists comes through less when showing us the past than when it is built upon, driving dance into the future.

OzAsia Festival 2015, Cry Jailio, 24-26 Sept; Play, 2-3 Oct; Topeng Cirebon, 26 Sept; Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 10

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

Melati Suryodarmo, 24,901 Miles

Melati Suryodarmo, 24,901 Miles

Melati Suryodarmo, 24,901 Miles

Over a roomful of red sand 15 centimetres deep, Melati Suryodarmo transports a large, white mattress. She carries it on her head in the familiar burden-bearing posture of the Global South or arches it over her prostrate body as though sheltering from the elements. The other object in the space is an old spade with which Suryodarmo moves, Sisyphus-like, shovelfuls of sand from one part to another without discernable purpose. At other times, it is clear she is attempting to erect a trench or ridge, but such utilitarian action seems always accompanied by a sense of defeat—at any moment her sculpting of the landscape may be abandoned, Suryodarmo’s task unfinished as she resumes dragging the spade unproductively around the space, or wearily retreats to the sanctuary of the mattress.

There are few unambiguous cultural signals here. The artist’s earth-coloured scrubs are carefully neutral in effect, and even the red sand—palpably redolent of the history and landscape of Indigenous Australia—was, as Suryodarmo explained to me during our interview, an “accidental connection,” chosen simply as a reflection of the red brick with which houses are usually built. The work’s inescapable resonances with the unfolding European refugee crisis were similarly unpremediated. As I learned, Suryodarmo revels in these serendipities, and most especially in the multiplicity of meanings they open up for audiences of her work. “Consciously or unconsciously,” she says, “the public’s view of my art reflects their baggage, their own background, their own space. That’s why I like art, because it doesn’t necessarily have to be authoritative in terms of offering thoughts. Often I think we forget that artists should just give an impulse, a hint or a cue. People like to enter dimensions other than their daily life.”

24,901 Miles, commissioned by OzAsia Festival, is the first live performance Suryodarmo has premiered in Australia. Accompanied by a significant retrospective of documented live performance works and video art held across multiple venues, the moment feels overdue. Dividing her time between birthplace Indonesia and adopted home Germany, site of her alma mater, The Braunschweig University of Art, Suryodarmo’s body of primarily durational work has acquired international standing. Doubtless her tutelage by Marina Abramovic has opened doors, but we need not make too much of this—Suryodarmo’s practice is highly distinctive, a synthesis of European and Indonesian influences and methodologies that, through the filter of an absorbingly eccentric and charismatic personality, transcends category and boundary in its restless interrogation of form and its limits. “For me,” Suryodarmo confirms, “there are no restrictions; my work is fluid.”

I ask her about the differences she has perceived between the reception of her work in Europe and in Asia. “I cannot represent public opinion about my work,” she says, “but what I feel through being curated in different kinds of festivals and exhibitions is that the interest in new, contemporary performance is growing in the Asia-Pacific region. In Europe the curatorial ethic is very strong, related to political thought, to cultural politics, but I’m still seen there as representing Asia—not just Melati as Melati. As long as this sort of thing is still going on in the performing arts market, I’m very much not interested.”

Suryodarmo contrasts this with the contemporary visual art world in which she detects a greater openness to formal experimentation and less overt pressure to act as cultural envoy. “There are more people there interested in my art form, in performance art and video. But during the last couple of years I’ve also been working with dancers, choreographers, actors and also visual artists because I want to explore the relationship between theatre and dance, between many different modes. So it’s not just about taking performance art out of the gallery and inserting it into the theatre world; it’s about encounters and exchanges, about how the audience meets the artist.”

Suryodarmo’s work is not usually visceral, nor confronting or confrontational. Unlike many of the artists currently engaging with the international resurgence of body-based performance art, she places her body under stress but not in situations of extreme peril—rather the work is meditative, an accumulation of subtle, repeated gestures or phrases that focus the passing of time. This may be as little as six minutes, as in the case of her best-known work, Exergie—Butter Dance (2000), or, more likely, as much as several hours, or even a day or more. I Love You (2007) saw Suryodarmo convey a 35-kilogram pane of tempered glass around a room for up to six hours while repeating, to the point of meaninglessness, the phrase ‘I love you.’ “I had to move carefully,” Suryodarmo says of the work, “my body following the object. But that’s also like daily life, where many things move you in one direction or another.” In I Love You, as in much of her work, Suryodarmo’s attitude towards her body is one in which her power of authority over it is partially surrendered, creating a vivid tension between the artist’s agency—her ability to bear and shift the weight of a heavy, unwieldy object—and the physical limitations imposed by both the object and the terrain of the performance space.

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m A Ghost In My Own House, 2012

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m A Ghost In My Own House, 2012

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m A Ghost In My Own House, 2012

The single mattress in 24,901 Miles has been distilled from the 20 with which Suryodarmo performed Dialogue With My Sleepless Tyrant (2013). In that work, inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Princess and the Pea, Suryodarmo lay between the mattresses with only her head exposed, her long hair trailing down the side of the stack in an image that recalled another children’s story, Rapunzel, as recorded by the Brothers Grimm. When the weight became too much for her to bear, Suryodarmo would rotate her body and push upwards until the mattresses crushing her toppled to the ground. If I Love You assayed the burden of words and hackneyed notions like romantic love through a sustained image of the body under pressure, then Dialogue deployed an equally suffocating materiality as a metaphor for the social expectations faced by women.

In 24,901 Miles (the work’s title is derived from the circumference of the Earth at the equator) Suryodarmo does something else again, the peripatetic mattress becoming a symbol of home and of our search for roots in a time of mass displacement. The work’s development began, Suryodarmo explained to me, with an investigation of the circular nature of the movement of people and cultures throughout history: “I’m very interested in how our relationship with our ancestors moves in a circle. So in my own culture we see how the Indian people influenced Indonesian culture, also the Aboriginal people here—they grew up, moved, and they came back again. I’m fascinated by the way this cycle never comes to an end until we say ‘actually, I am looking for a home.’ And this is everybody’s basic myth—to have a home. Even people who deny it, strong people who say ‘no—I don’t need a home’, imagining perhaps that their body can be a home. But it can’t.”

The necessity for shelter—a spiritual as well as material precondition for a life well lived—is at the heart of 24,901 Miles, a fact emphasised by Suryodarmo’s resilient but ultimately fragile physical presence within the space. Despite her solid frame, she looks small amid the furrows of red sand, which are thrown into dusky relief by four amber lights. As she drags the mattress and shovel around, she visibly tires, her hair becoming increasingly dishevelled, her face draining of colour from the effort to navigate the encumbering sand. It’s impossible to witness the artist’s physical weakening, stretched out over the work’s two five-hour days, without thinking of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees huddled in the winter cold of alien countries and wishing, more than anything, to circle home.

This, for Suryodarmo, is not merely an abstraction. Though not a refugee, she has a fraught relationship with migration. Her 1998 work Der Sekundentraum saw her reflect on her doubts around identity and belonging through the folding and piling of hundreds of items of clothing that she had collected during her time away from home. After disordering them again, Suryodarmo then put each item on until the weight and physical constriction of the clothes prevented her from moving—an archetypal anxiety dream in which the body is rendered immobile by an increasingly oppressive outside force.

I ask Suryodarmo if she still considers Solo, Java, the city in which she was born, to be her home. “Yes,” she replies, then adds heartily: “and Germany!” It’s a typical answer, testifying to the fertile crosscurrents of time and place Melati Suryodarmo—perhaps more than any physical location—inhabits.

OzAsia Festival, Melati Suryodarmo, 24,901 Miles, Artspace Gallery, 25-26 Sept; Selected Works, Contemporary Art Centre of SA (CACSA), 9-30 Sept, Artspace Gallery, Adelaide, 9 Sep-4 Oct

Melati Suryodarmo will perform her 12-hour work I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012), in which she crushes and grinds hundreds of kilograms of charcoal briquettes into powder and dust, in the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane 21 Nov, 2015-10 April, 2016

This interview is a co-commission with Tanzconnexions Asia-Pacific (Goethe-Institut).

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 11

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

101.IS TO 5000.AU, Sandpit /Kviss Búmm Bang performance

101.IS TO 5000.AU, Sandpit /Kviss Búmm Bang performance

101.IS TO 5000.AU, Sandpit /Kviss Búmm Bang performance

Near and Far is the first public project of Performance & Art Development Agency (PADA), founded by Vitalstatistix Creative Director Emma Webb and Country Arts SA Creative Producer Steve Mayhew. “Exploring distance, time, communication and personal agency” (program), the event—held in Adelaide’s heritage-listed empty shell venue the Queen’s Theatre—presented four new works of wide-ranging and resonantly contemporary form and theme by Australian and international artists, as well as an experimental criticism project and artist talks. Mayhew’s keywords at the event’s opening were “corroboree” and “minimalism,” suggestive of an inclusive, ritualistic celebration of community and live performance in what are increasingly attenuated times for the arts. Webb was more blunt, signalling her prevailing desire for Near and Far to “engage with the fucked up-ness of the world.”


Kviss Búmm Bang

Icelandic participatory art makers Kviss Búmm Bang were not present for 101.IS TO 5000.AU, its running ceded to collaborators Daniel Koerner and Sam Haren of Sandpit. The title references the postcodes of Reykjavik and Adelaide, the two cities the work is designed to bridge through a set of instructions to be completed by audiences. Our first task was to collectively produce a map of Iceland on a large sheet of paper, felt-tip markers and imperfect memories our only aids. I contributed a wild guess as to the location of one of Iceland’s famously large and powerful waterfalls while others doodled the country’s airports, volcanoes and other icons. Meanwhile, audience members were randomly selected to use a rotary-dial telephone to place calls to various Icelandic establishments—hotels, restaurants and so on—for the purpose of discovering more about the country, each caller given a card that suggested a particular line of questioning. The work neatly exposed our ignorance of distant countries. At its conclusion, we bagged up the map for postage via snail mail to Iceland. I can only hope that its recipients’ laughter at our inept effort to map their homeland is cut short by their own realisation of how little they know of ours.


Sarah Rodigari/Josie Were

No doubt Emma Webb programmed Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out Touch Faith on the strength of her viewing of the work’s first iteration, with Emma Hall performing, at Arts House’s Going Nowhere in 2014 (RT125). Here the work is delegated to Josie Were (and the goat is Eddie, not Cindy) but the text—a performance lecture written in conjunction with UK artist and psychologist Joshua Sofaer about environmental ethics, the outsourcing of live art and our fear of missing out, accompanied by a very present animal—is unchanged. Draped in an airline blanket, Were delivers Rodigari’s monologue perceptively and humorously, veering from the text only to retrieve Eddie whose restlessness sees him dive off the back of the stage to the audience’s alarm. Despite the goat’s best attempts to entirely upstage Were, he fails. Rodigari’s text is a beautiful composition (it would work equally well outside a performance context), scholarly and deeply human, universal and confessional. Constructed in deceptively simple prose, it’s a kind of Freudian sluicing of neuroses around the cost in carbon of the artist’s (necessarily?) jet-setting practice. More broadly, the text dials into ongoing debates about the ontology of delegated performance and the validity of individualistic approaches to mitigating climate change. What is compromised and what made possible when, to invert Marina Abramovic, the artist is not present? It’s a question that will recur more frequently, and with greater import, as the outsourcing of live art continues to abrade old anxieties around authenticity, and as we pass frightening new climate change tipping points.
Josie Were and Eddie, Reach Out Touch Faith

Josie Were and Eddie, Reach Out Touch Faith

Josie Were and Eddie, Reach Out Touch Faith

Jason Sweeney

The final in a trilogy of ‘quiet’ works, interdisciplinary sound artist Jason Sweeney’s Silent Type, with furniture design by Dale Wright, provided an elegant space for meditation amid the hubbub of the exhibition. Replacing our shoes with hotel-style slippers, we are greeted upon entry with two oversized books laid out for our inspection. Gorgeously minimalistic in design, the books contain dozens of ‘instructions for listening,’ which recall Brian Eno’s famous Oblique Strategies intended to spur creativity and generate lateral thoughts. A typical instruction reads: “Walk towards a window and put your head out into the air. Move your head and listen to the shifting sounds. Try to replace the sounds of cars and people with birds.” In the centre of the space sits a cross-legged, guru-like Sweeney on a round mat, surrounded by the accoutrements of the DJ: twin turntables and a mixer. There are two listening stations with headphones into which Sweeney pipes his nominal set, “a resonant and melancholy collective sound in a space where all that is left are scattered remains, hopeful fragments, sustained chords and distant echoes” (program). In another part of the space a different, deeper kind of introspection is catered for: noise-cancelling headphones lining a circle of wooden benches that surround a group of candles. I slip a pair of headphones on, close my eyes and happily let minutes pass in silence. I don’t fall asleep, as Steve Mayhew encouraged us to do during his opening remarks, but I do appreciate anew the capacity of the quiet to restore and prompt reassessment in our perpetually noisy culture.


Sarah-Jane Norman

Contrastingly, Sarah-Jane Norman’s work-in-progress Stone Tape Theory deploys a complex, nightmarish soundscape to explore memory and trauma. Norman, confined to a darkened space for 30 hours (in six-hour intervals over five successive days), uses analogue tape to record a stream of haphazard recollections from her recent and distant past, broadcast simultaneously into the space over 12 separate channels. Constituting a kind of audio palimpsest, each tape is erased following playback, and another recorded in its place. The result is an eerie, constantly evolving sonic landscape of fragmentary narratives and, finally, auto-decay as the tapes are worn unusably down. The work takes its name from the hypothesis of residual haunting, which posits that inanimate materials such as stone or wood can store and play back, as apparitions of one kind or another, impressions left by traumatic events, asking whether memory itself is not a kind of haunting, a ghostly afterimage of half-remembered experience that lingers within the body. Novel, unsettling and demonstrating fearless commitment from the artist, Stone Tape Theory should progress to full realisation with high hopes.


Jane Howard

Finally, Adelaide-based critic Jane Howard presented Simple Art Transfer Protocol, an experimental criticism and documentary project. Over the exhibition’s five days, Howard engaged via a subscribeable series of email chains with fellow critics Nicole Serratore (New York), Cassie Tongue (Sydney) and Megan Vaughan (London). Using the works in Near and Far as jumping off points, the conversations—passionate, articulate and deeply personal—traversed aesthetics, the state of criticism, diversity and representation in the arts, and much else besides. Howard was also physically present throughout Near and Far, hosting a series of similarly eclectic discussions from behind a desk strewn with performance books and accompanied by a world map on which she progressively plotted the location of her subscribers (not surprisingly, they were concentrated in Adelaide but their range was impressively international). All in all, it was a fascinating, though perhaps conceptually and ethically unresolved, experiment in embedded criticism that was able to generate refreshingly vivid dialogues about art and how we talk about art.

PADA, Near and Far, curators & producers Emma Webb, Steve Mayhew, Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide 16-20 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 13

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

The Black Stump, Jonathan Jones

The Black Stump, Jonathan Jones

The Black Stump, Jonathan Jones

The springtime flowering of Performance Space’s Liveworks was well worth waiting for to revel in a wild garden of strange varieties, brilliant hybrids, spooky ornamentals and unnamed species. But brightness can bite the spirit and the darkness in undergrowth eat at the soul. New experiences disoriented us aesthetically, perceptually and morally in a festival that realised the best part of Performance Space’s annual program in three delirium-inducing weeks.


Jonathan Jones, guguma guriin/black stump

Desecrated nature was a grim presence in Jonathan Jones’ guguma guriin, black stump—an eerie field of 32 inverted native tree stumps hoisted low on small black metal stems, entwined roots twisting painfully out and upwards as if tormented at the moment of the trees’ passing.

The darkened gallery, the formally arranged stumps, charcoal rubbings of their cross sections on a wall and the recorded singing ‘in language’ of “Amazing Grace” conjures a memorial place, a complex spiritual space in which the pain of loss of sacred land to colonisation coexists with Christian optimism and without contradiction. Guguma guriin was a hauntingly memorable Liveworks centrepiece, its ‘liveness’ manifest in the triggering of learning and sad reflection.


Wade Marynowsky, Robot Opera

A different kind of immersion was experienced in Wade Marynowsky’s Robot Opera, a spectacle which I mostly enjoyed in the moment but less so on reflection. Stephen Jones (p20) addresses the issue of autonomy and control, so important if we are to believe that we are meeting robots, not animatrons. At least these robots were not pretend humans and were about as agile as Daleks. Robots are fascinating but do we need to dramatise their effects on us; movies have long done so. Here, in the vast Bay 17 we sight the robots; they signal us, it’s beautiful but we don’t get it; they advance; we mingle cautiously; they appear to track some of us, we’re fascinated; they form two lines between which we are corralled; the robots flicker and buzz, huge lights cross over us, the sound score erupts, warlike, with soaring quasi-spiritual soprano choiring, we feel threatened (are they Dalek cousins?); and then, entropy—the robots turn off, save for one which wanders among us (‘Sadly?,’ we finally project) to a halt. No messages. No exchange. The end. No narrative payoff, after all that. Not such a strange encounter, even if adroitly engineered, produced, composed and lit.


Victoria Hunt, Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water

The issue of heightened production values at the expense of content came up strongly at the RealTime forum at the end of Liveworks, in which a couple of festival-goers worried at a superfluity of effects in Victoria Hunt’s Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water, a work they nonetheless appreciated in many respects. The effects were truly remarkable but their relationship with the moving bodies of the performers uncertain, frequently veiling them and some seemingly key design elements. Had we witnessed a dance/movement work or an enormous light and water sculpture in which was buried an evocation of the cultural/spiritual life of women of the South Pacific? Some moments stood out: Hunt’s primordial birthing figure and Kristina Chan’s crawling, panic-breathing creature (who or what is she?) struggling to stand. Otherwise how central was movement to the work? As in Robot Opera, an overwhelming sound score demanded attention, here evoking the power of wind and water, complementing the visually dominant beauty of falling mist and the ebb and flow of low shoreline waves in a female water world inhabited by barely discernible gods and spirits. Experience of Hunt’s previous work helped (Copper Promise: Hinemiki Haka, 2012, RT109, p6), but Tangi Wai is not an exposition of cultural knowledge, it’s Hunt’s embodied expression of her culture, if with far less body than anticipated. The work concluded with a deeply alarming image, a surprisingly literal one that evoked the end of traditional South Pacific womanhood with the advent of European colonisation.

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer


Eisa Jocson, Death of a Pole Dancer, Macho Dancer, Host

Context was again an issue, if in a different way, in the performances by Filipino dancer Eisa Jocson. “The invisibility of the original context was problematic,” writes Fiona McGregor. Meaning is clear enough: example, the three figures Jocson represents are exploited workers—pole dancer, macho dancer and a Filipina who takes on the traditional dance young Japanese won’t. But MacGregor sees these dances (she saw the first two) as abstracted from reality by European dramaturgy, making them purely art objects for delectation for a certain class of viewer not likely to have experienced the gritty reality of the venues where the dancers perform. The truth of that aside, Jocson’s works are nonetheless powerful expressions of empathy and protest by an artist committed to learning these demanding forms. The full power of her performances will doubtless be felt at home in the Philippines where context will be a given.

In Death of the Pole Dancer I was taken by Jocson’s considered construction and testing of her pole—circling and rhythmically thrusting herself against it with a complementary sharp clicking of her heels and inherent musicality. The repeated, slow upside down slide that concludes the work portrays the pole dancer’s demise (Jocson admitting in an interview a few days after that she is now almost beyond executing the demanding move). In Macho Dancer, Jocson becomes a young, gum-chewing male dancer passing though a series of telling phases in which he is variously proud, defiant, calculatingly erotic and sulky; at one point he stops dancing and withdraws into upstage shadow—a tease or a moment of existential doubt?

In Host, as we hear the lap and drip of water to temple bells and gradually distorted chanting, Jocson’s foreign worker appears in a kitschily glittering kimono, dances with a Noh devil mask and then peels off her outfit to reveal a finer, more tasteful kimono in which she dances with great refinement. Another layer, and another, is removed to near nakedness with erotic intent, but the outwardness of the performance turns bhuto-ishly inward, until the dancer is finally transformed into a grinning pretend teenage Korean pop star. Jocson’s entertainment industry worker is never less than adaptable, meeting market demands for Japanese refinement but also for the satisfaction of darker desires that lie beneath.

Garth Knight, Nemeton, Liveworks

Garth Knight, Nemeton, Liveworks

Garth Knight, Nemeton, Liveworks


Garth Knight, Nemeton

Also ‘out of context’ was Garth Knight’s Nemeton. Staged in Carriageworks’ vast foyer it brought to the fascinated public gaze the usually more private display, often photographic, of Japanese rope bondage, shibari. With a timber frame, rope and rocks Knight constructed a striking series of sculptural creations, each night incorporating a naked or near naked participant. When I saw the artist at work he had meticulously knotted the rope into something that looked like a three-trunked tree emerging from a bed of suspended rocks beneath which he was hanging a woman horizontally, her head arched back tautly, mouth stopped, legs flexing, muscles twitching involuntarily. Beautifully crafted but quite disturbing, the work prompted thoughts variously of being buried alive, crimes against women, the right to explore one’s physical and emotional limits and the complexities of ‘beauty.’ Foyer noise, audience movement, bright light, disco music and the artist going about his work partly undercut a sense of voyeurism, but not the power of the work.

Nicola Gunn

Nicola Gunn

Nicola Gunn

Nicola Gunn, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet seen Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, you might not want to read further. Gunn brings words powerfully into play in Liveworks in surprising ways. The show’s kind of stand-up but utterly physicalised with a constant stream of exercises and emotionally illustrative poses and movements. It’s a moral and physical workout, exhausting for performer and audience in the best possible way. Central to the work is the artist’s recall of seeing a man, a refugee she thinks, throwing stones at a nesting duck. It’s “a sitting duck,” she explains, incubating eggs and therefore will not move. A duck admirer in particular (“You are so awesome, duck”) she is outraged but worries at the refugee’s state of mind, triggering a relentless stream of moral speculations, relativities and contradictions. These are connected through a series of motifs, including the film Brief Encounter and things Belgian—Ghent (where she sees the assault on the duck), Poirot (well, the actor who plays him) and 19th century playwright Maeterlinck whose symbolist theatre made puppets of actors. Also recurrent are observations about artists: “How do you make something you don’t know to create? Artists do it all the time!” and, self-defensively in imagined conversation with the refugee, “I’m not on the lookout for material.” Plus there’s some “What would Marina do?” sniping at Marina Abramovic (Gunn was one of the 12 Kaldor Public Art Projects artists recently working with her). The motifs begin to add up when Gunn reveals her own anxieties—she’s concerned about lacking energy, being in her “early late 30s” and admits to having behaved badly in Ghent, rationalising this with the philosopher Levinas’ notion of “the temptation of temptation.”

The breathtaking workout having pretty much run out of words and puff and Gunn having failed ‘to stand in the refugee’s shoes,’ she spectacularly transforms into the object of her admiration, the mother duck, slowly repeating just a few words which are increasingly swamped by Kelly Ryall’s score, now deep organ notes and high shrill ones—including “I’ll sit and think awhile” as laser beams sweep around us in a self-mocking, over-the-top fantasia of identification and evasion.

Witty, outright funny, deeply intelligent and, as intended, morally perplexing, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster joined Eisa Jocson’s trio of performances, Jonathan Jones’ guguma guriin and Vicki Van Hout’s Les Festivités Lubrifier as festival experiences I’ll long remember. Gunn and Van Hout make a great pair: wickedly funny, self-deprecating ironists and highly inventive artists, both playing experimentally with form in ways that make their works rewardingly unpredictable. To again quote Gunn, “How do you make something you don’t know to create? Artists do it all the time!” That’s experimentalism, which is the thrill of Liveworks, an intensive gathering of works that test forms, ideas and the senses and, above all, our openness to new experiences. I look forward to the next of these annual wild flowerings.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 14-15

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

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

A piercing single light source, an eye which surveils. Cracking, rumbling materiality of Earth’s movements sonified. Visual and auditory marks of something transcendent above and below. It exists; we are born. These, the originating gestures of Victoria Hunt’s latest work Tangi Wai—The Cry of Water, herald new formations in discrete episodes which roll out like waves, first lapping at our attention, then amplifying in their motion and affect through a finely crafted composition of light, sound, movement, object and, indeed, water.

Creation. A hunched form is fed life through a tube of pulsing light, vacillating somewhere between Frankensteinian construction and a story from the Book of Job. The noise of geo-thermal pressure gives over to zapping scapes that spark more life (sound design James Brown). Figures appear, naked from the waist; they float, encircled by light, gently rocking hips and snaking vertebrae, headless and faceless, the female form enshrined. A tension is assumed between bones fossilised, pre-civilised and their careful ‘plinth presentation’ on long crimson skirts (costume design Annemaree Dalziel, Victoria Hunt).

A duet emerges between Victoria Hunt and Kristina Chan within a river of light. Moving separately, but through similar pathways, a quality, rather than form or shape, emanates, birthing a new element—simultaneously solid, liquid, gas. Time and space are transformed. Something is stirred.

Hunt emerges alone from the darkness. We first feel and hear the wetness of the space. Passing light glints from the vertical descent of a cloudy mist of water droplets that stream steadily from sky to earth. The figure exposes flesh and bone through a wrap of fabric, escaping modesty and flirting on the edge of light in thrusting motions with widened hips in deep open second position: ducking, diving, drilling. Amphibious female morphologies slither wet in powerful strokes. Bands of white light roll in, thin metered lines, smooth and hypnotic. They expand, hitting the falling water at a perpendicular angle with the beat from Brown’s now trancey score. Body, light, water and sound are a tempest, a cry; it’s a liquid dramaturgy (video and light design Boris Bagattini; light and mist design Fausto Brusamolino).

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Tangi Wai, Victoria Hunt, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Ten other cast members assemble in various formations on the margins. We rarely see their faces, but hear their pants and cries. They move in pairs or small groups to elongate body parts with curious appendages (object design Claire Britton, Victoria Hunt); flick hand-wrist gestures above their heads like scribes to the gods; incubate restlessly, but with subtlety in a womb of light, to lay out the spine of a moth (or butterfly) in a final scene. Winged projection ripples on the wall of water still dripping. Sounds of lightning crash with violent strobe flashes, the line of supine bodies is now headed by Hunt who slowly rotates to a monstrous reveal. There’s an overall Geiger-like appeal to the aesthetic, where sharp white and red light explodes and shines off oily black surfaces, with multiple scenes of suspended vertebrae and this final insect-like assemblage.

Tangi Wai is an intensive and immersive sensorium of image and deeply layered affect with its elements captivatingly sculpted by a rich collaboration of artists.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Tangi Wai—The Cry of Water, concept, choreographer, director, performer Victoria Hunt, dancer, choreographer Kristina Chan; Carriageworks, 28 Oct-1 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 15

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

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer

Eisa Jocson comes to us with accolades from Europe. These two solos investigating the performance of gender and sexuality are in a mode familiar to Sydney audiences of queer parties and clubs going back decades. Performance Space itself has intermittently supported such work since cLUB bENT in the mid 90s.

Jocson seems an ideal vehicle for these ideas. Trained in the visual arts and ballet, an award-winning pole dancer, her prowess is evident with every move. Death of the Pole Dancer was mostly taken up with the assemblage of the pole, one of my favourite sequences, with its simple indication of source, structure and the everyday behind the exotic dancer’s work. After grappling with the pole, Jocson eventually mounted it, hooking herself up feet first, sliding glacially down [to a distorted version of Dusty Springfield’s “I just don’t know what to do with myself,” Eds]. Audience members who could see her face would have benefited from a fuller range of expression.

Bringing to the stage a form that originates in spaces of sexual spectacle is more difficult than meets the eye. In the local context, foremost artists such as Sex Intents and Glita Supernova, were themselves strippers: the queer club spaces to which they transposed spectacle by women for men spelt instant subversion. The body dictated, even mocked, the dance for its own pleasure; the gaze was female and male queer.

Jocson’s audience was Sydney’s usual performance aficionados, the sexes evenly distributed, better versed in gender politics and more diverse in sexuality than their counterparts down at Sydney Theatre Company or over at Metro Theatre. Yet not, I would guess, well acquainted with pole dancing in clubs, or so-called macho dancing in the Philippines, where men dance erotically for mostly male clients.

The invisibility of the original context was problematic. The T-shaped stage for Macho Dancer brought the dancer among us, down to the last bead of sweat, yet interaction was a no-no. The product for salacious entertainment was replaced by a product for highbrow perusal. We sat politely admiring Jocson’s athletic androgyny, her immense skill and strength, the compelling slow moves. We wondered about her melancholy expression.

We wondered too about the original macho dancers in the Philippines, dancing no doubt with little choice, dictated by poverty. Were we westerners implicated in that? Yet these works were honed in the laboratories of the European avant-garde. What about us women? Is this part of the inexorable move of women towards sexual consumerism? Cause for celebration then? Yet gender, rather than highlighted, felt flatlined. We thought about pole dancers and macho dancers, yet we did not feel any closer to them for the experience.

Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Death of the Pole Dancer, artist Eisa Jocson, Carriageworks, Sydney, 4, 5 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 16

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

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Thomas E S Kelly is on stage to welcomes us. A pile of clothes heaped stage left. Red plastic cups, and six-packs of beer stacked on a trolley stage right. Vicki Van Hout enters, part concealed in a well-padded, long pocketed navy blue parka. “Am I late?”

The rehearsal begins, but what to dance to? Kelly is asked to flick through the files on his phone to find the music, The Avenue, and a tempo in this tempo-lacking piece. Van Hout pulls from her pocket a printed email from the Finnish guy who composed it and wants her to choreograph to it. They met on Van Hout’s birthday, her 45th, in Paris, while she was a resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts. Among other things said slightly ‘off’ in translation, he “thanks her for existing.”

From this moment, the psychedelia of Van Hout’s travelogue recounted in bursts of hilarious, hyperbolic description—well written—land us elsewhere, in a non-fictional past. But fact and fiction in this meta-tale become as murky as the River Seine. Frenetic reveries of arriving in a city both beautiful and hostile to the foreign are physicalised. Neuroses ‘on high’ and she’s missing a device: her mobile phone—indubitable life support, much like a heart or lung when the technology of language for communication malfunctions. In an apartment decorated in cotton coloured undies pulled from every orifice of her long parka and strung haphazardly over the front row of the audience to air, her phone appears, misplaced, not lost. Social connections enabled. Lubricated (lubrifié). And the party (Les Festivités), well, not quite yet…

Present time. Rehearsal continues. Van Hout’s deprecating humour (and crankiness) toward self and others works overtime. Something about being 50, and the synapses not quite making the right connections. Who remembers the chore? Stand just slightly behind and to the side in front. A section of The Avenue is danced to. Momentarily we are suspended from Van Hout’s narrating and berating as the trio grounded with strong centres cantilever torsos from hip. Precarity is never present, contradictory to the artist life as Kelly intimates in an earlier scene. Shovel, paddle and whipping windmill limbs; sure-footed fast turns and shift of place, displace. Land. Okay, great, Van Hout’s “nailed it”! But the music’s too short. They’ve run out of tempo. But it’s not the real dance—here, now. Even though we are watching, together, in this moment.

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Thomas Kelly, Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

A tinny cracked and heels on. The auto-ethnographicist Van Hout whirls in a skirt with a pretty decent French accent, elle parle trés bien francais! Meantime slurping down the Fosters, filling cups and painting the scene as it was then, “dinner in a typical Parisian apartment of an Australian woman,” well decorated even when “belts are tightened.” Time and place oddly contract on stage and in the mind. Animated storytelling bridges these ‘then-now’ moments, while the pairing sequence of mostly Kelly and Van Hout narrate with weight, texture and force a physicalised, iterated accent to the spoken text—not just movement abstraction playing out on a separate track.

A sense of slippage between fiction and fact in the performative telling of a life event persists—however insignificant it may seem in the bigger picture (was it to try and make a dance?). Van Hout’s surreally constructed world appears as nothing less than brute fact from what is said and done on stage—like the beer drinking. She plays her self, somewhat exaggerated but, for those who know her, also not. This, along with the on-stage synergy between the trio and the unseen unheard “Chloe” alluded to up in the lighting box, is what makes the work endearing, rather than just funny, and more about the tenuousness of human relations: those that are fleeting and those made for life. Thanks for existing.

Liveworks Festival of Experimental art, Les Festivités Lubrifier, choreographer, performer Vicki Van Hout, performers Thomas E S Kelly, Caleena Sansbury, lighting design Chloe Stafford; Carriageworks, Sydney, 4-7 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 16

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

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Someday

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Someday

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Someday

The queer art trio Hissy Fit are all about blasting the notion of ‘hysteria’ for the way nonconformist women have been pathologised through the ages, dismissed as mentally ill rather than deviating politically from gender norms. Their latest work, I might blow up someday, borrowed from a catalogue of feminist and punk musicians—Chrissy Amphlett, Peaches and Wendy O’Williams—to create a performance work in which ‘hysterical’ movements like headbanging and moshing are reclaimed and celebrated.

For an hour, Hissy Fit assumed the roles of punk heroines, swinging hair and posing in black leather. It was moody and atmospheric, the performances heroic. The image that lasts is a particularly effective strobe-filled sequence of three silhouetted sci-fi-ish women in violet and orange beams of diagonal light and abundant smoke.

I suspect the contemporary art arena isn’t the right place for inducing collective hysteria, especially in a controlled black-box environment that suggests a more traditional audience-performer relationship. Perhaps some audience members still prefer a traditional art-going experience—one told me to be quiet and stop moving. Or perhaps the headbanging rock queen as a reclaimed symbol of the ‘hysterical woman’ can only go so far—this is Hissy Fit’s fifth or sixth reworking of the concept—and the leap from pathologised individual hysteria to liberating collective hysteria makes sense conceptually but is too big to actualise. Certainly the headbanging motif felt more successful in the more contained 2014 Tiny Stadiums performance and accompanying video artwork.

Think of Anjelica Mesiti’s 2009 video study in devotion, Rapture (silent anthem) in which the mass worship and hedonist togetherness of a rock concert depends on an audience’s recognition of a beloved melody. That’s missing here (along with the dynamism and spontaneity of Hissy Fit’s beloved riotgrrl influences) despite a carefully composed, rhythmic drone soundscape and strong but highly staged choreography. The decision to stage I might blow up someday as a music gig from a thrust, elevated stage ended up distancing the pacified audience from the performers, working against the performer-audience fluidity that Hissy Fit aimed for. We were viewers, not participants. You can’t manufacture chaos. The crowd mostly watched as two of the trio descended onto the floor for a highly constructed brawl in the final sequence.

The experimental area of dramaturg-facilitated performance work, blended with the conventions of live music, is a courageous and ambiguous space to play in. Pushing the bounds between disciplines was the mandate of the Liveworks Festival, and there’s a strong argument that experimentation in this space should be encouraged not for the result it produces but for the fact of the exploration itself. The show functioned best as an opportunity to observe an elaborately produced, one-hour headbanging session—an exhausting feat of durational self-punishment by strong, brave, hyper-focused performers; an ode to a more confrontational feminism past; and material for a series of striking stills or a video clip brought to life, witnessed from the safety of a respectfully observant audience pit.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Hissy Fit, I might blow up someday, artists Jade Muratore, Emily O’Connor, Nat Randall, lighting Toby Knyvett, sound artist Nina Buchanan, choreography Lizzie Thompson, dramaturgy Emma Price; Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-25 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 17

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

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

How long does it take to transport ice? A time that depends on temperature as much as distance. Before electricity, ice in our part of the world was brought on big ships from continents whose climate made ice naturally. Buying an ice cream in Bondi as recently as 1915 meant dependence on this long voyage.

One hundred years later, ice is locally manufactured in refrigerators, powered by fossil fuels whose emissions help melt the northern icecaps. A 500 kilo pile of this ice dumped before the entrance of Carriageworks signals the beginning of punake [Tongan performer] Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate II.

The artist is dressed in a disposable body suit. She shovels up ice, carries it 20 metres then dumps it on the ground near a drain. It is a futile task, the second pile melting as it grows. Her labour contrasts with the audience idling by the bar, lulled perhaps by the repetition and stark beauty of the performance, until the abrasion of metal on concrete when Taumoepeau returns to the first pile, dragging the shovel behind her. Her pace is meditative, each gesture deliberate, the endless to-and-fro modulated by slight variations in carriage.

Repatriate II is a three-hour performance, as measured by the presence of the artist. The ice would have endured longer in the nocturnal iteration that I saw, than the diurnal one the following day, conducted before the busy commerce of Eveleigh markets that take over this forecourt on Saturdays.

Taumoepeau, Sydney (Eora) by birth and Tongan by ancestry, has been making works that address climate change in the Pacific for some years now. They become stronger and more refined with time. Repatriate I, which opened Liveworks, saw the artist seated in a high tank. Dressed in a black bikini and yellow floaties, she performed dances of her Pacific Island heritage as water gradually filled the tank. The vocabulary of the dance while unknown to this white viewer, resonated with myriad celebratory welcomes seen danced by Pacific Islanders.

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Repatriate I was more of a plangent goodbye, the dance initially limited to hand gestures when the artist was seated. Slowly, Taumoepeau began to float, valiantly continuing her dance. Upright, as the tank filled, the movements of her lower body were restrained by water. Night fell, the rain came, and we huddled under the eaves feeling her cold.

Insistent, thwarted, struggling, the dance continued til the bitter end. A long black wig added a note of absurdity. Yet there is nothing light-hearted about this work. Its seriousness of intent is refreshing and necessary in a cultural context often characterised by insincerity. An earlier performance in Sea Suite saw Taumoepeau stack ice into cardboard boxes, walling herself into a niche in a laneway behind a bar. It was the opening night of Sydney Contemporary, and a dozen or so artists were performing in the streets around the venue. Taumoepeau was the only one with gravitas. She has something urgent to say, these works so compelling and universal they could happen anywhere: Finland, London, Singapore, Chile, galleries, theatres, streets, bank foyers, shopping malls, parliaments.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Repatriate I and II from The Stitching (Up) The Sea Suite, artist Latai Taumoepeau; Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 17

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

zin, Each Other

zin, Each Other

zin, Each Other

Making fun art calls for serious motivation. Like Hissy Fit’s I might blow up someday, zin’s Each Other crossed from the world of performance art to the world of music. Clad spectacularly in neon Lycra and silver Converse wedges, artists Roslyn Helper and Harriet Gillies bust choreographed moves to music only they hear on noise-cancelling headphones. This starts a guessing game—are they listening to Michael Jackson? Beyonce? After a while, zin venture out from their dance floor, offering headphones to the crowd and dragging punters into the music zone. The new players learn zin’s dance moves on-the-go, in what we see as a silent disco world, until the song wraps, the tiny dance floor is evacuated and the game starts afresh.

This hybrid space—not quite live art, but experimental work between definitive genres—is a dangerous arena for artists to explore but the cliff-like risk of failure is what can make a work exciting. As with Hissy Fit’s I might blow up someday, Each Other showed that inhibitions can only be lost in a large crowd and that it’s intrinsically hard to turn art-goers into participants. The issue for zin became one of scale and mass: forgetting yourself and embracing your inner dancing queen as a pair or in a posse of just six dancers is a tough call. In some vital way, Each Other was less captivating than the things it naturally referenced—flash mobs, silent discos, the No Lights No Lycra one-hour pitch-black dance parties—because of the small number of participants. Rather than allowing people to break free and lose themselves in the rhythm, the fact that audience members were on show rather than immersed in a crowd and a space [Carriageworks foyer] much larger than themselves created a self-conscious spotlight.

zin, Each Other

zin, Each Other

zin, Each Other

I didn’t understand Each Other until I dived into it. For a couple of hours I watched zin pull reluctant audience members from the crowd—including a number of shy performance artists. When I finally relented, donned the headphones and joined the team, I found that they’d created a genuinely fun and interesting art project. The music turned out to be Mirrors by Justin Timberlake, a shimmery work of shamelessly feel-good pop—a pretty perfect choice, particularly given the fact that Gillies and Helper were mirroring each others’ moves. A graduate of 90s boy band N*Sync, Timberlake is the kind of pop artist whose work embraces pure danceability at the expense of any self-examination. However Each Other is less interesting to watch because, objectively, most people are terrible dancers, despite the accessible nature of Caroline Garcia’s modest choreography.

Watching zin perform the same moves for almost three hours did induce admiration (the duo were residents in Marina Abramovic’s Kaldor Public Project earlier in the year). But the real act of endurance turned out to be waiting for audience members to down enough drinks and summon the courage to join in. The experience didn’t appear to be happiness itself or the heroin euphoria of a 2am dancefloor; rather, Each Other engaged as it intended, to create fun.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, zin, Each Other, artists Harriet Gillies, Roslyn Helper, choreographer Caroline Garcia, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-31 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 18

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

Wall of Sound, Bree van Reyk

Wall of Sound, Bree van Reyk

Wall of Sound, Bree van Reyk

A friend confirms Wall of Sound doesn’t go for an hour as listed on the schedule, only five minutes, but that it’s one-on-one so I need to get my name on ‘the list.’ Staff have the list and it’s somewhere around the back, in a corridor, near the toilets. Off I toddle, past the kinbaku/shibari (erotic arty rope-tying installation) by Garth Knight and into the recesses of Carriageworks. I pass the bathrooms and hit a dead end, but hear a gong rumbling and, beyond a sign I can’t read because it is so dark, I see van Reyk from behind giving a private performance for someone (well just their shadowed legs) seated on the opposite side of her huge hanging gong. It looks personal and saturated with soft and loud sounds. Was this where ‘the list’ keeper would emerge? I waited, fumbled, then retreated.

Moments later I was back around the front, mystified by the symbolism of the rocks and female body suspended in Knight’s pagan, Celtic, tree-design—his stated homage to the collective consciousness—and waiting for my few minutes on the shadowy side of the gong. Staff suggested I leave my bag and phone emphatically off in the long dark corridor that led to van Reyk’s shiny edifice. I ditched the handbag and didn’t think of it again until the trek back to the disciplinarians (both the bondage display and collectors-of-worldly-possessions).

There was a stool and Chinese wind gong and van Reyk now in shadow. I sat with my face only centimetres from her bronze structure. I had seen her hands resting delicately on her lap so I did the same. Her mallets had huge white woollen heads and the sight of them made sense of the sounds I’d followed behind the toilet block. Her quiet precision, her patience in delivering the same experience time and again for each of us—encapsulated in the poise of her resting mallets—made me self-conscious about my shoes. That was all she knew of me and they were scuffed and old. I wondered if that’s how she’d decipher the right mood for our interaction: were my last-season, holey beige boots the score? She lifted her mallets and I flicked my brain to silent mode.

It started soft—like a singing bowl’s rim brushed without perceptible sound for a few rounds—and built. Visually stunning, the gong gyrated while flapping forwards and back, yielding the sensation of being pushed off-kilter on a swing. Bronze looked gold in that light and, cast in concentric circles like tree rings, introduced another layer of naturalness to playground reminiscing.

By reducing variables in performance, van Reyk’s simplicity ripened interest. It was immersive and intimate. In defiance of the good usher’s tip to ear-block if needed, I leaned in close to the swaying gong as things heated up—I wanted that ‘felt sound’ promised by the brochure, like the kind I heard in Ryoji Ikeda’s Superposition that dares you to go still a decibel higher without flinching. But it was just right. Her gong, more than a divider and a conduit, was a living sculpture we fed—Bree van Reyk with her actions and me by eager attention.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Wall of Sound, artist Bree van Reyk, Carriageworks, Sydney 23-29 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 18

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

Muscle Mouth

Muscle Mouth

Muscle Mouth

As great a shame as it is that the performances by New Zealand company Muscle Mouth for Liveworks had to be cancelled due to an injury, it is somehow fitting that a work which explores creative process so intently should be represented in another format where process is exposed. We join dancer and company director Ross McCormack and producer Melanie Hamilton for an open conversation about the processes and intentions that formed the work, and see two excerpts from Triumphs And Other Alternatives performed by dancers Emily Adams and James Vu Anh Pham.

Hamilton describes Triumphs as an exploration of the obsessiveness of creative practice and the creative drive to perfect it. It grew out of a residency in Wellington when the then team of four piled a load of plaster, plastic and other materials into a space. McCormack spent the better part of a day “mumbling and building” in the midst of it; fumbling, aiming to create nothing in particular, but aiming to be obsessive.

A muscular knot of bodies stretches on a table in a rubble-strewn workshop space. A lump of clay with two heads that is pulled apart, pressed together, reconfigured in different ways. Discoveries are made: a hand happens upon a neck and investigates—analogous to that moment of discovery in art-making when working persistently with a material reveals an unforeseen possibility, or an answer to a question.

There is the strong sense, most of the time, that the bodies are being moved from outside. Limbs are resistant but pliable. When the knot comes apart, Adams plods with a thick, muddy materiality, while Vu Anh Pham spills and rolls across the floor with a continuousness that suggests rubber or water—as if you might have to keep gathering his mass back together with both arms to keep it from running in all directions.

But these bodies are not just material. Both dancers slide back and forth on a continuum as if moved by some external force, and energised from within. The subject/object question plays itself out on their faces, too, in expressions that loop rapidly through almost caricatured extremes. The sharp intake of Adams’ breath can sometimes be heard over the deeply reverberating soundscape. All this points to the elusive subjectivity inside ‘matter’ and raises questions about the implications of creative practice for ‘inanimate’ materials. What might these materials be experiencing under the force of human hands and human consciousness?

McCormack and Hamilton talk about their desire to foster ambiguity in this work, which lends itself so well to metaphor. One strategy for doing so has been to expand their usual cast of one dancing body to three. Interestingly, in this performance lecture, the three danced parts have been compressed into two: the original piece has been reconfigured to show something of the “essence,” said Hamilton, of the full work, including those parts that the injured McCormack could not perform. This last-minute rearrangement perhaps pulls the work into even deeper ambiguity. It also beautifully reflects the work’s theme of constant revision in creative practice. Unable to perform Triumphs and Other Alternatives, Muscle Mouth reinvented it.

Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Talk, Muscle Mouth, Triumphs and Other Alternatives, Carriageworks, Sydney, 30 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 19

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

No Performance Today, Bree van Reyk & Lauren Brincat and New South Wales Police Band

No Performance Today, Bree van Reyk & Lauren Brincat and New South Wales Police Band

No Performance Today, Bree van Reyk & Lauren Brincat and New South Wales Police Band

Do you remember the last time you were excited to see a police band? They’re in parades, public remembrance ceremonies, Olympic openings, but if advertised would you go to a concert of theirs? Perhaps at the Tweed Heads Casino if your grandparents were going, but it’s unlikely to be top of the list. That is unless you’re Lauren Brincat and Bree van Reyk, many-time sassy collaborators. Brincat is known for using drum-kits in her projects. She’s added long stilt-extensions to a drum-kit’s legs; in Drum Roll she steamrollered a drum-kit; and in Live When I’m Alive, Sleep When I’m Dead (no.1) she buried one. Van Reyk is a percussionist with mad drum-kit chops so they pair well. No Performance Today had no drum-kit but a hardy percussion section from the New South Wales Police Band.

The gals both love marching bands, so set out to make this stiff and anachronistic type of musicking engaging by warping its context. No Performance Today is a “choreographed sound portrait” that unravels the brass band uniformity. It’s like Charles Ives time-travelled with a whole marching band in his time-machine-contraption’s trunk. The band comes and goes, merges, diverges, being sensible and silly.

I saw the Friday evening performance inside Carriageworks’ massive echoing foyer, but on Saturday morning the band marched amid unsuspecting Eveleigh Markets shoppers in that bustling public space of designer lettuce, bespoke jams and hang-over-curing coffees. In that setting the performers interacted more whimsically with the public.

Inside, the police band appeared in full swing from out of a humble corridor in perfectly pressed blue uniforms with badges, polished shoes and white hard-hats. Their marching feet lifted and lowered at roughly the same time, but each leg’s trajectory was different, so out-of-synch that it was miraculous when they moved as a unit—both loose and unified.

Brincat and van Reyk wanted to ‘free’ the individuality trapped within this generic battalion. Personalities surely shone through. The bass clarinettist had a sense of humour, passing out musical quips to colleagues and lobby loiterers. The curators prescribed Louis Andriessen-like fragments to the players, suggesting each should be played with erratic phrase-bending at voluntary time-intervals.

Booming brass filled the foyer, commanding attention and obliterating our wine-fuelled conversations. From the chaos of their free-form wandering, the group united in formation on the top balcony to perform a more orchestrated section. Fraught with suspension, this music was triumphant and characterised by slowly morphing long notes. The conductor looked very serious and this confused us, but we played along: “Is this how it’s meant to sound or is he putting on a brave face while they’re all ‘out’ because of the reverb in this giant space?” It yielded a great dissonance (not sonic, but conceptual), accentuated by the perfection we attribute to such a meticulous genre. The band wilfully ‘sounded bad’ to challenge perceptions of band music, even though it was clear they were all exceptionally professional in their ability to follow wonky orders.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, No Performance Today, directors Lauren Brincat, Bree van Reyk, NSW Police Band, Carriageworks, Sydney, 6-7 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 19

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

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

A row of eight standing rectangular frames appears at the end of the darkened auditorium, each emitting with strong LED light a pair of abstract geometric characters. The sound roars. The robots stand still as the characters flash and flicker; perhaps talking to each other in some alien robot language. The sound itself ripples as well. The robots wait as the sound forms into a martial beat at high volume, flickering characters matched by flickering sounds. They wait a few moments and then one robot rotates itself slightly.

At first they begin to move forward so slowly that you don’t notice. The activity of the characters decreases while on two of the frames a bright red light shines towards the rear. As the frames advance at a slow walking pace they follow individual trajectories and the audience moves forward to meet them.

These frames, about a metre square and two tall, are the robots. There are five shelves in each frame for the equipment which includes motorised driving wheels, an Arduino microcontroller and two motor driver circuit boards, a woofer speaker box under which is a Kinect depth sensor and a laptop facing the rear. On the top shelf is an infrared camera and a bright red lamp that spotlights the audience, with their images appearing on the laptop screens.

The sound becomes more subtle as the performance continues. The roar grows more self-modulated, with vocalisations in hard-to-interpret heavily phased single words, striking out into the space.

Marynowsky has abandoned the stately robots of his earlier work The Hosts and returned to a raw functional object that does not hide the hardware laid out on its shelves. They are disarming since they appear more like lab furniture than what we have come to expect. There is nothing approaching trunks, legs, graspers or heads. They show a medium level of autonomy. Each frame is equipped with sensors on the front and rear which stop the movement of the robot if it comes too close to a member of the audience or a wall. They move back and forth, pirouetting at various moments as the audience follows them across the floor or gets out of their way. The overall control of the choreography is via wi-fi from the master control laptop.

I call these robots lab racks because Marynowsky has dispensed with all notions of the humanoid robot or the 18th century automaton. Not controlled by mechanical levers and cogs, although the motorised wheels allow movement, they appear to possess some autonomy. But much of that is driven by the robot operators, Marynowsky and colleagues, tightly choreographing for their overall activity within the arena.

A group of delighted kids are the first to come into the arena and approach these well-behaved robots which seem to pirouette for approval, showing off their equipment. Of course the kids are of a generation for whom robots will seem a part of the everyday. Now the robots go their separate ways, mixing it with the audience: following, backing away, circling and generally wandering about as they take photographs of us which they show on their screens.

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

Robot Opera, Wade Marynowsky, Liveworks Festival, Performance Space

To what extent are these robots autonomous? Autonomy, at minimum, allows the robot to sense and navigate a fluidly changing environment, in this case a room full of people also navigating their ways around the robots. This sensing produces a feedback loop between the robot and its environment so that it can recognise the consequences of what it does. A non-autonomous robot will only produce outputs and will input nothing about effects.

In conversation with Edward Scheer (Liveworks, 31 Oct), Marynowsky detailed the modes of robot behaviour: “There’s a manual mode and there’s an autonomous mode. We call [the latter] ‘Avoid and Wander.’ It uses a laser scanner to avoid obstacles and people. There’s also another behaviour called ‘Follow’ where it moves after people depending on their x-y position within the space. So they’re the two main behaviours, they’re the two with safety mechanisms, as you might call them.”

In the finale the sound begins as a thick self-modulated chord and the robots realign themselves into allotted spaces marked with crosses on the floor. There they stay as the music plays out and the audience applauds, generously. Meanwhile the mob of kids sitting on the floor at the rear of one of the robots chatter excitedly. For all of us it’s a very satisfactory half hour or so.

The performance is not an opera. Yes, it is a gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork involving the gathered artforms—a synthesis of sound and light and mobile robotic behaviour threaded in among a fluid and actively interested audience. The music is grand and imposing, there is no stage as such and no stage effects. Lighting is used to illuminate not to trick the eye. It changes in mood, following the robots’ progress and is echoed in the music. Without a star, a lead robot, the audience is completely central to the performance. Even though there is some oversight by the operators, the audience mingling with the robots provides a level of stimulus that affects each robot.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Robot Opera, artist Wade Marynowsky, music, sound design Julian Knowles, lighting Mirabelle Wouters, dramaturgy Lee Wilson, electrical design Ben Nash, programmers Imran Khan, Adam Hinshaw; Carriageworks, Sydney, 28 Oct-1 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 20

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

Woyzeck, Thalia Theater Hamburg

Woyzeck, Thalia Theater Hamburg

Woyzeck, Thalia Theater Hamburg

Having foregone the pleasure of a conventional launch with all its speech-making in favour of opening the festival well in advance with the Peter Sellars production of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, Sydney Festival Artistic Director Lieven Bertels is in fine form, elaborating on the works in his action-packed 2016 program. He’s proud of having persistently brought live music into theatre and dance productions, giving local companies international opportunities and bringing classical music back into the festival. Contemporary classical has done well too; he thinks festivals are ideal for introducing it to a wider audience.

Bertels is particularly pleased to be bringing Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre to Australia for the first time—it travels rarely in Europe and its production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck has so far only played once outside Germany. He thinks Thalia one of the country’s top three theatre companies. After the success of The Black Rider in the Sydney Festival of 2005, and as part of a festival reflecting on the achievements of his forebears, Bertels wanted to bring Woyzeck, another of the Tom Waits-Robert Wilson-trilogy (Time Rocket is the third), but chose the new Thalia version by a young female director Jette Steckel. Spoken in German and sung in English, the production is strikingly designed and cast and is accompanied by live music.

Belgium’s Rosas makes its second appearance in Sydney after last year’s Carriageworks’ season. This time De Keersmaeker is re-mounting and performing one of her classic works, Fase, to the music of Steve Reich. It’s an engrossingly lyrical work and quite different from her current more open-ended choreography which will be represented by Vortex Temporum with the music of ‘spectralist’ composer Gerard Grisey played live by Ictus. Bertels says, “Each musician is matched with a dancer who, essentially, dances out a musical line.”

Bertels is presenting Beethoven’s nine symphonies, eight in “the perfect acoustic of Angel Place” and the ninth, for large forces, at the Opera House. It’s not a conservative choice: “playing with period instruments is like stripping away layers of varnish on an old painting; it’s extremely dynamic.” A different kind of engagement with classical music comes in the form of Schubert’s Wintereisse sung by the great German baritone Thomas Goerne with animations by the South African artist and animator William Kentridge.

A fan of Sydney Chamber Opera, Bertels offered the company the opportunity to work with Pierre Audi who has directed in the major opera houses of Europe and New York’s Metropolitan Opera and whose impressive account of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses featured in the 1999 Sydney Festival. “I asked Audi if he’d like to work with a bunch of young people who graduated yesterday and have great international potential, and he said yes.” The SCO’s Artistic Director and conductor Jack Symonds will be flown to Amsterdam to rehearse two young singers in the chamber opera Passion, with its Orpheus and Eurydice scenario, by Pascal Dusapin, a much-honoured French composer. Composer and company unite again for O Mensch (see below).

Geoff Sobelle,The Object Lesson

Geoff Sobelle,The Object Lesson

Geoff Sobelle,The Object Lesson

In Sydney Town Hall, New York artist Geoff Sobelle will mount a fascinating installation of huge cardboard cabinets with a multitude of drawers full of personal objects which he introduces to a participating audience equipped with pencils and paper. Canada’s Mammalian Diving Reflex, of the acclaimed Haircuts by Children, take participation to another level with a group of over-65 Sydneysiders reflecting on their sex lives in All the Sex I’ve Ever Had. The Events [see p25 Adelaide Festival], a work by Scottish playwright David Grieg about post-traumatic stress will be staged in the Granville Town Hall, which is apt says Bertels, not only because of the 1977 Granville train crash but also the “rehearsal space feel of the hall.” Each performance involves a different local choir.

Participation of another kind, hands on, will take place at Barangaroo in Olivier Grossetete’s The Ephemeral City (France) with audiences helping construct for an hour, a day or three weeks, monumentally sized buildings out of cardboard boxes in the cutaway beneath the park safe from Sydney’s intense summer heat and likely rain. “Olivier choreographs the assembling and movement of the buildings with participants, so it’s a project in urban planning.” An outdoors version, The People’s Tower, will be mounted over three days in Darling Harbour: “Half the fun is in tearing that one down,” laughs Bertels. The backdrop to the Barangaroo installation will be a huge Shaun Glaldwell video triptych on the rock wall of US champion skateboarder, Rodney Mullen, who, about to retire (“I can’t break another bone in my body”) responded to the artist’s request to be filmed skateboarding on great minimalist public sculptures.

Lieven Bertels’ festival is full of inviting works, too many to detail here. You should think about seeing some of the following. A video installation at UNSW Galleries has recorded the journey of a piece of Carrera marble shipped from Italy to China where it’s turned into a column by Chinese craftsmen and then chipped into classical form by the Albanian artist Adrian Pacj on an open deck on the return trip. Says something about globalisation.

In the huge music program Mexican musicians Mexrrissey perform Morrissey miserabilism with wit, conviction and bad translations, says Bertels; NY’s Peter Gordon reforms the band that played with the late lamented and quietly influential Arthur Russell in the 1970s; Meow Meow manifests as the Little Mermaid; American jazz soprano Claron McFadden sings the audience’s secrets in the show of that name; Cosmic Cambodia revive and build on classic 60s Cambodian pop and rock; and British singer, hip-hopper and poet (the Ted Hughes Award, 2013) Kate Tempest performs with her band.

Fase, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Fase, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

Fase, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker

On the performance front, About an Hour returns to its ideal venue, Carriageworks with the premiere of Melbourne choreographer Stephanie Lake’s Double Bind; Tomorrow’s Parties by Forced Entertainment; +51 Aviacion San Borja by a Peruvian member of the Japanese diaspora about ‘going home;’ Christopher Brett Bailey’s (UK) not funny spoken word reflections on the dark side of life—one for the tough-minded; Performance 4A’s In Between Two, hip Asian-Australian reflections on life here in word and song; and Sydney Chamber Opera, again, with O Mensch—21 poems by Nietzsche scored by Pascal Dusapin. Nick Power and his b*boys perform Cypher at Riverside Theatre. There’s ample physical theatre from two Brisbane-based companies, Circa and CASUS and, in About an Hour, Fall Fell Fallen by France’s Lonely Circus.

Alongside Woyzeck, Phase and Vortex Temporum, Passion and the Beethoven symphonies are the Sydney premieres of major, already applauded Australian works: the Kate Miller-Heidke/Shaun Tan/Lally Katz/Iain Grandage opera The Rabbits and Marrugeku’s Cut the Sky.

Online you can enjoy “a festival gift,” as Bertels puts it: Michel van de Aa’s engrossing, Borges-inspired, interactive video work The Book of Sands, featuring Kate Miller-Heidke. There are many gifts in this festival, from the giant participatory works at Barangaroo and Darling Harbour to the wealth of small scale innovative works to be staged from the city to Redfern and Parramatta. For sheer variety and invention it’s the best of Bertels’ four festivals.

Sydney Festival, 7-26 Jan, 2016

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 21

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

Go Down, Moses

Go Down, Moses

A fully-formed human being entering the world from a shapeless, liquescent mass. A robot head reciting numbers to a baby. An Auschwitz populated by children who ride a toy train and take tea with a Mad Hatter. These are some of the images that will be familiar to those lucky enough to have witnessed the works of Italian theatre maker and artistic director of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, Romeo Castellucci. A former painter, Castellucci’s imagistic, richly evocative mise en scènes retain some of their fascination in YouTube clips. The effect of these works in the theatre, however, remains mysterious to me and is made tantalising by their wide-ranging documentation and discussion, as well as the awed word of mouth generated by the company’s previous appearances in Australia in productions such as Giulio Cesare in the 2000 Adelaide Festival and Genesi, From the Museum of Sleep in the 2002 Melbourne International Arts Festival. Via email, I put a series of questions to Castellucci about a new work, Go Down, Moses, which looks set to be a contemporary performance highpoint at next year’s Adelaide Festival of Arts.


Your last work to feature in the Adelaide was Giulio Cesare. What are your memories of that festival and of how the work was received by Adelaide audiences?

My memories of that voyage are a bit blurry. I recall, in any case, the abnormal kind of interest shown by the audience towards the performance. There was a strange reaction during the applause, which I remember as being particularly slow, perhaps stunned. Then, later, a huge number of people came to a debate, with me sitting behind a desk covered in boxes of chocolate, like they were on display in front of me (I think it was because of the sponsor). The audience in Adelaide clearly knew Shakespeare’s world very well, which gave them an enormous advantage in understanding the performance’s structure; they had access to the work at a profound level.


As with Giulio Cesare, Go Down, Moses uses a canonical text—in this case, the Book of Exodus as opposed to Shakespeare—as its source material. What is it about such material that holds appeal for you? Is it because their reverence makes them more powerful to subvert?

It’s not a question of subversion or desecration. If anything, the procedure used is quite the opposite. It’s a matter of using the same material to delve into language itself. Go Down, Moses is a homeopathic and linguistic kind of work. These texts, moreover, offer mythological material that is, by definition, universal and comprehensible at a ‘lower’ level.


Can you explain the significance of the title and its relationship to African-American slave history?

The topic of slavery is found throughout Exodus, like a mosaic. The song referred to in the title alludes to the need to be freed again by someone, in much the same way as the African-Americans awaited the arrival of a new Moses. And so, a young mother dreams of the liberation not of one particular group of people but of all humanity, which, according to her, has fallen into a new slavery, unconsciously and invisibly. We are still—according to this mother, who abandons her newborn child just as Moses’ mother did—slaves of the Pharaohs.


You were quoted in RealTime as saying that “Genesis frightens me much more than the Apocalypse”. What did you mean by that exactly, and what is it about Biblical themes that both inspire your work and create a sense of terror for you?

This reflection concerned tragedy, in a strictly ‘Greek’ sense. Genesis represents creation, that is, the fact that there is something rather than nothing. The fact of being is the fundamental problem. As far as Greek tragedy is concerned, the problem is that we were born, not that we must die. Creation represents possibility, the pure potential of the creative act. Here, “anything is possible” becomes a threatening statement, not one that conveys a sense of freedom or openness. Creation, in Genesis, allowed for everything, even the word Auschwitz (which was in fact the title of the second act [Genesi From The Museum of Sleep]). From Genesis originates the mystery of evil in the world and, in the end, the divine plan. The philosopher Luigi Pareyson has written remarkable things about a ‘tragic’ conflict within the sphere of the divine; but we could also simply recall Dostoevsky.

Romeo Castellucci

Romeo Castellucci

Romeo Castellucci


Go Down, Moses doesn’t contain conventional dialogue, but the text is credited to you and Claudia Castellucci. What does the text consist of, and what is its relationship to the wider work, which, like all of your work, is highly visual?

My work is dramaturgical more than textual. I use every possible tool and anti-tool: things that are to be seen and things that one cannot put into focus, vivid images and the triumph of the banal, words and silence, narration and events that do not arouse the slightest neural fluctuation. Anything is possible, as I was saying before. There is no difference. Touch is what counts the most. And I don’t have a style. Or, more precisely, my style consists in not having a style.


American electro-acoustic composer Scott Gibbons is providing the score. He is a frequent collaborator of yours. What can you tell me of his contribution to Go Down, Moses?

Since Genesi (1999) I’ve worked exclusively with him on every theatre production. He is the best composer in the world (second only to Wagner, and I mean that seriously). I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to work at his side. He is a great artist. We do not need to talk too much. We are the same in a way. We each carry the other within us.


You have worked widely with non-professional performers and those who have unconventional bodies. Will you be doing so again in Go Down, Moses?

Everything depends on dramaturgy. I’m not the one who chooses people! I might even say that it’s not my problem. The shape of bodies and their attitudes come solely from the requirements that dramaturgy imposes at any given moment. That’s all.

Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, Go Down, Moses, direction, set, costumes, lights Romeo Castellucci, music Scott Gibbons, text Claudia Castellucci, Romeo Castellucci, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival of Arts, 25-28 Feb 2016

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 22

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

A Mile in My Shoes, promotional image

A Mile in My Shoes, promotional image

A Mile in My Shoes, promotional image

In enlightened programming, Wendy Martin, the new Artistic Director of the Perth Festival of International Arts, has invited curators Clare Patey and Kitty Ross and cultural thinker Roman Krznaric to stage A Mile in My Shoes, a work in which you enter a huge cardboard box, select a pair of shoes belonging to a stranger, put them on and walk a mile listening to the owner of the shoes speaking about themselves. It’s part of a larger project titled The Empathy Museum, founded in London and beginning to travel internationally. Krznaric, raised in Sydney and the author of Empathy, A Handbook for Revolution (Rider, 2014) is a key speaker at the festival’s Writers’ Week.

I spoke via Skype with Clare Patey, an artist and curator who has produced huge installations that directly engage communities and audiences in addressing the nature of their lives and environment. I ask her about the origins of The Museum of Empathy, which go back to the mid-90s in London, where she lives.

Patey says she created a series of museums “in a disused warehouse on the Southbank in London before it was such a cultural quarter. The building was owned by a property developer focused on social housing who wanted to bring life back into the area. I asked what they wanted to do with it and they said they’d quite like it to be a new museum of the River Thames. I decided that at the heart of the project would be a question about the cultural space of the museum and that the whole project should be a participatory forum of debate about what a new museum for London would look like and what people wanted of it. It didn’t happen but it created a model for an experimental museum.

“The first was a Museum of Collections, looking at the psychology of collecting. We invited 42 locals to display their collections—toast racks, cheesy record covers, rejection letters (!), Dolly Parton items, snow domes, coins, ties and 15,000 Kinder toys—all catalogued. We interviewed each person in their home about their collection and what it meant to them and, with a theatre designer, asked them how they’d like their collection shown. We built Dolly Parton’s living room to show that collection.”

I asked about what the museum did for the collectors. “It put them in touch with each other” and raised issues about “when is a collection complete and how do you pass it on and what does it mean when transferred to a museum?” As Patey points out this is critical for any museum object, not just those from everyday collections.

Sharing and participation are elementary to Patey’s practice, if not at the time central to the Museum of Collections, but even then there was a wall dedicated for visitors to make their own contributions to the overall collection—“a love poem in Hungarian; instructions on how to reverse park… We were experimenting with ideas of agency in the audience which became central to subsequent shows.” Next was the Museum of Me, in which the public collected in cans their responses to artworks and observations about themselves in answers to questions—35,000 in the end, time capsules of exhibitions of the self in the year 1999. Then came the Museum of The Unknown (identifying mysterious objects), The Museum of Emotions (with its spaces in which to scream, sigh, feel love and lust and traverse the seven stages of grieving) and eventually, The Museum of the Thames, the overall series taking five years up to 2001 and providing the foundations for the Museum of Empathy.

After the museums project, Patey worked with LIFT [London International Festival of Theatre] on two shows, one of them, Old Dog New Tricks, testing proverbs. The one thing she couldn’t do in the series of caravans that housed this show, she says, “was put a bull in a china shop.”

Patey then went on “to work a lot with food.” A year-long project involved “an allotment, a primary school, chef, gardener and five artists growing and cooking to create an alternative school dinner. It was tied to key in with all areas of the school curriculum. It was like an outdoor classroom. The quality of conversation and the physical acts—and this has to do with empathy—of planting, weeding and harvesting frees you up for a different quality of conversation. Some children didn’t know a carrot came out of the ground—‘Disgusting!’ But later said, ‘I’ll have the beetroot.’” Patey comments on how we’re increasingly aware of the origins of food, but not of consumer items like clothing and furniture.

Clare Patey

Clare Patey

Out of this project, starting in 2007, came Feast on the Bridge with the Thames Festival, another year-long project, this time “growing food in allotments, urban gardens and schools. The festival got permission to close a bridge on the river. We lined up banquet tables on it, collected 5,000 food stories from Londoners and illustrated them on tablecloths. The project brought together farmers, ethical food producers, foragers, artists, herbalists and campaigners to explore the whole food narrative, from the soil to growing and eating together and the waste cycle —composting workshops, worm farms, anaerobic digesters…We collected the waste in golden wheelbarrows. Three thousand people sat down and ate together.”

A very busy Patey has also been involved in work around environmental issues, creating The Ministry of Trying To Do Something About It with the New Economics Foundation think tank, stemming a feeling of public helplessness by issuing carbon ration books, based on those of World War II Britain, in a campaign titled Ration Me Up (2009). Patey explains that the book “showed if you were living within your fair global share of CO2 and how to adjust when buying socks or getting a flight to Sydney from London.” She also made a TV program, Our Human Footprint, about the amounts of materials an average British person consumes in a lifetime. I mention paper production and Patey laughs: “The average British family is more likely to have two cars than two books!”

Clare Patey met Roman Krznaric “when working on environmental projects and he’d been to The Museum of Emotions. After he wrote the book he wanted to bring its ideas onto an experiential plane.” Therefore, A Mile in My Shoes is “fitted out like a shoe shop, but with the names of the owners on the boxes. If you don’t know your size, then your feet are measured. In London we had 30 pairs and we’ll add another 40 in Perth. We’re collecting more for British Health and for shows in Beirut and Brazil. Maybe we’ll connect with climate change and refugees, and we’ll be online soon.”

In London, Patey employed 15 audio producers, mostly from radio, to record the stories from a community including “a sewer worker, lifeboat operators, suicide watch staff, a hospice operator, a drag queen, a chess grandmaster and an ex-prisoner who’s now an artist. They just tell personal stories.

“The choice of shoes depends on the sizes available, but a few visitors imagine they’re in a real shoe shop: ‘Have you got these in a red or with a bit of heel?’ Some men are offended by the prospect of wearing the drag queen stilettos which are size 11—which I couldn’t walk in—but a dad in his 50s with his family took to them.” The sewage waders apparently worried some wearers. Feedback comments indicated that people felt they’d got to know the shoe owners, some would have liked to meet them—‘Where is their flower shop?’ For others the experience enabled them to reflect on their own lives, thinking about the hospice and ‘what is a good death?’ Conversations would break out, says Patey, when people returned from their walk. She recalls one night just before closing, two young interns on their way to being surgeons discussing how they’d had to necessarily reduce empathy during their training and were thinking about how to build it again.

Patey explains, “I’m not claiming to totally transform anyone’s life but there’s something about being on a physical journey while you’re on an emotional one and inhabiting that person’s shoes that makes a difference. You find yourself walking and looking down and they’re not your shoes…”

A Mile in My Shoes is the first of a series that will eventually become a fully installed Museum of Empathy, “conceived like a kind of high street as an antidote to the homogenisation of consumerism and high street culture. It will have a library, café, shoe shop, undertaker, gym, laundrette and travel agency.”

Clare Patey is currently working on a project titled Edible Utopia and also with Tipping Point, which addresses cultural responses to climate change. It involves “a group of structural engineers to build an inside-out house,” she says, laughing, “to reveal all the infrastructure that goes into it.”

Perth International Arts Festival, The Museum of Empathy, A Mile in My Shoes, curated by Clare Patey and Kitty Ross in collaboration with Roman Krznaric, Stirling Gardens, 18 Feb-6 March; Roman Krznaric, Writers’ Week, Octagon Theatre, Perth, 18 Feb; www.empathymuseum.com

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 23

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

Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge

Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge

Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge

Wendy Martin, the new Artistic Director of the Perth International Arts Festival, wanted for her opening event a sense of place, of Western Australia rather than the usual European spectacles, although she thinks they’re great. WA, she says, has a wealth of talent, so for the event, titled HOME, she’s appointed large-scale events artist Nigel Jamieson to direct with Iain Grandage, Lucky Oceans and Wayne Freer working on the music, Zoe Atkinson on design and Sohan Ariel Hayes on media art. The focus is on how WA artists evoke a sense of place with the event to be opened with a very special Welcome to Country by storyteller and virtuoso didjeridu player Richard Walley, associate director of HOME. A sense of place, of one’s own being and of others intelligently and aesthetically pervades the 2016 festival program.

One of the festival centrepieces, Refuse the Hour is a live version of William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time which appeared as an installation in the 2014 festival. I wrote then, “It’s a huge work occupying the whole of the main PICA space with five screen projections (filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh) on three walls of Kentridge’s animations and staged performances (choreography Dada Masilo) with enveloping music (Philip Miller) and dramaturgy by physicist and historian of science Peter Galison. I was taken in particular with the costuming (touches of Bauhaus inventiveness), dancing and transformations in the strange domestic scenes, as well as with the overall sense of time in and out of synch, measured against the stars, the beat of metronomes and the epic march of shadows of human beings bearing goods and possessions and led by a hauntingly scored brass band” (RT120, p17). Martin’s favourite moment in this live incarnation is “a phenomenal duet in which Berlin-based Australian Jo Dudley sings in reverse the words she’s just heard from a woman in the Soweto Choir.”

If Kentridge seduces us with his fantasia into reflecting on our relationship with time (and always with a South African political dimension), in Apocrifu, Belgian-Moroccan choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, exploring the great religious and philosophical texts, wants us, says Martin, “to see that these can sit side by side and create beauty without having to be in complete agreement.” His expression of this is realised by Cherkaoui himself, a Japanese classical ballet dancer, a French contemporary dance and circus artist and the Corsican choir A Filetta—“singing to die for,” claims Martin.

If reflecting on others’ values is central to improving human relationships, there are works in the festival that focus very specifically on the bodies and feelings of others. You can read about the The Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes (UK) on page 23; it’s an experiential work for audiences created by Clare Patey and Kitty Ross with cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, author of The Empathy Revolution and opening speaker at the festival’s Writers’ Week. Also from the UK is Claire Cunningham whom Martin worked with on London’s Unlimited Festival of Disability Arts. “She’s a great artist and a great thinker,” says Martin of the Scottish artist. “She’ll present Guide Gods, which I commissioned for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. It’s a dance theatre piece exploring the views of the world’s major religions on disability which began when she met a Buddhist monk in Cambodia who suggested she was disabled because of karma. It’s only performed in places connected with religion. She’ll also perform Give Me a Reason to Believe, her solo response to the works of Hieronymus Bosch and his depiction of the disabled—it’s an investigation into empathy.” Cunningham will also run a week-long workshop for artists from across Australia during the festival. Martin has a four-year strategy for the festival to work with DAADA (Disability in the Arts Disadvantages in the Arts, WA).

Pindorama, Lia Rodrigues

Pindorama, Lia Rodrigues

Pindorama, Lia Rodrigues

Depression is the subject of Every Brilliant Thing by British writer Duncan Macmillan and performer Jonny Donahoe, both geniuses says Martin, who was so moved by the performance that she thanked the actor for being so brave, to which he replied, “It’s not my life.” The work drew on interviews with sufferers. “It’s staged in the round and is very intimate and welcoming, like a conversation,” Martin explains, “and is funny, but deeply affecting.”

The need for understanding across cultures has never been so critical as ignorance—and its offspring, racism and sexism—increasingly threatens to undo democracy. Another work that will open audiences to the complexities of the lives of others, and our kinship with them is Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory (UK), created by Bradford woman, Evie Manning, who directs the work and writer Aisha Zie. Twenty-eight years old and living next door to a Muslim woman with 11 children,” says Martin, “she asked her how she managed given that she herself could barely cope with one child. The woman said ‘come to the gym with me.’ It was full of Muslim women learning how to box to build their self esteem and being in the world. Evie interviewed girls 16 to 23 years of age including a woman who is the UK University Boxing champion. The performers are mentored by a Pakistani woman who’ll represent Britain in the next Olympic Games and has trained them in technique and how to feel confident and speak about their lives. No guts… will be staged in a Perth boxing gym. Evie’s staying on for 10 days to work with marginalised people towards a new work we’ll commission from her.”

WA dancer James Berlyn has crafted a fine live art repertoire including the 2013 work Crash Course, a surreal language lesson. In this festival he’s presenting and performing I Know You’re There, which Martin describes as “a beautiful personal story about his family and when something you thought was true no longer is. He builds the set out of recycled paper—it’s an understated ecological message—dances and engages the audience in conversation. You can choose to join in or not. It’s in the round and very intimate.”

The great kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, from India will present with her dancers two works on the one program. The first, Knotted, is a bold response to the December 2012 gang rape of a young woman left for dead, “not a direct response,” explains Martin, “but about the effect.” The second work, Unwrapped, a display of classic kathak accompanied by harmonium and vocals, will doubtless be riveting.

In Plexus, French artist Aurélien Bory will install Japanese performer and circus artist Kaori Ito in a beautiful cage of 5000 elastic cords in which she’ll be reduced to the role of puppet though seeking to escape as we watch, listening to the amplified movements of her body in the musical score.

Guide Gods

Guide Gods

Guide Gods

“It’s one of the most visceral works I’ve experienced, and the most visceral in the festival,” says Martin of Lia Rodrigues’ dance work, Pindorama, “which is the name of Brazil before colonisation. You enter a black space, you’re standing, a huge transparent tarp is unrolled. As it is moved by naked performers it becomes a raging sea, the sound of the storm coming only from its movement, of water against plastic, and you become one of the performers.” This work about danger, survival and cooperation is inspired by ancient ritual with which to meet current social and political challenges; Rodrigues recently moved her studio to Maré, one of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

There’s much more to Martin’s festival—Meow Meow as The Little Mermaid, PVI’s Blackmarket, the premiere chamber ensemble version of Mark Anthony Turnage’s contemporary music classic Blood on the Floor at Fremantle Arts Centre, Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck and The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet. Martin is eager to point out too that the Festival’s Conversations program will be hosted by Ruth Little, associate director of the climate change organisation Cape Farewell (UK), writer, literary manager and dramaturg for the likes of Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and a great interviewer.

I tell Wendy Martin I’m impressed by the emphasis on empathy in her program, always from quite different perspectives—philosophical, political, collective and individual, and always aesthetic. “I’m not telling people what to think,” she says, “but if they find the ideas, that’s good.”

Perth International Arts Festival, 11 Feb-6 March

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 24

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

Monumental, The Holy Body Tattoo

Monumental, The Holy Body Tattoo

Monumental, The Holy Body Tattoo

For his final festival Artistic Director David Sefton is mounting some mighty works, invoking Adelaide Festivals past with Pina Bausch’s Nelken and Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses (see the interview, p22) and including his own with The James Plays trilogy, recalling Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies in 2014. There’s continuity too in Sefton’s adventurous contemporary music programs Tectonics and Unsound Adelaide and the presence this year of the remarkable, reclusive Canadian heavy art-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

The Holy Body Tattoo, monumental

The eight-piece Montreal band (who reappeared in 2012 after a 10-year hiatus) will stage their own concert and also accompany Vancouver’s famed dance company The Holy Body Tattoo (also back from a 10-year absence) in monumental. Nine dancers mounted on pedestals will express and battle with the psychological pressures of contemporary life with ferocious but highly articulated choreography framed by intensive visuals.

1927, Golem

From UK company 1927 comes Golem, an update of Jewish tales about a man-made creature built from clay, precursor of Frankenstein’s monster and out-of-control robots. In a melding of live performance and animation including, of course, clay, an antiquated picture book world is conjured in which a computer programmer creates a golem, but with a very contemporary difference, making the work a satire of our preoccupation with everyday technological tools. The quaint imagery won’t be to everyone’s taste and I didn’t take to the company’s artistry in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in the 2008 Sydney Festival, but many did and it’s five stars all round from UK reviewers.

Tiny Bricks, Deluge

If Holy Body Tattoo physically realise modern angst and 1927 focuses on the ills of synthetic production, Australian playwright Philip Kavanagh portrays us as succumbing to the ever increasing flood of information, which is no longer simply knowledge. He’s created “five plays run[ing] simultaneously as 10 characters attempt to find meaning and connection without drowning.” The play proposes “our brains are changing because of the media we use. We all live in The Shallows now. The trouble is human desire runs fathoms deep… Now that the deluge is upon us do we swim to each other or get swept apart in the torrents?” (Playwriting Australia, July). For those lucky enough to have seen the Malthouse-STC production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (RT128, p34), with its over 100 playlets, new local company Tiny Bricks’ production of The Deluge will be another rare opportunity to reflect on the kinds of creatures we are becoming.

Stone/Castro, The Country; STCSA, Belvoir, Malthouse, The Events

Adelaide’s Stone/Castro has, unusually, chosen to mount English playwright Martin Crimp’s The Country, an acutely observed, acerbic account of middle class conversation as dangerous misinformation; doubtless the company will apply to it their own experimental vision. STCSA, Belvoir, Malthouse have come together to stage The Events by Scottish playwright David Grieg, in which the sole survivor of a mass shooting grapples with survival and loss; each performance is accompanied by a different local choir, offering a sense of community and music that consoles. Another local production, Oscar Wilde’s The Young King, by the acclaimed Slingsby, should also be on the must-see list.

ADT, Habitus

For ADT Artistic Director and choreographer Garry Stewart, it’s back to basics with none of the technology in tandem with dance which he has deployed over many years to speculate on our natures. The performers will dance with and manipulate books, furniture and household appliances to create a new view of of “the vast complexity of a living ecosystem.” I recall from the Adelaide Festival in 2008, being astonished by Moving Targets (RT 84, p10) created by German playwright writer Marius von Mayenburg, director Benedict Andrews and their actor collaborators who messed with a sofa, other bits of furniture, their bodies and clothing to create an anarchic but somehow cogent world of feeling and endless invention. Stewart’s vision should be very different and dancers’ bodies speak in other ways, but I look forward to making comparison.

Paul White (foreground) and Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nelken (Carnations): a piece by Pina Bausch

Paul White (foreground) and Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nelken (Carnations): a piece by Pina Bausch

Paul White (foreground) and Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nelken (Carnations): a piece by Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch, Nelken (Carnations)

Who needs prompting to see Nelken, performed by a company like no other: 20 performers bearing a great legacy and dancing on a field of silk carnations to the music of Schubert, Lehar and Gershwin played on accordion? Enough said.

The James Plays

A co-production from the National Theatre of Great Britain, National Theatre of Scotland and Edinburgh International Festival, Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s The James Plays is a trilogy about the lives of James I, James II and James III of Scotland across the 15th century. The plays can be seen on their own or in a seven and a half hour marathon. Of the many critical recommendations I liked this one in London’s The Telegraph: “Munro’s script is the star. As well as illuminating Scotland’s history of distancing itself from England while uniting with Scandinavia and France, these plays all capture something elusive about Scottishness: that potent mix of individual spirit, darkness, alcohol and loyalty that can seem so foreign to the rest of Britain. Often, the writing is just very funny.”

Tectonics Adelaide

Once again, the pilgrimage to Adelaide by audiences and artists will confirm the ongoing success of Tectonics. Program 1 features the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by the program’s curator Ilan Volkov, The Necks and Splinter Orchestra. New works by Eyvind Kang, Annie Hsieh, Cathy Milliken, Phill Niblock and Jim O’Rourke will feature. The 20 artists in the epic Program Two include Niblock, Col Fuhler, Jim Denley, Melanie Herbert, Nik Kamvissis, David Shea, Klaus Lang, Eyvind Kang and Papaphilia. The sheer variety of music and the event’s informality make Tectonics Adelaide very special.

Unsound Adelaide

Experimental and underground club music are at the core of Unsound, a unique Australian event for the fans of techno, post-punk, dubstep, grime and more, often with immersive visuals. The international lineup, curated by Mat Schulz and David Sefton includes, in the first program, Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Alessandro Cortini (Italy), Kangding Ray (France) and Mogwai bassist Barry Burns (UK), Kode9 (UK), Jlin (US) and Australian group Tralala Blip, featuring members with and without disabilities. The second program features Fennesz (Austria) and Lillevan (Germany), Johann Johannsson (Iceland) and Adelaide’s Zephyr Quartet, Vessel (UK) and Pedro Maia (Portugal), Powell (UK) and Lorenzo Senni (Italy) and Berlin-based Paula Temple (UK) with her densely textured, pulsing noise-dancing electronics.

Adelaide Festival of Arts, 26 Feb-14 March

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 25

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

Nick Cave, Heard:Detroit 2015

Nick Cave, Heard:Detroit 2015

Nick Cave, Heard:Detroit 2015

What would we do without Carriageworks? CEO Lisa Havilah and her staff continue to integrate an expanding range of contemporary art practices, international artists and artist development strategies into its programs both within and beyond the building into Western Sydney and with a large commitment to Indigenous artists. Havilah has ensured that we think of Carriageworks not as venue, but as an organically functioning contemporary arts centre with a history and a growing identity of its own and as integral to a local, national and, increasingly, international arts ecosystem through its support for the artistic well-being and innovations of its resident companies and partner organisations and commissioned artists.


I met with a spirited Havilah at Carriageworks where she guided me through her 2016 program which has more works, commissions and partners than ever, without losing either passion or direction. New partners include the Sydney Writers’ Festival to present talk programs; Sydney Symphony Orchestra for their 20th-21st century composers series; and City of Sydney for K-pop Party, The Great Strike (see below) and Art and About. As part of its arts and disability strategy Carriageworks is partnering Western Sydney’s Urban Theatre Projects to create a new work, Simple Infinity, with hearing impaired artists. In another arts and disability project resident dance company Force Majeure will work with Grafton-based Dance Integrated Australia in Off the Record.

With its principal resident company, Performance Space, Carriageworks will partner Day for Night for Mardi Gras, co-commission an exhibition of works by media artist Ross Manning after the success of last year’s Ken Thaiday show, and an exhibition of Indigenous art in the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art. Other partners include Sydney Chamber Opera and Brisbane’s Room40.


For the Sydney Festival, Carriageworks will host the adventurous 2016 About An Hour program, which includes a new dance work by Melbourne choreographer Stephanie Lake, Belgium’s Rosas dance company, also in the festival, will perform at Carriageworks which presented the company’s first Sydney appearance in 2014. Later in the year, from France comes Tragédie, choreographed by Olivier Dubois for Ballet du Nord. Inspired by Nietzsche’s notion of the commonality and liberating transcendence dance can offer, it features 18 naked dancers “in a chorus of hypnotically repetitive movements backed by a pounding bass” (program). In May the second round of the Keir Choreographic Fellowship Award will premiere the works of finalists Sarah Aiken, James Batchelor Chloe Chignell, Ghenoa Gela, Martin Hansen, Alice Heyward, Rebecca Jensen and Paea Leach. Adding to the dance program, there’s also Off the Record, mentioned above, and NAISDA’s 40th anniversary production (see below).


Just as Sydney Chamber Opera has brought new audiences to Carriageworks hungry for alternatives to Opera Australia’s staid programming, so should the two Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts of 20th and 21st century music, the first led by SSO chief conductor David Robertson (acclaimed for his support of new music in the US) attract not only those deprived of the new, but also newcomers to it. I’m hoping that after 2016 it will have more than the admirable Brett Dean to represent Australian composition.

The program also includes Sydney Chamber Opera’s Notes from the Underground and Brisbane’s Room40 presenting concerts by experimental musicians Fennesz and Michael Gira (of The Swans). Havilah tells me, “this year’s Room40 season [RT 127, p47] enjoyed a terrific response and director Lawrence English is great to work with.”

Francesco Clemente, Angels’ Tent 2013 (detail)

Francesco Clemente, Angels’ Tent 2013 (detail)

Francesco Clemente, Angels’ Tent 2013 (detail)


The organisation’s international standing continues to grow with return visits of Ryoji Ikeda and Lemi Ponifasio (director of NZ’s internationally acclaimed MAU company). Havilah has commissioned a work by Ponifasio for 2017 titled Children of Gods. Involving 400 community members, the work addresses the plight of millions of children today by reflecting on the Children’s Crusade, the story of the expulsion of Muslim children from Jerusalem by Christians in 1212.

Commissioning Ponifasio has given Carriageworks important international leverage to co-produce work it could not itself afford. There are some 50 commissions in Havilah’s program, some starting, others in-progress and others being realised across 2016. One of the latter is Australian artist S Shakthidharan’s multimedia performance work COLONY centred on stories from Western Sydney but with a global perspective and developed by Carriageworks over three years.


Over the summer Carriageworks’ featured artist is Ghanian Eli Anatsui, making his first appearance in Australia with five decades of his remarkable assemblages on show. Another featured major artist is Italian Francesco Clemente who, following a visit to India, says Havilah, “made a beautiful series of hand-painted tents. We’ve taken the whole collection and will show it across the foyer from August to October.”

In June we’ll see Adelaide’s Hossein Valmanesh’s major media art installation, which uses four projection screens to create an Iranian bazaar ‘room’ [in which] “to contemplate movement, human interaction and the passing of time. [It’s] a metaphor for Iran, a country which has been subject to invasion, religious and cultural interaction for centuries” [2016 program]. This work has been realised with the support of Adelaide Film Festival, Carriageworks, Samstag Museum, the University of Western Australia and Sydney Film Festival. Havilah had just seen the work in Adelaide and was deeply impressed.

In October-November a greatly warranted and much anticipated major exhibition of Australian artist Ross Manning’s exquisitely beautiful light and sound sculptural works will be displayed in the Carriageworks foyer in partnership with Performance Space.

In another new relationship, two shows from Hobart’s MONA will be exhibited this year at Carriageworks. In French artist Mathieu Briand’s installation Spiral, “five turntables play samples on an endless loop. [The artist] invites you to intervene, creating sonic chaos that’s simultaneously cut to vinyl.” The second exhibition, titled Love, gathers works by the late Sydney light artist Kathy Cavaliere, curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham.

In Heard•Syd, co-presented by City of Sydney’s Art & About, leading American artist Nick Cave’s 30 fantastical horses will come to life with live music and 60 local performers over two days in November around Sydney and at Carriageworks.

Indigenous art, development & aspiration

After two years in development, Carriageworks and Moogahlin Performing Arts will present writer-director Andrea James’ play Winyanboga Yurringa. Inspired by the groundbreaking 1981 TV series Women of the Sun, it focuses “on the lives of Aboriginal women and their connection to country.”

NAISDA will celebrate 40 years of training Indigenous dancers with a new work and an exhibition at Carriageworks. Naya Wa Yugali—We Dance “will feature oral histories, a new commission by Vicki Van Hout and the work of artists including Tracey Moffatt, Lee Chiswick, Elaine Kitchener and the late Michael Riley.”

On the developmental front is Solid Ground, a $2m three-year partnership between Carriageworks and Blacktown Arts Centre which has just commenced with the employment of two full-time Aboriginal staff. Havilah explains, “It’s about providing pathways for young Indigenous people into the arts and cultural industries under the national Indigenous Advancement Strategy. There’ll be 90 participants from Redfern and Waterloo to Blacktown in job training and bespoke tertiary programs. We hope not only to support the next generation of artists but also arts managers and leaders, so that we’re working on both fronts.” The program includes mentorships and the production of new Indigenous works.

Hossein Valamanesh, Char Soo 2014

Hossein Valamanesh, Char Soo 2014

Hossein Valamanesh, Char Soo 2014

A venture that also advances Indigenous artists, their art and students is the full-time artist residency (with Tony Albert in 2016) with its permanent Park Road studio at Alexandria Park Community School in Sydney’s inner-east. The artist has contact with students each week and helps shape the school’s curriculum, which Havilah see as very important in an integrated program. A permanent studio is also one of the targets for the Solid Ground project.

An excitingly pragmatic new initiative will be Black Arts Market, with curator Hetti Perkins and artist Jonathan Jones bringing artworks by east coast regional Aboriginal artists to market for two days at Carriageworks.

In development

There’s also much in development: a new work by Back to Back Theatre; new plays from Yellamundie and Milk Crate Theatre; and The Great Strike, an exhibition about industrial action held at Carriageworks in 1917 that went national, propelling the consolidation of trade unions in Australia. Curated by Beatrice Gralton in association with local historians and five artists it will feature original materials, photographs and rare film footage in its recounting of employees at Eveleigh and Randwick Tram Sheds striking for six week in protest against new work regulations in World War I.

Lisa Havilah is a master of integration who with her staff, resident companies and many partners has embraced the contemporary arts organically and with a great sense of considered but always exciting evolution. She puts it simply: “It’s a matter of keeping your core values, not changing your path, learning from what you deliver and expanding on it.”

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 26

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

Burning Sugar Cane Field in El Salvador. Still from

Burning Sugar Cane Field in El Salvador. Still from “This Changes Everything”

There’s a rather jaw-dropping moment in Louie Psihoyos’ environmental documentary Racing Extinction (2015) when the director, in voiceover, offhandedly mentions his dismay after calculating the immense amount of greenhouse gasses generated by the production of his movie. Having acknowledged his contribution to the problem his film documents, he glibly glosses over this inconvenient truth and spends the rest of the film playing the heroic white American investigator catching out environmental abusers in developing countries like China.

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, which has been doing the rounds of special screenings organised by environmental groups across Australia, is not quite so wilfully blind to its own internal contradictions, but I couldn’t help feeling the same sense of discomfort I experienced watching Psihoyos’ film.

As if to pre-empt responses like mine, in the opening moments of This Changes Everything Klein tries to head off any suspicion she will follow a well-established formula. In a chatty, rather cutesy voiceover she declares that climate change documentaries are “boring” and images of polar bears on shrinking ice caps “have never really done it for me.” Despite this, the film treads much the same path as countless other recent documentaries on environmental issues.

First we are bombarded with astounding statistics and mind-boggling images of environmental degradation to demonstrate the irrationality of mega-rich corporations and their governmental lackeys. At around the 50-minute mark there is a ray of hope, with a story of localised resistance to corporate development instigated by poor people in the developing world. Then the filmmakers bring it back home with a heart-warming, small-scale initiative in a Western country involving people like us, who speak English. They then make some vague statements about finding a better way to live, slap up a website in the end credits so people can find out how to “take action,” and send us all home reassured that saving the planet is only an online petition away.

Lest I sound like a cynical climate change denier, let me clarify. I don’t for a moment doubt we are on the edge of environmental catastrophe, and that those who say otherwise are either protecting vested interests or are wilfully blind. It is also abundantly clear that governments around the world now see their role as representing the interests of capital above all else. But I also strongly believe that constructing simplistic binaries—between developed and developing countries, corporations and the ‘99 per cent,’ capitalism and some other economic system that cannot be named—is preventing all of us taking an honest look at ourselves, our lifestyles and our culture. Films like This Changes Everything often feel like they are about reassuring us—concerned, middle class people who actually watch these documentaries—rather than alerting us to the disastrous path we’re all on.

Take, for example, the film’s vague attack on “capitalism.” I put the word in quotation marks because there is no attempt here to really examine what capitalism is as a social, political and economic system. Instead, it’s bandied about as a handy symbol of all that is wrong with other people. Is capitalism necessarily inherently doomed to generate environmental disaster? If so, what exactly are Lewis and Klein proposing as an alternative? There is no evidence that centrally planned socialist systems are more friendly to our planet, as the state of parts of the former Soviet Union attests. Or is the problem the neo-liberal variant of capitalism that has been instigated across the West since the 1970s? If so, then what form of capitalism might better serve the environment? Lewis and Klein examined some alternative economic models in their earlier film, The Take (RT 69, p21), but This Changes Everything doesn’t seriously delve into any of these questions. Instead, we get some rather glaring instances of interviewees blaming “capitalism” and corporations for our problems, while failing to reflect on our own imbrication in the consumerist way of life that these corporations are feeding.

Early in the film, for instance, we meet Crystal, a young Indigenous leader of the Beaver Creek Nation in Alberta, Canada. This is tar sands country where oil is being extracted on a vast scale, with predictably grim results for the surrounds. When her people learn of a spill from a pipeline, Crystal tries to gain access to the site, as is her legal right as an Indigenous custodian. She is interviewed by Klein as she drives to the mining company headquarters in her car, waxing lyrical about what our obsession with oil is doing to the planet. At no point does Crystal, or anyone else in the film, notice the irony of condemning oil companies while going about her daily business—like so many of us—in a large, privately owned, petrol-fuelled motor vehicle.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from “This Changes Everything”

Later in the film, we see a group of Greek women in a beautiful forest area earmarked for mining. The Greek Government, we are told, is rapidly selling off all the country’s natural resources to try and inject funds into the cash-strapped economy. The women raise a toast to the beauty around them that they are trying to save—using disposable plastic cups.

These sound like small incidents, but it is tiny, unthinking acts multiplied billions of times across the planet on a daily basis that are inexorably destroying our world. It’s easy to blame big polluters—and they should certainly be held to account—but how many of us in the affluent West are really prepared to rein in our lifestyles for the sake of the planet? How many of us are even prepared to stop buying coffee in disposable cups, let alone give up our cars?

The filmmakers themselves traverse Canada, the United States, Greece, China and India in the course of the documentary—much like Louie Psihoyos’ globetrotting effort in Racing Extinction. Yet nowhere do Lewis and Klein reflect upon the damage they are inflicting by happily zipping around the world on jetliners. When are we going to see an environmental film that actually tries to lead by example, instead of simply reiterating visual and verbal clichés?

Of course the impact of making a documentary like this does not compare to the mining of the tar sands of Alberta. But the filmmakers’ willingness to blithely burn the oil they condemn others for extracting speaks, I think, of a deeper denial. Large corporations are feeding a demand created by us—all of us. If what is happening really changes everything, why aren’t documentary makers like Lewis and Klein at least trying to challenge their usual modes of filmic production?

This Changes Everything, director Avi Lewis, producers Avi Lewis and Joslyn Barnes, writer Naomi Klein, Canada-USA, 2015.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 27

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

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Striped bodysuit for ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto.

Babies, drunks and grandpas all know that David Bowie flirted with the image of sex, toyed with the image of avant-gardism and flaunted the image of mask-making. And sloths, slugs and doorknobs know that the promotion of imagery within music has remained a contentious issue ever since 18th century aesthetes worked hard to ingrain the Neo-Classical ideal that each art form should be pure unto itself and seek to attain its own ontological plateau of perfection. The 2013 Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition assembled from David Bowie’s Archive—pretentiously titled David Bowie Is—presents its findings as if Bowie invented the cultural brazing of sound and vision.

The exhibition charts how Bowie intuitively cross-hatched theatrical bricolage with persona politics and continued to ‘revolutionise’ mediarised music production across four decades. Maybe he did. But Bowie—the slut of the sonic, the tart of the textual—ripped into popular music by ripping off the late 60s vintage mania of second-hand clothing emporium styles which bloomed from Haight-Ashbury to Carnaby Street. Well before the cut-ups of Gautier/Goude, Westwood/McLaren and Bowie/Burretti, you had Jimi Hendrix looking like an Afrocentric culture-clash torn from a Napoleonic oil painting; Janis Joplin looking like a Texan bar maiden mashed up with a desert-distressed Art Nouveau poster for Absinthe. Bowie levered himself from the gauche posturing of 60s transhistorical image-mining wherein heroic rock icons were self-constructed by looking as much into their mirrors as at their audience.

You wouldn’t know this from surveying the mothballing multi-media catwalk of David Bowie Is. The through-line has been so thoroughly self-determined that most visitors feel happy to be corralled by the fawning narrative and its eponymous creator’s prescience. But let’s scrutinise this thin white historical thread between Bowie’s imagineered past and our mediarised present: I for one think Bowie should be prosecuted if his flagrant manipulation of ‘image’ begat the likes of Björk, Beck, Lady Gaga, Bonnie Prince Billy, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Manson, Lana Del Rey and Nick Cave. Counter to their salacious embrace of artifice, the arch meaningfulness of those artists synchs more to Bowie’s dilettantish works than to his sporadic inspired works. Yes, it’s great to still be stung by the spine-tingling inappropriateness and halted eroticism of the alien visages of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thomas Jerome Newton et al, but there’d been a far greater proportion of pale zeitgeist surfing in Bowie’s career.

As a teen fan of a near ridiculously high order, I have long noted Bowie’s contorted flips between crazed insight and embarrassing output. Standing in the rain eight rows back from the front at the infamous MCG concert of 1979 in Melbourne, I distinctly remember thinking by the third song that everything about the event was unexciting and weirdly insignificant—from his lame fisherman’s pants to the rank arrangements circa Stage (1978) to a god awful PA system only a footballer would appreciate. More, I was struck by the yawning gulf between Bowie’s ‘sound and vision’ and the ugly reality of how it was broadcast, staged, reported, rendered and transmitted. This was reverse Warholian logic, wherein Bowie’s audiovision—the image of music he fabricated and the melange of sonic styles he orchestrated—fully lived up to the empty stylishness of his gestural actions. Warhol transformed the abject banal into hyper art; Bowie often reversed the flow.

David Bowie Is notably gained access to the David Bowie Archive, but it feels like the V&A marketing department has shaped the exhibition more than its curators. What we get is: (i) a belaboured audio narrative forging a didactic trail; (ii) an over-designed theatrical presentation of artefacts; and (iii) a cynical and superfluous bombardment of TV screens. Yes, I get it: Bowie is image. Yet while the exhibition presents an amazing array of original costumes (those by Burretti and Yamamoto are stunning), it tarts them up as ‘image’ rather than ‘object.’ Some are stashed six metres up behind faux-telescreen grating and flashing ‘concert’ lights. Meanwhile, the exhibition’s hefty catalogue contains sumptuous pristine photos of all the key costumes on display; the book makes them look more actual than the exhibition.

David Bowie Is critically ignores the chance to materialise the fabric of Bowie’s key transformative stage personae, and to give physical museographic presence to Bowie’s costumery which has become so dematerialised, photocopied and hyper-imaged as to become nullified and tokenistic. While the exhibition adopts the uniquely British rhetoric of The Independent Group who inaugurated pop-as-culture in post-war Britain back in 1956 with their ground-breaking exhibition of Pop Art, This Is Tomorrow, it falls into the 19th century pit of artist-as-myth. Treating Bowie this way now does no service to anyone but bourgeois journalists and media teachers.

Bowie thought he was channelling Warhol, Burroughs, Dali, Duchamp, Schiele and Wilde, but he came nowhere near them in terms of concept, execution and innovation. David Bowie Is believes he was all those figures combined—without admitting to the delusional drug-laced phantasms conjured by Bowie between 1971 and 1978, which historically and culturally frame his brethren. The exhibition might have taken a leaf from Mick Rock’s iconic photos in the revealing hardback tome Moonage Daydream (2002). His stupendous archive proves that the amazing polysexual trans-alien pseudomorphic looks of Bowie start with the Haddon Hall red spiky cut of 1971 and peak with that look’s gaudy atrophy by the time of the Diamond Dogs publicity shots of 1974.

More importantly, the Moonage Daydream images are trailed by a ruminating text by Bowie, who was recorded looking through Mick Rock’s archive. His casual reminiscences were transcribed and edited into a running commentary. It’s a weird text: an oral account of Bowie looking into the mirrors of his past. (Numerous times this text is footnoted in the exhibition catalogue.) Yet not once does Bowie provide any interesting critical context for his self images: quite the opposite, he seems gripped by Wildean self-loathing. David Bowie Is silences that flippant voice, and instead broadcasts a hagiographic construction of Bowie on par with his own messianic concoctions.

Back in 2002 when Moonage Daydream was released, Glam Rock was derided, not lauded. Bowie’s mind was elsewhere: in 1998, he had launched BowieNet. A subscription-based fan-exploiting start-up venture, it was far more embarrassing than Glam’s glitter, with Kai Power Tools and insipid information-commodity-speak peppering its copy. It came one year after the outrageous stunt wrought by ‘rock and roll investment broker’ David Pullman who in 1997 marketed Bowie celebrity bonds, by securitising an artist’s royalties to enable said artist to self-fund future projects across the forthcoming decade.

David Bowie Is markets itself as if everything is grounded in the Ziggy/Aladdin/Diamond era Mick Rock fortuitously documented, but attempts to stretch that innovative sound and vision too far. Ultimately, the exhibition is a museographic version of the now defunct Bowie Bonds. As such, it sits well in the new millennial climate of atomised rock and pop culture. From Target launching Keanan Duffty’s bland range of post-Glam Bowie-inspired clothes (2007) to the Aladdin Sane face gracing a Brixton 10 Pound note (2011; a legal community currency), David Bowie really is all that too.

David Bowie Is. ACMI, Melbourne, 16 July-1 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 28

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

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Last year The Cad Factory, along with National Museum of Australia’s historian George Main and friends, took a three-day healing walk from the Narrandera Common on the Murrimbidgee to Birrego, 40km away. This year they returned to the Common with many more friends to install sculptures, textiles and other works. Dozens of artists and many more locals came together to promote different perspectives on the location, and the healing theme continued with acknowledgment of the river’s long history as a contested site.

This historical perspective was brought into focus during Haunting on the Friday and Saturday nights, featuring a collection of vignettes from the region with images projected onto the river redgums across from Second Beach. Richly saturated photographs streamed through smoke onto pale trunks and eroded banks, as Main and others provided recorded narration over an atmospheric soundtrack.

Haunting was developed by The CAD Factory’s artistic director Vic McEwan during his time as artist-in-residence at the National Museum of Australia. His projections brought together water, earth and branches and made them active in the storytelling, “enabling understanding that would be possible nowhere else, under no other circumstance,” said Main in his introduction to the event, quoting literary historian Robert Macfarlane’s view of the poetry of Edward Thomas.

Main remarked in his narration how few of us look at the fields of wheat in the Riverina and imagine the forest of redgums that existed before the latter half of the 19th century. The Common is one of those places where a stand of Australian gums feels like a forest. Many old trunks are wider than cars and some have scars from Indigenous use. While the trees reflect an older landscape, the projection of static images from old photographs panning slowly across the river did too. I thought of the early days of Australian cinema, when the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army was one of the world’s first film studios.

The idea that art is spirituality in drag makes a lot of sense at a Cad Factory production, as the audience see local stories projected large. However, a reverential tone and too much spaciousness for reflection can feel ponderous. The snippets of history were like bubbles on the passing river and the variety of voices helped but sometimes Main spoke so…very…slowly.

It was surprising to see police arrive as the audience departed Haunting. A Facebook message from Michael Petchkovsky later described an incident with a local: “The lout [one of ‘the boys’] must have thought the bunyips had come for him when Hero Fukutu and I floated Gay Campbell’s gorgeous black swan right past him in the darkness and Craig said ‘boo’ to him from behind. He leaped up and ran screaming from the beach in front of all his friends, giving us all (his mates included) the giggles…”

The next day a local artist told me these ‘boys’ were a feature at local events. Perhaps they are performance artists in their own right? She also enthused that the youthful audience weren’t engaged in their usual activities on the Common, reinforcing the notion that this landscape remains a contentious space.

On the Saturday night there were introductions from Vic McEwan, George Main and local artist Michael Lyons, who performed imitations of wildlife such as “devil birds” (owls) on didgeridoo. It was the first of two musical performances that bookended the night. Local musician Fiona Caldravic closed Haunting with an operatic vocal in a bewitching outfit. It wasn’t until I looked at photos that I noticed the pattern on her cloak matched the huge backdrop—Vanishing Point, an installation across the river that was colourfully lit but still impressive the following day. Narrowing wires elegantly formed a vanishing point and billowing fabric served to reflect the black swans that had been driven from this landscape. The team of artists led by Julie Montgarrett drew on the writing of Mary Gilmour who attributed the decline of the swans to “swan hoppers” [whose work was to hop the swans off the nests in the breeding-season and smash their eggs, disrupting their breeding in order to reduce the birds’ damage to pasture. Eds].

Swans and billowing fabric were recurring features in On Common Ground. Black swans appeared at First and Second beaches in the works of Kerri Weymouth, on a totem pole, and Julie Briggs, in a formation of paper birds streaming down the riverbank. The title of the latter, Yes Faux Nature is a Real Trend, is explained in the program as referencing Glen Albrecht’s term ‘solastalgia’ to describe anxiety in response to negative environmental change.

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Fabric on site took many forms, including kites, quilts and an extensive variety of eco-dyed sheets that were the result of workshops with local artists and Nicole Barakat earlier this year. There were many shades but also beautiful details, such as printing the shapes of leaves and branches.

Emma Burden-Piltz is one local artist whose practice has blossomed through collaboration with The Cad Factory. When I interviewed the artist for Western River Arts she identified circular motifs as an element from the landscape incorporated into her collections of found and reworked objects. In Tangible Spirit, Burden-Piltz hung eco-dyed fabrics to give form to the movement of air, as well as shaping structures that resembled fishing traps. Up close I spotted hand-sewn circles.

Another local artist, Elizabeth Gay Campbell, creates often seemingly simple sculptural figures with a deeper message. Ophelia (2015) shows the character from Hamlet dying in a puddle surrounded by rubbish. In the program the work is described as acknowledging contaminated waterways and bush—the dying Ophelia the only remaining beauty, but she’ll too soon decay.

While a number of the works in On Common Ground expressed pessimism about environmental change, the event was beaut for its appreciation of Narrandera’s magical Common. Vic McEwan often explains CAD Factory’s role as creating memories within landscapes. This collection of activities and installations revealed On Common Ground to be much more than Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea replicated on the Murrumbidgee.

The Cad Factory, On Common Ground, artistic director Vic McEwan, creative producer Sarah McEwan, project co-ordinator Julie Briggs; Narrandera, 16-18 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 32

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

U.F.O. (Unidentified Female Object), Rakini Devi; costume Evangelos Laios and Jason Patten, Siteworks 2015, Bundanon

U.F.O. (Unidentified Female Object), Rakini Devi; costume Evangelos Laios and Jason Patten, Siteworks 2015, Bundanon

U.F.O. (Unidentified Female Object), Rakini Devi; costume Evangelos Laios and Jason Patten, Siteworks 2015, Bundanon

Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s Bundanon property was gifted to the Australian public in 1993 as a centre for education and to support creative arts practice. Their bequest also insisted on public access to the site. Arthur Boyd obsessively painted this landscape and its anima mundi—or rather, his particular struggle with and against it. Many of his works examine the ‘guilt’ of an artist’s relationship to looking at and representing the natural world with an outside eye:

“Although I do the painting, everyone else who then looks at it is in the same position as myself. I hopefully have helped them to face their guilt also” (quoted in Grazia Gunn, Arthur Boyd, Seven Persistent Images, 1985).

This is especially evident in Boyd’s Nebuchadnezzar suite, which illustrates the fate and anguish of the King of sixth century BC Babylon who was banished for usurping a will and order higher than his own.

It is apt that Siteworks 2015 invited representatives of landcare, feral animal management, sociologists, philosophers, artists and architects to examine “The Feral Amongst Us”—an investigation of whether and how we humans place ourselves above or outside of the ‘wild.’

As recently as 2008, works proposed for Bundanon residencies that engaged with the site were not encouraged. Since 2011, Siteworks has perhaps overturned this tendency, but my ‘perhaps’ points to a caution around how we presume we relate to our environments. Is there actual dialogue between our bodily fluids and the rivers, our bones and the soil formed over our lifetimes and beyond? Is it too easy to transport cultural myths or practices from different landscapes (as did Boyd; as does Butoh) to help understand a landscape’s meaning and dreaming?

It is a boggy, wet drive over Clyde Mountain from Canberra in late September towards Bundanon. The sun peels the sky open at odd hours. It strikes me that most open-air events hope for clear skies. Indeed, a few of the Siteworks performances are cancelled. The four-hour talk-fest chaired by Robyn Archer is however untouched by the rain. The Glenn Murcutt-designed building has a flexible glass wall which opens to the river, but we sit facing the interior wall and a plinth for the panellists. This has the unfortunate effect of drawing focus onto the pull of human personalities over any sensed dialogue with the environment.

Alternately I feel punched, conversed with or lectured to. I suspect I sit in an audience nodding agreement with speakers who replicate their own views. Diego Bonetto chastises us for not understanding our edible weeds, Jennifer Atchison for not thinking with our environment, Adrian Franklin for farmers not listening to the evidence provided by science. Alarmingly, several panellists do not even listen to each other, absenting themselves from the room at particular times over the afternoon.

Architect Richard Goodwin gives a sweeping critique of his own profession, citing modernism and the anthropocentric ‘hero=architect’ as ‘dead,’ arguing instead for a practice which engages with social awareness (‘contingency’), minimal intervention, recycling of materials and a kind of ‘porosity’ or ‘irresolution’ which remains attractively vague against the harder-edged arguments of the afternoon.

Dean Bagnall, a feral animal management contractor from the local Shoalhaven area, modestly asserts the validity of culling feral animals to protect crops and farm animals. His talk sits in stark contrast with the later speaker Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey who delivers a hard-core lecture on the importance of letting creatures live in and for themselves. She cites Derrida for weight and authority. There is weight to her argument sans Derrida, but there is weight too in Bagnall’s argument, which is never picked up in the afternoon. Indigenous custodian Clarence Slockee plays the wise fool, nudging us towards a remembrance of Aboriginal relationship to land, but also claiming the infallibility of his peoples’ animal and landcare practices which makes my hackles rise.

Tim Low identifies our collective fear of death as blinding us to process and rational thinking through of human/nature/animal relationships. We eat, and are eaten, he asserts. He cites Val Plumwood, feminist ecologist and hero to many, who survived the ‘death–roll’ of a crocodile, and against which she held no grudges. Low, however does not mention that Plumwood not only felt the crocodile had a right to eat her, but that she herself sensed she transgressed by going upstream to where she was attacked. She had a sixth sense telling her she should not be there. Indeed, what is sorely missing from the forum is any discussion of the sensory intelligences—other than ‘sight’—that feed other ways of knowing and relating in the environments to which we belong.

Thankfully these aspects are grasped by the artworks installed for the day or performed from the onset of dusk. The site’s specific history, and Boyd’s contemporary dreaming of it, are most evident in Nigel Helyer’s exquisite Biopods—a rocket-ship, a boat—which physically reshape and recondition our listening. Each Pod is a vessel suggesting aspiration as well as the limits of form. Snippets of a seductively beautiful poem are triggered by human action: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:1).

Rosalind Crisp’s dance in the beam of a ute’s headlights is an exploration of disintegration, but her spoken text is impossible to hear. Open-air work always carries risk of interference, and there is meaning in the unexpected rubbings and gratings that occur beyond our control.

Elsewhere, Bonetto’s installation signposting edible weeds has already pointed us to things we value or devalue and ignore. On a “severe slope,” Branch Nebula puts a viewfinder on “things that bite” in a dance piece on the theme of wild things that watch, scatter, scarper, slide and are traumatised by human intervention. You couldn’t miss Amanda Parer’s inflatable, oversized rabbits which came to full beauty when lit at night.

But I almost miss a seminal image in Rakini Devi’s performance, because I am seated in the wrong position. But then, isn’t that the point? You see according to your [dis]position. Devi’s U.F.O. [Unidentified Female Object] begins in a puff of smoke—like the breath of a dragon, the backfire of a shot—and she appears like an enormous wayang puppet in full garb, picking her way like a giant cicada along a cat walk. A single beam of light casts the shadow of an enormous rabbit behind her. The joke’s on all of us: the ritualised beauty, the ‘exotic other’ rabbit becomes an overblown cartoon.

Speaking of entities in wrong places, Alan Schacher with NIDA Staging students creates “errant structures”—an outhouse, a heap and a bush shelter—that spit, shudder and try to crawl away, whilst Zender Bender salvage white goods and add sound and light to create a ‘bush doof’ that also comments on consumer throw-aways.

Branch Nebula repeat their epic Whelping Box from 2012, this time as a film recreated in the bush, which heightens the sense of men ‘whelped’ in endurance rituals that earn them a place in the tribe. The film is an epic comment on false heroism, compliance and suffering of the feral and human combined.

SITEWORKS 2015: The Feral Amongst Us, curator John Baylis, The Bundanon Trust, Riversdale, NSW, 25 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 31

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

Lehte II

Lehte II

Lehte II

Jude Walton’s Lehte II could well have been created in the mid-20th century. Its clean, clear, sleek distillation of time and space into a fine dance work draws on many of art modernism’s principles, most notably its sense of abstraction, which underlies the very construction of this work. Lehte’s manner of abstraction consists of a series of operations that transform the dimensions of a performance space into an artwork consisting of sound and movement.

Lehte II was performed at Heide Museum of Modern Art, in suburban Heidelberg, in the former house of art philanthropists John and Sunday Reed. Designed in 1964, by architect David McGlashan, Heide II is a sandstone building with high ceilings, exposed brick and plenty of light. The house was built with a view to its becoming an art museum. It doesn’t feel like a home.

We are invited to sample the space, to inspect its glass cabinets, which house a mixture of historical objects belonging to the Reeds, exhibits from Walton’s earlier work on dance and books and a floor plan of the house with some algorithmic calculations, which formed the basis of the work. We look out the window. A woman adorned in a striking top made of blood red felt traces a pathway.

Passing through the rooms, we descend a staircase into an extremely tall room which houses a grand piano and features a high wall of glass framing the surrounding native garden. Two women enter a mezzanine high above. They lean out, turn and walk, tipping over like modernist ducks. A woman (Fiona Bryant) enters downstairs where we are seated. She skirts the wall, drawing attention to its material surface, eking out its dimensions. Her movement conforms to the room’s coordinates, especially its long shelving underneath which she curls. More women join in: walking straight ahead, turning corners, walking, turning, walking, turning.

A 90-degree turn has two points of reference: the body (an internal space) and the (external) space of the room. If the turn is produced by the body, in the rotation of the femur in the hip joint, the orientation of the torso and the spiral of the head, its clarity is felt elsewhere, between the internal space of the body and the room. We see the dancers draw on their somatic perceptions in order to calibrate their movement.

Meantime, and throughout, Kym Dillon constructs a series of sonic atmospheres, clear and resonant. The series moves forward without circling back. It feels… measured.

While the dancing mirrors the sparse purity that informs the modernist architecture of the house, it draws on a thoroughly postmodern sensibility in order to do so: involvement of the dancer in task-based actions, a submerged sense of self, no expressive or individualistic gestures, clean lines and ordinary movement. The clearest physicalisation of these tasks comes from those who are able to distill their skills into very plain movement, without any kind of mannerism. It is the plainness that sings. The music also. Formed from an occult algorithm that transforms the spatial dimensions of the various rooms into selections of white and black keys on the piano, the music is surprisingly melodic, an indication of Kym Dillon’s virtuosic engagement with the productive constraints of the piece.

Overall, Lehte II is a contemplative work. Its spaciousness allows the viewer’s attention to wander, over the sandstone walls, into the garden, forming sensory trails in the midst of thought. It is a very considered work.

Lehte II, made by Jude Walton in collaboration with performers Phoebe Robinson, Fiona Bryant, Sally Grage-Moore, Michaela Pegum, music Kym Dillon; Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 16-18 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 33

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

Martin Nachbar

Martin Nachbar

Martin Nachbar

German choreographer Martin Nachbar sure kept himself busy during his three-city visit to Australia. In Brisbane he undertook research for his PhD, in Sydney he taught workshops and in Melbourne he presented one of his dance works.

Catching up with Nachbar in Sydney, I soon found out that this was not the first time he had been to Australia; his wife is Australian-born choreographer and performer Zoë Knights and he had previously accompanied her to visit family. This was, however, Nachbar’s first professional trip to Australia, on which he actively engaged with the local dance sector. In three capital cities no less.

Now based in Berlin, Nachbar studied at the School for New Dance Development (SNDO) in Amsterdam, in New York and at PARTS in Brussels. Since 2001, he has created more than 20 dance pieces, some of which have successfully toured internationally. During the last few years, his artistic focus has been on investigating walking practices, which is also the research topic of the trans-disciplinary PhD he is currently undertaking at Hamburg’s City University.


In fact, the main purpose of Nachbar’s residency in Brisbane—assisted by the Goethe-Institut—was to conduct research for his PhD. His thesis, Nachbar explains, asserts that performative group walking has the potential to create a stronger community, change urban life and increase contact between people. In addition to studying anthropological texts at the State Library of Queensland, Nachbar also participated in walking tours offered by the Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Brisbane’s city centre. Whereas these are mostly targeted at tourists, Nachbar himself has previously conducted walks of a more performative nature in the German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Essen: “We invite a group of people, an audience, to walk with us, and we propose different modes of walking—backwards, forwards, really slow, really fast, homolateral [distinguishing between left and right body movement] and stomping. People can join us, or they can also step aside and watch.” The experiences of those participating in the walks are then charted through questionnaires.

Among the more unusual of Nachbar’s urban walking exercises is one that he calls the Quick Facade Walk: “The rule is that you stick to the facades of buildings as closely as you can. And whenever you come across an open door you have to go in, briefly explore the building or shop you’ve entered and then exit again.” And how do people, who are not part of the walks, react to this? Are the participants allowed to interact with them? “The walking exercises are usually conducted in silence to heighten the awareness for the sounds of the city. But yes, when people address you, you can answer.”


Teaching a masterclass for students of Sydney Dance Company’s Pre-Professional Year (PPY) as well as conducting a workshop at the choreographic research centre Critical Path, Nachbar’s subject in Sydney was not walking but “Animal Dances.” The workshops drew on a project of the same title he undertook in Berlin in 2013 comprising both a solo and a group piece. As for what fuelled his interest in animal dances, Nachbar reveals: “[Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari have an important chapter in their book A Thousand Plateaus called Becoming Animal, Becoming Woman. They talk about how ‘a becoming’ is not an imitation. Imitation might be part of it but it’s not its foremost feature.” After a short pause, he adds: “And it’s true. Because there is a lot of imagination involved, a lot of feeling and sensation. But since this book has been read by people like Xavier Le Roy and many other choreographers, it feels as if it has become forbidden to imitate when working within the context of concept-driven dance in Europe. And I thought, hey, I’m going to give this a go. So I started off my research with imitating praying mantises, horses and birds.” And how did he go with that? “It was a lot of fun,” Nachbar laughs. “Because, of course, you’re immediately confronted by the impossibility of imitating. You have to draw on your imagination and it’s really challenging, both physically and mentally.”

Nachbar concedes that Animal Dances received its fair share of criticism, precisely because of its premise of humans imitating animals. He puts this down to the currently predominant view that representation is something to be avoided in the arts. As much as he understands, he says, the limitations of representation, he is uneasy about the prescriptive approach some reviewers and fellow artists adopt on the topic. “To say about any art work—you can’t do this, you can’t do that—is completely undemocratic. It’s ideologically motivated and not useful artistically.” Nachbar seems determined to keep challenging commonly held views as to what is allowed in the arts and what isn’t.

So, what is the connection between his walking performances and the choreographic concerns underpinning Animal Dances? “I used to think that I always work on different themes for each project and I couldn’t identify what my choreographic signature or overarching interest was. But I’m slowly beginning to get a sense of what it might be,” Nachbar laughs. One of his major concerns, he says is definitely the idea of ‘becoming:’ “It’s a very important aspect of my work. Even in the walking performances. You could, for example, say that they are about the human becoming human. Bi-pedal locomotion is what distinguishes us from all other animals.”

Martin Nachbar

Martin Nachbar

Martin Nachbar


‘Becoming’ also plays a large part in the project Nachbar conducts in Melbourne, revolving around the reconstruction of the famous dance cycle Affectos Humanos by German expressionist dancer Dore Hoyer. The two-night presentation of his version of the work, was accompanied by a five-day workshop at Lucy Guerin Inc, part of the company’s Hot Bed program through which the work of international choreographers is introduced to the local dance community.

Nachbar’s research into reconstructing Hoyer’s seminal dance cycle began in 1999 and culminated in the creation of the piece Urheben Aufheben (2008) which he still tours. The original premiered in 1962 and a film of it was made in 1967. Working off the film was instrumental for Nachbar in orchestrating what he defines as a ‘meeting’ between Dore Hoyer and himself—across a timespan of over 40 years and two differently gendered bodies. He felt encouraged to do so by Hoyer herself. His research found that “she was interested in a particular unisex choreography in that piece.” He also was motivated by the impossibility of the task: “Knowing that I will neve be able to get rid of the differences, I had to embrace them.”

Nachbar admits that, from a modern day perspective, Hoyer’s choreography seems “strange and hermetic.” He says: “The question is how can you open it up to today and your own body, to think of reconstruction as a meeting rather than the attempt at perfect imitation.” These concerns were also to be explored in the then forthcoming, accompanying workshop: “I will ask the participants to choose one of the dances from Hoyer’s cycle [as glimpsed from her film] and devise a strategy for warming up for this particular dance.” This, Nachbar hopes, will allow participants to meet Hoyer’s work on their own terms, using their own skills. It’s the first time he’s run this workshop outside of Europe and he expresses great excitement about what the participants will come up with, especially given that Dore Hoyer plays no role in the Australian cultural consciousness. It will come down, he muses, to what strategies of ‘becoming’ each participant will devise for themselves.

Animal Dances Workshop, Critical Path, Sydney, 2-3 May; Hotbed Workshop #1, Lucy Guerin Inc, 4-9 May 2015; Urheben Aufheben, concept & dance Martin Nachbar, choreography Dore Hoyer, Martin Nachbar; presented at Lucy Guerin Inc, Melbourne, 8 & 9 May. Tour supported by Goethe-Institut.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 34

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

Glenn Thompson, Julie-Anne Long, 4’33’’ Into the Past

Glenn Thompson, Julie-Anne Long, 4’33’’ Into the Past

Glenn Thompson, Julie-Anne Long, 4’33’’ Into the Past

Despite a reluctance to do so, one can’t ignore saying something about John Cage’s performance 4’33’’ and the tradition within which this work sits. Why? Because even though Julie-Anne Long and Glenn Thompson do not directly perform this famously controversial score (musician on stage with instrument without playing said instrument over three movements in front of an audience) they do participate playfully and parodically with the provocations and propositions of Cage and others of this period historically labelled “happenings.”

Born on the stages of the Bauhausian influenced Black Mountain College with Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, these experimental events reverberated east to New York, with the groovy gallery interactions of Alan Kaprow and the often lab-coated performances of Fluxus artists muttering and/or instructing their audiences through microphones

In the gallery spaces of Campbelltown Arts Centre the reverberation continues. Long in a white lab coat is busily collecting data and mapping the suburb and state electorates in which audience members live. We are not asked our earning bracket, but how much “actual cash” we have brought with us, “down to the last cent.” A record is made—the card swipers, pushers, tappers and wavers obvious among us. Meanwhile Thompson, also in lab coat, begins to drill holes in the gallery wall. A large plasma screen is mounted. The stage is divided. A drum kit played by Braxton Hegh from Campbelltown Performing Arts High School animates the first story of the past. High on the high hat with rock beat Lesson No. 5 underway, Thompson drops to his knees and recounts a ‘when I was young’ encounter; it’s nostalgically small, but character forming. On the margins of stage right we see the profile of Long directing someone offstage with tripod and camera, revealed on screen to be Georgia Briggs, also from CPAHS, who is “whipping it around” in a release based movement sequence: lesson, practice and warm-up.

The stage resets. There’s a bit of turntable rubbing from Long and an explosion of applause from a studio audience—not us from the Greater Sydney electorates, but artificial cheers jabbing at the space. Briggs sweeps through the space with her routine and a solar system appears on the plasma. All four dance a quirky number together, in white, in a white box with the galaxy glittering through a digital window.

Two microphone stands. Long and Thompson tell more stories of the past: were they formative in the emergence of arts practices? Hegh and Briggs sitting cross-legged flank Long and Thompson, left and right, in a perverse symmetry responding to these memoirs with simple mimicking gestures while plugged into their handheld devices. But where are their instructions coming from? The logic of transmission is unclear.

Long, helped by Briggs, returns to focus our attention on a faux-analysis of previously collected data. A map of the state electorates shows the density of attendance this evening, followed by an emerging pie chart on the monitor as a new galaxy representing how cashed up we are together: ca-ching! Use-value versus exchange-value suddenly takes on new meaning: could a coin really be a carrot rather than an abstract representation of it? But what is the point? Hmmm, my interpretive brain is working overtime here; am I taking Cage too seriously? Perhaps the point is no point: a pointless build to nowhere. This is the piece’s charm, along with a poke at earnestness. And for the askers of the why: why the hell not!

The Casio filtered voice of Long repeats the words “the contemporary dance” as we are plopped into an I♥NY loft scene, with Hegh strumming on acoustic guitar, Briggs leaning, coolly observant and Thompson wrapping his arms and hands around his head in a baroque twist to physically frame the retro-blurring of instrument, voice, image, movement and mood. A strong light beams in from stage left; the room thickens with smoky ice. Acceptance speeches in a canon run of overlapping “thank you’s” spoken into mics—doubling, trebling and quadrupling in the portal mist of a dying light.

The work feels less a happening than that things happened, offering us scenes, or better yet, events of not really knowing what or why, other than that we were ‘entertained’ by ‘art’ and fulfilled by the offering to “pay attention to what it is just as it is” (Cage 1957). Cage’s 4’33’’ is a paradoxical score about silence. Into the silence all we can hear is the noise. For Long and Thompson, the past—all we can find, and indeed applaud—is the present since the artists here are from where they were: Thompson, the little drummer from Queensland and Long “the prima batlet ballerina” (as she recorded in a childhood book of 1972 charting her then career) from suburban Auckland.

4’33’’ Into the Past was developed as part of the Campbelltown Arts Centre’s I can Hear Dancing Program (2012) initially curated by Emma Saunders and curatorially developed by Kiri Morcombe.

I can hear Dancing, 4’33’’ into the past; artists Julie-Anne Long, Glenn Thompson and collaborators, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 25 & 26 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 35

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

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Asian Ghost-ery Store, Crack Festival

Crack Theatre Festival is one third of the festivals that make up the annual Newcastle gathering This Is Not Art. Works in the 2015 program took place in makeshift performance spaces throughout the coastal town, most prominently in an abandoned BI LO supermarket, affectionately re-named The Crack House. The slogan “The Low Price People” is still faintly visible through the festive decorations that dress the gutted store, now a festival hub. It’s fitting that all performances are free. Artists aren’t paid, but the Australia Council’s Setting the Stages initiative covers travel costs for selected artists from around the country, making for a nationally curated program that feels like a relief for emerging independent artists from the pyramid scheme that governs most fringe festivals. Here is a safe space to experiment with new work that is raw but ready enough in a convivial setting.

Performances presented in the 2015 program often reflected the fraught tensions at play in the theatre-making process itself and the cultural, conceptual, political, pragmatic and representational concerns that follow.

Hectoring Apocalyptica

With the audience on a seating bank of steps descending from the rear entrance into The Crack House, Nathan Harrison stands before an arrangement of transparent plastic cups filled with water. He tells us that Hectoring Apocalyptica is about water security, about looking into the future while responding in the present. He expresses his trepidation in approaching the material, in wanting to do the issue justice without being silly or flippant. The reconciliation of this struggle to make political theatre manifests in the form of speculative stage descriptions which—read from clipboards by the performers—suggest what the show might be like. They vary from the fantastical to the self-deprecating, embodying a sense of futility in trying to represent the issue and be self-reflexive to the point of speculating on audience responses to the work. These readings punctuate the actual show as a series of demonstrative acts in which facts and figures are personified by the audience wearing character nametags in order to perform the artists’ research, and in which the cups of water become props.

Audience members play farmers and countries in negotiations for scarce water in which repercussions are discussed ecisions are made. In another sequence facts arrive amid game show-like activity that exposes coffee as requiring more water to produce than most western delicacies, much to the shock of the audience. We are continually removed from the gravity of this material by pointedly silly stage descriptions, culminating in the suggestion that when we leave the show, we leave with hope, and with the final repeated refrain, “the oceans never rise.”

Asian Ghost-ery Store

Asian Ghost-ery Store begins with two performers sitting casually on stage eating Hello Panda biscuits. They discuss how they might make a post-racial show that avoids Asian-Australian clichés and stereotypes and what such a show might look and feel like. Through this simple and personable beginning the friendly rapport between the two establishes an entertaining framework for anecdote and parody. Despite their expressed desire to go beyond the typical cultural parodies that frustrate them, they never really do. Through an awareness of this though they manage a sharp parody of cultural representation itself.

The work is a funny reflection on young artists grappling with the representation of cultures they are proud of but by which they don’t necessarily define themselves. The strength of the performance is in the hubristic storytelling and personal narratives that the pair engage in, referring to each other by the nicknames Shan and Yaya. As an example of a focus that is both inwards and outwards, at one point Shan teases Yaya for only having white boyfriends, presenting her as both victim and perpetrator of orientalism. Their banter culminates with a white-faced period-drama pantomime, Shan performing an abstracted strip dance so that the predominantly white audience can “get more used to Asian cock.”

They’ve Already Won

Harriet Gillies and Pierce Wilcox in They’ve Already Won stand onstage in corporate attire either side of a projection of a desktop computer, on which one opens a text edit document of a ‘script’ for the show. It continually links to web pages and YouTube videos repurposed as found material and performance texts for the performers’ sardonic reflections on the end of the world and the death of us all. They craft logic with their schizophrenic pastiche of seemingly disparate sources. This is the world that young theatre artists live in where theatre struggles to compete with the internet, which itself possesses a theatrical potential that the stage does not. Gillies and Wilcox revel in this futility of representation, without directly acknowledging it in the conceit of their presentational mode of performance.

They do give a hammed-up performance of a scene from Ruben Guthrie (2015), exposing a terseness in the writing of Brendan Cowell. Later Wilcox goes to deliver a piece of poetry but Gillies protests the reading of work by a white male European poet. In a recurring ditzy persona Gilles struggles to name even three female poets and scrolls Buzzfeed articles while Wilcox talks on the history of the Congo (because “politics is boring”). Theirs is a cumulative expression of disenchantment for the theatre and simultaneously a display of appreciation for its history, which informs what they do.

YouTube music videos which punctuate proceedings are danced to by the pair. A scene of absurd rolling around the stage to the Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt” suggests catharsis is of no interest (and maybe has no place). This is testified to in the closing when we are handed Mars Bars melted in their wrappers and watch a YouTube video of a man having a terrible day at work.

Business Unfinished; Home

In Home and Business Unfinished solo male performers present verbatim content of material gathered from others. The content of the first is in the title: the idea of home, homes born into and homes made by subjects interviewed who ranged from migrants to the homeless to people recently released from gaol. Their musings are delivered in measured tones, relayed via headphones. In Business Unfinished the material is of supernatural encounters. The disembodied voices of the interviewees telling their stories are played over the sound system and impeccably mimed by the performers. Both shows use the unpacking of boxes as metaphor in a simple theatricalising of their subject matter. They also share a focus on how best to represent their subjects by using their voices, the different verbatim approaches capturing a sense of authenticity. It will be interesting to see how each of these works evolves.

Little wonder that young and independent artists focus on the fraught demands of making performance work given the gutting of the Australia Council to establish the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, now Catalyst. Whatever the cause for this introspective turn, it represents an awareness and self-reflexivity ultimately born of artists sharing the same cultural climate as their audience. By providing artists with the opportunity to test their visions, The Crack Theatre Festival is fostering the excellence of tomorrow.

Crack Theatre Festival, Hectoring Apocalyptica, artists Nathan Harrison, Jacob Pember, Rachel Roberts and Emma McManus; Asian Ghost-ery Store, artists Shannan Lim, Vidya Rajan; They’ve Already Won, artists Harriet Gillies and Pierce Wilcox; Business Unfinished artists Robert Maxwell, Maeve Mhairi MacGregor; Home, Tom Christophersen, Nick Atkins, Crack Theatre, Newcastle, Oct 1-4

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 36

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

Geoffrey Rush, Max Cullen, King Lear, Sydney Theatre Company

Geoffrey Rush, Max Cullen, King Lear, Sydney Theatre Company

Geoffrey Rush, Max Cullen, King Lear, Sydney Theatre Company

Insanity took centrestage in major productions in Sydney of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals. In each the rupturing of a personal relationship yields terrible consequences. In Lear we watch the whole process unfold, in An Index of Metals we enter the mind of a woman living out the aftermath.

STC, King Lear

Geoffrey Rush’s Lear is elegant and stentorian—gravely and boldly voiced without ever being stock ‘Shakespearean’ in his delivery. Chest thrust out, he holds his head high. He’s robust, sweeping about the stage, but easily battered by emotional shocks that propel hand to heart and have him seeking out chairs either side of the stage, caving in, chest sunken, before angrily rallying. The anger is palpably raw but so is the personal pain his old age cannot immure him to. We already sense an emotional complexity that will unleash the madness he already fears and which will ultimately engender his short-lived salvation.

Rush brings to Lear a contemporary gravitas, underlined by the production’s initial setting, its opening scene akin to a party at an upper end reception centre or RSL club, men in dinner suits, women grandly frocked, some aptly kitsch entertainment from the Fool, tinsel and speeches at a microphone. This Lear has the appearance of an elder statesman and indeed looks mightily like Malcolm Fraser in country cap and long coat in scenes that follow. Rush perfectly embodies Lear’s bewildered, mad and sad trajectory right to its dark conclusion, the aged body increasingly weakening, memory fading save for the small jolts of recollection that return him to a tormenting real world. But the journey is critically interrupted and it’s not Rush’s fault.

The first part of Neil Armfield’s production, designed by Robert Cousins, is set in a vast empty black-walled space, filled with machination and misjudgement and only tinsel, microphone and costuming to minimally evoke location. In the second part there’s an edgeless, depthless white space—modulated by mist and subtle pastels—rapidly emptying of life but finally admitting of love and nuance. In between is the storm and Lear’s refuge on the heath. For a production excelling in minimal design that foregrounds action and emotion, the storm scene is astonishingly overwrought—the black walls slide up to partly reveal a white expanse against which we see an enormous volume of heavy rain flooding the stage, while live percussion thunders at the expense of words as Lear runs towards a huge industrial-scale fan to the side of the stage that fiercely pumps wind and mist. What’s lost is our direct contact with Lear, here he’s in profile braving the blast, and, above all, the fine balance between the inner and outer storms, the superfluity of the latter here scuttling the connection. Recovery is quick, but we have been rattled for the wrong reasons. Likewise, some devices that start out well are sustained too long after their framing of the initial scenes—the use of the microphone and the ba-boom drum beats that climax the Fool’s witticisms—instead of letting them fade as mood and circumstances change.

Also out of kilter was Meyne Wyatt’s powerful performance as Edmund, big and loud (and louder with microphone) as if dropping in from a performance of a play by one of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy peers of the 1590s.

Otherwise performances all round were uniformly strong and subtly modulated, with licence given, of course, to Mark Leonard Winter’s excellent, naked Poor Tom to run mad and slide gleefully across the wet heath. This was a memorable if flawed Lear but the acting, the seamless transitions from scene to scene, the design and lighting (Nick Schlieper), Alice Babidge’s costumes and the live music (John Rodgers with Simon Barker and Phil Slater in a fine take on drums and trumpets), added up to an almost satisfying whole. Perhaps the storm scene will be recalibrated. I hope so. Best of all is Geoffrey Rush’s performance although there are many who have cast him forever as inspired clown and will let him be nothing other, missing what a superbly embodied Lear he has given us.

An Index of Metals, Sydney Chamber Opera

An Index of Metals, Sydney Chamber Opera

An Index of Metals, Sydney Chamber Opera

Sydney Chamber Opera, Ensemble Offspring, An Index of Metals

Director Kip Williams has responded to the late Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals—for instrumental ensemble, electronics and two electric guitars—by creating a scenario for a psychodrama suggested by the work’s fragmentary poetic text from Kenka Lekovich. It’s monumentally framed by three walls and a ceiling of some 200 lights that suggest a surreal padded cell or place of interrogation writ large. They function in enormous waves, reflecting the surging emotional states of a lone woman (soprano Jane Sheldon) attempting to come to grips with the breakdown of her relationship with ‘Brad’ (of Roy Lichenstein’s pop-art masterpiece Drowning Girl: “I don’t care, I’d rather drown than call Brad for help”). The sense of drowning is amplified with descending glides, both gentle and vertiginous, from the orchestra and, grippingly, from Sheldon.

The protagonist’s mental condition is portrayed as neurotic with her compulsively repeated tipping over of a vase of red roses and her chair on an otherwise empty stage until, neurosis turning to psychosis, she conjures a man, clearly the object of her thwarted desire, whom he she undresses and soon multiplies into five more naked men. Counterpointing, and not competing with, Romitelli’s dense, propulsive score and Lekovich’s evocative phrasings (that include the metals of the title: iron, copper, nickel, lithium and rust with their various resonances), Williams wisely keeps stage action spare save for several critical passages. Initially closed in on herself, the woman is hoisted high multiple times on her chair by the men, out of darkness into light, until she gradually opens out, extending a leg, drawing up her dress and leaning exultantly back. It’s a temporary erotic reprieve and prelude to her own nakedness—a profound vulnerability—and suicide (the music painfully and metallically grand). But in a hyperbolic ending the woman is rejoined by the men, equally blood drenched, as if she has exorcised herself of Brad in the very act of self-destruction. The accompanying, deeply melancholic adagio is followed by a final dark enigmatic guitar passage, confirming not only the powerful and often subtle role of the two instruments (Joe Manton, Cat Hope) throughout, but also recalling an intriguing phrase sung earlier by Sheldon in one of her four arias, “murdered by guitar.”

Jane Sheldon’s convincing evocation of advanced nervous breakdown and her sublime singing, Elisabeth Gadsby’s design and Ross Graham’s lighting and the combined instrumental forces of Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring, conducted as ever by Jack Symonds with passion and precision, came together to make an opera of An Index of Metals. Having the orchestra placed immediately before the audience meant that we could luxuriously immerse ourselves in the playing itself as Kip Williams’ direction carefully balanced sound and image. Meanwhile we were surrounded by glorious real time electronics operated by Bob Scott. Although the pulsing of waves of light in which the woman is drowning and the final bloodiness seemed overwrought and at times archly stagey and the movement and demeanour of the men too abstracted, Kip William’s fidelity to Lekovich’s text and his dramatic expansion of it proved to be an admirable venture for all parties involved and another step forward for adventurous opera in a Sydney greedy for it.

Sydney Theatre Company, King Lear, writer William Shakespeare, Sydney Theatre, 28 Nov, 2015-9 Jan, 2016; Carriageworks, Sydney Chamber Opera & Ensemble Offspring: An Index of Metals, Carriageworks, Sydney, 16-19 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 37

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

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

This year’s Brisbane Festival was carefully shaped by brave programming and warm place-making, where even the large public festival spaces like Arcadia and the Theatre Republic felt like private house parties rather than public way stations. The dance between popular and worthy has always been a difficult one for the festival and incoming Artistic Director David Berthold seemed acutely aware of this, stating on his blog, Carving in Snow, soon after his appointment that “the gap between what artists want to make and what audiences want to see is now wider than I’ve ever known it.”

Yet the unflinchingly radical message about the violence perpetrated on the bodies of black men in America produced the most heavily promoted image of the festival advertising—two young Afro-American men, in hoods, circling each other, their bodies contorted into impossible extensions. As well, the cabaret Coup Fatal—where Congolese artists worked with Belgian choreographer Alain Platel to explore intractably difficult political and cultural issues in the Congo—threw off any pallor of worthiness with exuberant virtuosity. This was one of the magic tricks that Berthold managed in his tenure at LaBoite: selecting work that might on paper appear too edgy for conservative Brisbane audiences but that attracted them nonetheless through sheer energy and visual impact.

Ditto with the local work, including the saucy, politically punchy all brown ladies cabaret Hot Brown Honey at the Judith Wright Centre, and the two most commented on local works in this year’s festival: La Boite’s Prize Fighter—the debut of Congolese-Australian Future D Fidel—and the Queensland Theatre Company’s The Seagull adapted from Chekhov and written and directed by Brisbane wunderkind Daniel Evans.

Prize Fighter

Prize Fighter was the most anticipated show of the year from the moment of its announcement by former Artistic Director of LaBoite, Chris Kohn, who is most responsible for its incubation. The conceit of the show as an actual boxing match in real time was a powerful one and demonstrates Fidel’s strong instincts as a playwright. The match was flawlessly brought to life in production by deft direction from Todd MacDonald, elegant design by Bill Haycock and technical wizardry by lighting designer David Walters.

What was also extraordinary about the work was its showcasing of the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country with local performers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe matched by recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape and veteran American-Australian performer Kenneth Ransom. The opening night felt genuinely significant, evoking descriptions of the first night of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving at Metro Arts in the 1990s. For me, Prize Fighter felt not quite finished. Despite the obvious talent of the playwright, some of the writing seemed sketchy and the deeper ideas of redemption and trauma had not quite integrated the pivotal relationship in the work, that between the feisty trainer played by the redoubtable Margi Brown Ash and the doggedly heroic boxer trying to knit together a psyche torn apart by experiences of true horror. When the show tours, which it must, I have no doubt there will be time to deepen and integrate what is an important new work in the canon.

The Seagull

In direct contrast to the raw and stripped back Prize Fighter was Daniel Evans’ adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, which played out in a hoarder’s paradise—a set full of domestic detritus where stage manager Daniel Sinclair pottered around, moving pieces of the set and organising the quotes from Chekhov projected regularly onto the side wall of the Bille Brown Studio. I am not a Chekhov devotee, so although familiar with the story I came to Evans’ adaptation with relatively naïve eyes.

This is one of the most talented casts assembled in local memory but it was Brian Lucas’ performance as the mischievous and delusional dementia patient Soren that was at the heart of the adaptation. He spent the second half of the piece clutching the seagull shot by Trigorin. It was embalmed and spoke to him alone in the voice of Chekhov.

Lucas’ embodied and melancholic performance signalled what might have been for this work with more time and without the punishing dual role of writer/director. Evans’ previous adaptation for QTC, Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was brave and wild, but exactingly disciplined in form and structure and displayed his longstanding preoccupation with Australian suburbia, a great leitmotif of Australian performance. The Seagull, for all of its self conscious disdain of Chekhovian mannerisms as boring and its meta-theatrical referencing of the tired controversies around adaptation, still faithfully adhered to all of the major story arcs and themes of the original.

This left those in the audience attached to the original in a real conundrum: if as a writer you literally excise Chekhov and try to fit your thoughts about art and life back into a Chekhovian shaped hole, you offer yourself up for direct comparison. While there was all of Evans’ vivisectional, generationally savvy, observational humour and flashes of sly brilliance, so much of it felt, well, petty. Yet in those sequences with Soren you felt the tingle of what could have been from one of Brisbane’s most daring and talented writers.

Theatre Republic

Across the river at Theatre Republic, the venue beautifully designed by Sarah Winter and program curated by La Boite Creative Producer Glyn Davies, it was business as usual with a mix of independent work from around the country. This included Attica Erratica’s disturbing reboot of the biblical story of Lot, The City They Burned, and the effortlessly charming political satire Richard II by Mark Wilson for MKA, another adaptation, but one that takes a range of Shakespeare’s history plays to pillory the current bloody federal political landscape. The loose brilliance of Wilson’s renditions of Shakespeare’s text scattered through the work was bettered only by his ability to rant: my favourite his tribute to Paul Keating. The fake golden velveteen of the set was gorgeous and the crisp by-play with Gillard cipher Olivia Monticciolo delicious, though the currency of the show did suffer from a climax tied to the rise of the then freshly deposed Tony Abbott.

Experimenta Recharge

Just adjacent to the Theatre Republic was one of the gems of the festival: Experimenta Recharge: 6th International Biennial of Media Art, with a dizzying range of visually beautiful and politically witty media art. While many of the pieces invited a traditional gaze—framed on walls or mounted in installation—their lurid colours disguised a slightly askew technological formalism that gave them an eerie depth. My undisputed favourite was a technicolour panaroma by Japanese collective TeamLab, 100 years sea, that rolls out animated verdant green islands across a pulsating aquamarine sea and changes subtly as it literally maps sea levels rising, minute by minute.

The last word though must go to the evangelically mesmerising American theatre director Peter Sellars. He suggested that there is a crisis of imagination in contemporary culture that only artists can solve by providing new models for work and collaboration. He ended his talk with a final provocation, urging the beleagured Australian arts sector to find solidarity and comfort with other communities straining under the weight of poverty and shrinking funding. In fact he claimed that it may well be in the work that we are now forced to do outside of our own art that we will find the fuel to create new approaches that could eventually change the world.

Brisbane Festival: La Boite, Prize Fighter, Roundhouse, 5-26 Sept; QTC, The Seagull, Bille Brown Studio, 29 Aug-26 Sept; Theatre Republic: MKA Theatre of New Writing, Richard II, The Loft, QUT, 22-26 Sept; Experimenta Recharge, The Block, Creative Industries Precinct, QUT, 8-26 Sept; Brisbane Festival, 5-26 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 38

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

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wild Rice

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wild Rice

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wild Rice

I’m going to be very honest here and admit that there have been years recently where the Brisbane Festival has come and gone and I haven’t really registered that it’s on. Riverfire (the festival’s culminating firework spectacular) happens, sneaking up and strafing me as an annual wake-up call to say that it’s all just finished. The Theatre Republic, hosted by La Boite (curated by Glyn Roberts under David Berthold’s jurisdiction as then Artistic Director) was my viewing highlight last year, and a highlight again in 2015, but this time with Berthold at the helm of the festival itself, it felt an integrated part of a rejuvenated and eclectic program. Chris Ioan Roberts’ Dead Royal contained some deliciously scabrous writing in his coruscating dissection of the private lives of women who marry royals (think Dorothy Parker meets Joan Rivers) and Dead Centre/Sea Wall was a compelling study of grief. In that context, It was gratifying to see Thomas Quirk’s locally sourced The Theory of Everything take its place alongside the Melbourne-heavy national (and indeed, international) line-up.

Thomas Quirk, The Theory of Everything

Quirk’s tightly scripted anarchy (‘contributed to’ by J M Donellan and Marcel Dorney) had the feel of improvisation and managed to sustain focus for its tight 60-minute span. During that time we see the ensemble cast (Ellen Bailey, Thomas Bartsch, Katy Cotter, Chris Farrell, Coleman Grehan, Dale Thornburn, Merlynn Tong and Reuben Witsenhuysen) announce themselves as actors attempting to explain the formulation of the universe and meaning of life in post-dramatic montage fashion. Actually, they all announce themselves as creator Thomas Quirk at one point. They ‘shoot’ each other playfully to fight for the soapbox in one scene, then transform into iconoclastic thinkers of the past two thousand years—Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Warhol (!) et al, then personalise the search for the meaning of existence, then comment meta-theatrically on the fact that that’s what they’re doing. It’s a riotous theatrical experiment that somehow conjures up Kenny Everett’s spirit of anarchic comic ridiculousness for me. I look forward to seeing how Quirk’s work develops.

As for the broader festival program, there was a distinct postcolonial bias to the line-up, with dance, opera and theatre pieces from Africa and South-East Asia proving popular highlights.

Wild Rice, The Importance of Being Earnest

From Singapore, Wild Rice’s all-male version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was a delicious confection. The play is cast entirely with male actors from Singapore’s evidently deep talent pool. The conceit could have proven gimmicky, but it rose above queer parody for me. While the energy was high and camp and paced at the frenetic end of the farce spectrum, the pitch was just right. The outlandishness of the plot was overplayed, inviting the audience in to laugh at its ridiculousness. We weren’t laughing because Cecily and Gwendolyn (Gavin Yap and Chua Enlai) were men playing girls falling for men. We were laughing because Wilde’s text somehow felt fresh and raucous again under Glen Goei’s direction. The colour scheme was smart, austere black and white (though the set did feel like it had been whacked up for a quick bump in and bump out—something that wouldn’t cause headaches in the luggage hold). A string quartet from the Queensland Conservatorium provided fitting period ambience. And Ivan Heng’s Lady Bracknell was appropriately withering and evocative of Maggie Smith at her caustic, distingué Downton Abbey best. The cast was uniformly excellent. Hanging over it all was the knowledge that this theatre company really does push the envelope in socially conservative Singapore, and while the text’s queerness is safe enough to ‘pass’ as British panto here (and there), this production enabled me to re-access the piece and feel something of the frisson of salaciousness that no doubt attended its original performance. Social media tells me that at least one QPAC dowager subscriber was outraged by the all-male inversion of the text. “And they’re all Asian!” she evidently loudly declared. If those feathers alone have been ruffled by this joyous production, it’s been worth it.




Third World Bunfight, Macbeth

Brett Bailey’s reconceptualisation of Verdi’s Macbeth was an altogether more sinister affair. Bailey’s company, Third World Bunfight, is committedly engaged with socio-political commentary in South Africa. The central conceit is that a troupe of East Congolese refugee performers stumble across a trunk full of musical scores and costumes that once belonged to a local amateur opera company who performed Verdi’s Macbeth. They use the outfits to tell their country’s own story of colonial corruption. That premise was something of a dramaturgical leap of faith, and not one I’m convinced was brokered clearly in performance. Once it was up and running, though, things cohered more clearly. Here, the three witches are converted into voracious mining company executives whose augury sees installation of a regime supportive of their own rapacious ambitions for the country’s resources. Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) is the corrupt puppet who benefits and grows decadent on his country’s imperial exploitation. The scene where he and Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) transform into booty-grinding bling-clad hip-hopsters (singing to the original Verdi score) is the highlight and the moment, for me, when the adaptation—the collision of parent text and contemporary interpretation—crystallised most successfully in performance.

It didn’t always feel like the audience was ‘there’ with the piece. There was some inane giggling whenever the word “fuck” appeared in the surtitled translation of the text, and despite the excellence of the singing by the entire cast, I sensed some audience detachment for long stretches. Perhaps this is, again, a dramaturgical problem with a parent text that doesn’t quite know when to end. As Berthold writes in the program foreword “Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera are, I think, flawed works that very often fail to ignite in the theatre.” At various points, there are Brechtian interventions in the form of projected biographies of the chorus performers. We learn that several of these singers are themselves either former child soldiers or first-hand survivors of the Congolese wars, and suddenly, despite the didactic way in which this knowledge is introduced, the piece resonates more deeply. The musicians too (the No Borders Orchestra from central and eastern Europe) are reminders, as Berthold notes, that “homelands are torn apart in many parts of the world.” When the singers and the orchestra embrace each other during the curtain call, there is a theatre-wide standing ovation and that earlier disengagement is forgotten. The piece is, ultimately, a triumph of compassion over human greed and rapacity.

Brisbane Festival: The Theory of Everything, deviser, director Thomas Quirk, presented in association with Metro Arts, Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio, 15-19 Sept; Wild Rice, The Importance of Being Earnest, QPAC Playhouse, 11-13 Sept; Third World Bunfight, Macbeth, concept, direction, design Brett Bailey, QPAC Playhouse, 15-19 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 39

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

Carla Tilley in The Bacchae

Carla Tilley in The Bacchae

Carla Tilley in The Bacchae

Melbourne in 2015 might be remembered as a place and time in which art took an unexpected turn towards the ecstatic. There was even an entire festival at our Arts Centre devoted to work that comes under the label. You could trace some genealogy back to trends in live art of recent years as well as durational dance works, the crossover of experimental sound art into more conventional theatre spaces and a shift away from irony and distance towards immersion and presence. But just as important has been the realisation that the hypnotic and trance-inducing needn’t be divorced from intellectual engagement. Stunning the senses doesn’t require the switching off of minds.

Two entries at this year’s Melbourne Festival left audiences truly dazed while also plumbing profound philosophical and political depths. Adena Jacobs’ and Aaron Orzech’s The Bacchae created havoc among audiences’ interpretative registers with its house-of-mirrors approach to voyeurism and the sexualisation of teenage bodies, while Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE had many questioning the very reality into which they had somehow been dropped.

The Bacchae

To describe The Bacchae as Jacobs’ and Orzech’s work is a bit of a mistake, though it’s one that explains some of the concerned reactions several reviewers had to the piece. The pair are listed as co-creators (Jacobs directs with Orzech as dramaturg) but crucial to this free adaptation of Euripides’ text is the large ensemble of teenage girls whose responses to the original drama inform almost everything we see on stage.

Euripides’ tale is still here: the work begins with a murky, obtuse prologue in which a prostrate figure gives birth to an animal skull, alluding to the double birth of the god Dionysus. Pervy King Pentheus will make an appearance soon enough, too, and a recounting of the frenzied violence of the women on the mountain is directly drawn from the original tale. But for the most part the source material is dispersed across the bodies of the entire cast and refracted through a confronting teenage perspective.

Post birth-scene, a girl describes the boring rituals of her morning before announcing that she is Dionysus and will punish unbelievers. From here the rest of the work could be seen as a kind of increasingly ecstatic dance, beginning with the affectless stillness of a group sitting around staring at their phones or flipping through books and slowly building to a frenzied intensity of harrowing imagery and exulted obscenity. A hooded man with foam abs and a baseball bat stalks the space menacingly; a giant head with gaping maw inflates to take over most of the stage; a boy slouches listlessly on a sofa, staring dully at the eroticised spectacle unfolding before him.

It’s these erotics that have alarmed a few critics charging Jacobs with exploiting young girls for the audience’s gaze. The objection overlooks the fact that this is unmissably the point. The work’s most striking image occurs when a large portion of the cast appear in formation wearing bikinis and some kind of oil that renders their skin as shiny as plastic. Their heads are each bound in an opaque wrap that leaves them literally faceless. It’s as overt a representation of sexual objectification as one can imagine.

But the gaze here comes from the subjects themselves; or, rather, it is their own exaggeration of the gaze within which they are commonly framed. It’s not exactly news that the adolescent female body is sexualised in popular culture and that young women are treated as objects rather than subjects. It’s deeply unsettling to witness evidence that these same young women are highly aware of this, though. Rather than protesting that objectification, they here produce a nightmarish burlesque that amplifies it to an excruciating point.

It’s a brilliant enough move to ask young women to articulate their own subjugation of agency as they see others doing to them. To allow that othering of the self to escalate to such nightmarish levels is where the work goes one better. By its end, masked figures with giant hairy penises are humping every available surface and individuality has dissolved into a morass of animalistic violence and apathetic surrender. The bone-rattling oscillations of a modular synth crescendo while an onstage band has been beating out a tireless and insistent rhythm. The sustained spectacle of horror seems as if it will never end.

Then it does. The lights come up and it becomes shockingly apparent just how young these performers are. But as senses scramble to readjust to the everyday world, there’s the lingering understanding that the shit these girls are expected to put up with doesn’t end, really. It goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.


YOUARENOWHERE is no less timeless in its reach. US artist Andrew Schneider performs alone, his shirtless torso wired up with various gadgets that allow for the live manipulation of his voice along with various other effects only his technicians probably understand. He delivers a wide-ranging monologue that jumps from autobiography to speculative physics, and by joining the dots it seems as if his ambition is nothing short of traversing the gap between possible universes. He kind of manages it.

The sophistication of the technology here is mindboggling. Schneider has in part been inspired by artists of light and space such as James Turrell. Through improbably precise manipulations of both Schneider is seemingly able to teleport across the stage in an instant or to cause parts of his body to simply vanish. The work’s great coup de théâtre—which nobody should ever, ever spoil—turns out to be less technical in nature and more the result of a sheer willingness to do what others daren’t try. Suffice it to say, it appears Andrew Schneider has achieved the impossible because the more likely scenario would be too hard for an artist to pull off.

Schneider’s discussion of special relativity and quantum dynamics and the possibility of human connection don’t really give any hints toward this final moment of dazzling spectacle, but the work’s conclusion so alters perception that it honestly appears as if physical limits have been broken. It’s hard not to wander off into the night questioning what other impossibilities demand rethinking, too.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: St Martins, Fraught Outfit & Theatre Works, The Bacchae, concept Adena Jacobs, Aaron Orzech, director Jacobs, dramaturg Orzech, performers St Martins Teen ensemble, music Kelly Ryall, design Dayna Morrissey, costumes Chloe Greaves, lighting Danny Pettingill, Theatre Works, Oct 8-24; Arts House, YOUARENOWHERE, created with collaborators by performer Andrew Schneider; North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 15-19

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 40

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

Yoke Chin as fox-dancer, Oppenheimer

Yoke Chin as fox-dancer, Oppenheimer

Yoke Chin as fox-dancer, Oppenheimer

Cursed to live 500 lives as a fox for wrongly concluding that an enlightened being falls outside the laws of karma (cause and effect), the weary spirit of a monk, Hyakujo, has become legend. A waki (traveller) goes to Hiroshima to find a temple associated with foxes, where this ancient priest’s wisdom might ease his aching heart. There he encounters Hyakujo who later reveals his true identity as the ghost of Robert Oppenheimer (whose spirit is a shape-shifter), cursed to a cycle of suffering for his contribution to the making of the atomic bomb. The action unfolds, typically slowly, with every opportunity for allegory taken.

Part of the story is told from the viewpoint of siblings who have come to the fox temple to honour the grave of their father, killed in Hiroshima in 1945. The daughter performs a fox dance while her brother and the traveller look on. In Japanese mysticism foxes are shape-shifters and fox-symbolism often indicates messages from the afterlife. There are two kinds of spirit foxes though, Inari (the good rice-prosperity deity) and Yakkan (evil mischief-maker), and perhaps for this reason foxes signify schizophrenia in some Japanese art. Hot tip for budding Noh fans: when the fox-dancer bears a branch it implies she is herself; when not it suggests she is possessed by the fox spirit.

When the siblings depart, Oppenheimer’s ghost re-appears in fantastic gilded kimono and long black wig and is confronted by the Buddhist wisdom king Fudô Myô-ô in even shinier robes and a bright red wig. He sets Oppenheimer free from his anguish once Oppenheimer voluntarily immolates himself by entering the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô Myô-ô is usually depicted seated resolute in flames, carrying a sword and snare to liberate people from impediments to enlightenment. He appears fierce but is a force of positive change, like Kali in Hindu mythology. The play alludes to the burning pain suffered by the people of Hiroshima and Oppenheimer trusts that his immolation will relieve the torture inflicted by his (but not his alone) careless application of scientific expertise.

The creator of Oppenheimer, Allan Marett, built layer upon layer of metaphor into the plot, each scene looking at equivalent situations from different angles. This approach mirrors a Zen method of enquiry. One of his inspirations was a collection of Zen koans, the Mumonkan (‘a gateless barrier’), which contains the story of Hyakujo and his fox lives. Marett mused over this story and created a drama where the protagonist seeks deliverance from torment born of his impeded perspectives. Oppenheimer is dazzled by that Zen emptiness which is limitless, formless and has no inverse: Like Hyakujo he misunderstood its relationship to the material world. Oppenheimer misused a scientific discovery so destructive it consumed him too. With taut, well-woven themes, pregnant with signification like so much stylised Japanese-inspired art, Oppenheimer reveals a mastery of form that is also social commentary.

When it comes to stylisation, it’s as much about what’s not there as is there. The torpid sparseness of Noh makes the costumes seem more elaborate, the text more parabolic, the music sweeter and the dance more ecstatic. It heightens every particular. In the performance I saw, within the Noh orchestra always visible on stage, I thought I detected a combative dynamic playing out between the o-tsutsumi and ko-tsutsumi drummers which drew my attention because Noh’s form affords space for reflection. Their exchange reconfigured the energy of Oppenheimer, reinforcing the emotional journey of all the troubled souls that met in the story.

All the performances were excellent, especially the chorus made up of local performers along with David Crandall as the waki; those in masks (made by Hideta Kitazawa): John Oglevee as Oppenheimer; Akira Matsui as Fudô; and Yoke Chin as fox-dancer.

Marett, Emeritus Professor of Musicology at Sydney University, a Noh specialist and the librettist for Oppenheimer, went to Japan 40 years ago to understand Noh. His collaborator on this work, Noh performer and instructor Richard Emmert, formed Theatre Nohgaku in Tokyo so he and friends could produce Noh plays in English primarily for English-speaking audiences, as a way to generate further interest in the form.

Sung through elaborate masks in a low grumbly warble, characteristic of shomyo (ancient Japanese Buddhist monody), the text remained unclear, despite the performers’ excellent diction and vocal production. Surtitles helped, especially in catching quotations and references, for example to the Faust story.

The waki is a fictional character inspired by Marett’s personal experience: in 2013 Marett was drawn to Hiroshima while walking the 1200km coast of Shikoku as a Henro pilgrim. Approaching Hiroshima, he and wife Linda realised they were ‘following the path’ of the bomb-carrying Enola Gay, adding heaviness to their grieving steps. Together they chanted, through tears, the Emmei Jikku Kannon-gyo, an invocation of compassion that concludes, “Thought is not separate from mind.” Deeply knowledgeable creative minds invested in living and preserving Japanese art forms here—Emmert (music), Marett (text) and Matsui (director)—have produced in Oppenheimer a truly moving work.

You can see the full production here.

Oppenheimer, A Noh Play in English, text Allan Marett, music Richard Emmert, choreography, direction Akira Matsui, masks Hideta Kitazawa; Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 30 Sept-1 Oct, www.theatrenohgaku.org

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 41

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

A Sri Lankan Tamil Asylum Seeker’s Story as performed by Australian Actors under the guidance of a Sinhalese Director, Merrigong Theatre Company

A Sri Lankan Tamil Asylum Seeker’s Story as performed by Australian Actors under the guidance of a Sinhalese Director, Merrigong Theatre Company

A Sri Lankan Tamil Asylum Seeker’s Story as performed by Australian Actors under the guidance of a Sinhalese Director, Merrigong Theatre Company

Relations between regional Australia and refugees are complicated. On the one hand, some of our most conservative politicians come from rural and regional Australia. They have not only endorsed Operation Sovereign Borders, but also demonised anyone who dared to cross those borders, even when they have been found to be genuine refugees. On the other hand, some regional mayors have proven far more progressive than their city counterparts. Mayors in country NSW and Victoria have wholeheartedly embraced asylum seekers as valuable community members and workers who are willing to do jobs the locals are not, such as meat packing and fruit picking. Yet most of the theatre made by, with and about refugees over the past 15 years has played to city audiences. For this reason, A Sri Lankan Tamil Asylum Seeker’s Story as Performed by Australian Actors Under the Guidance of a Sinhalese Director, which is playing in Wollongong—a town of about 250,000, a two-hour train ride south of Sydney—intrigues me even before anyone appears on stage.

The play, written by Dhananjaya Karunarathne, dramaturged by David Williams and directed by both, weaves between two realities: that of a Tamil asylum seeker fleeing Sri Lanka and finding his way to Australia; and that of two white Australian actors trying to rehearse and perform a theatrical version of this story. The set consists of two steel arches: one upstage and one downstage. They are connected by a web of red ribbons, which run out into the upper reaches of the auditorium. Some have pieces of paper tied to them: they might be letters from asylum seekers held in detention or they could just as easily be old drafts of the script. It’s this line between reality and theatricality that the performance constantly blurs.

The play begins with a crash course on Sri Lanka and its history. The house lights are, unnervingly, still up as the actors debate whether they should wear blackface and/or adopt an accent. It seems unwise. “Any Sri Lankans here?” they ask. “Are you upset yet?” The absent playwright, represented by a roughly life-size cardboard cut-out, is dragged onto the stage and the patter continues. The actors wonder whether Sri Lanka might become the new Bali and muse on the fact that everyone in Australia is a migrant. “Anyone here from Syria?” Silence. “Not yet,” they joke. We are invited to sing “We Are One, We Are Many.” I can’t bring myself to do so, but others do. Finally the patter stops when one actor interrupts the other in character, shouting “Do you have any idea what your people have done to mine? And now you want to tell a Tamil asylum seeker’s story for your fucking research or career?”

From here the play engages more fully with the story of a particular asylum seeker, Raja. We see him in a refugee camp, forced to leave his small daughter in the care of a woman he does not know in order to ensure his own survival. However this reality is never allowed to solidify or settle, so it is interspersed with scenes of the actors rehearsing Raja’s life in the refugee camp and arguing over who can deliver his monologue with the appropriate amount of emotion. The same thing happens as Raja huddles on a boat while a journalist cajoles and eventually coerces him into telling his story, only for one actor to break the scene and demand: “Where are the props?” While some scenes reference real events, others involve real labour, such as when the two actors, dressed as customs officials, lug heavy body bags from backstage to centre stage. In another moment, there is a false interval: the lights come up and the actors tell us to get out of the theatre. Just as we are about to leave, the lights dim—they just wanted to give us a tiny taste of what it is like to have to leave a place before time and against one’s will.

In the last third of the play, Raja, by now in immigration detention, meets a student, Garth, who is doing his Masters in Refugee Studies. The student’s interviews play out over several months, during which time Raja’s partner falls pregnant. Once again, reality is disrupted, this time by the actors rehearsing different endings to Garth and Raja’s final encounter. In one, Garth is righteous and judgmental; in another apologetic and forgiving; in still another, there is a violent confrontation between the two. But this is deemed unacceptable because “it’s not a good way to end your story.”

Is there a good way to end this story? Or more to the point, will this story ever end? Immigration detention was introduced in Australia over 20 years ago and there is now an abundance of evidence confirming the deep damage it inflicts. Yet refugee policy remains at an impasse. Until recently I thought this might be true of theatre too, however some of the work I have seen this year has made me reassess this (see RT126, p6). Dhananjaya Karunarathne’s play suggests that comedy and metatheatricality might provide some unlikely ways through.

Merrigong Theatre Company, A sri lankan tamil asylum seeker’s story as performed by australian actors under the guidance of a sinhalese director, writer Dhananjaya Karunarathne, directors Dhananjaya Karunarathne, David Williams, performers Adam Booth and Anthony Gooley, dramaturg David Williams, designer Imogen Ross, lighting Matt Cox, sound design Rob Hughes; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, Sept 16-26

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 42

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

Slow Love, Richard Murphet, La Mama Theatre

Slow Love, Richard Murphet, La Mama Theatre

Slow Love, Richard Murphet, La Mama Theatre

Let’s start with a remark from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.”

Is this true? Does the modern world seem to us like a poorly scripted romantic comedy or a banal disaster flick, some vast congeries of clichés, a place where nothing new ever happens? And can theatre restore our faith in the real? Can it cut through the formulaic conventions and re-connect us with the world as it is, and with the elemental influences of love and death?

These questions—it seems to me—are crucial to Richard Murphet’s Quick Death and Slow Love, two short plays first produced at La Mama in the early 1980s and revived here for the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

The room is empty except for a single chair and an old mattress. A young man in blue slacks and a white T-shirt enters. He seems uneasy, unsure what to make of this small, dimly lit space. From offstage we hear the sound of typing and the cry of a baby. The man sits in the chair, as if to settle his nerves. Then he stands up and turns to the audience—and all at once his uneasiness transforms into a look of horrified recognition. We hear a gunshot. The man falls and the lights go out.

When they come up again, he is back on his feet. We hear another gunshot. Once more he collapses, once more the lights go out. And that’s the machinic process of Quick Death, a lightning pageant in which the man, Raymond, is gunned down some 30-odd times in less than an hour.

“Men kill other men,” says a woman from offstage, as if issuing a sombre mandate. “Mostly men kill other men.” And this is what happens. Other voices are heard and other figures are seen: images and snatches of dialogue from an ensemble of crime films and noir thrillers accumulate. But in this dark, dissociated world the only through-line is fear, and the danger of violent death.

Quick Death first appeared in 1981 as part of Jean-Pierre Mignon’s premiere Anthill season and featured on a double bill with Artaud’s To Have Done with the Judgment of God. During the late 1970s, Murphet was a core member of the Australian Performing Group offshoot Nightshift, and Quick Death can be seen as a continuation of the confrontational energy of that inspired, self-dramatising avant-garde collective.

In 1983 he developed Slow Love, a sort of companion piece. Like the first, this second play develops image by image, segmented by blackouts, parodying filmic tropes. As the title indicates, however, the rhythm is more measured, with none of the earlier work’s convulsive violence. Instead it has a sort of quiet intensity—mesmeric, not disruptive. Across more than 80 brief scenes we watch four figures, two male and two female, fall in and out of love, arranging and rearranging themselves according to a logic of exhaustive variation.

Directed for the first time by Murphet himself, and revised in collaboration with the present cast, the two plays are performed here without interval. It is the physicality of the production which most impresses. Murphet’s method is to body forth the clichés of love and death—and, in the process, to exaggerate them—reducing spectacular distance and asserting a sense of communal space.

The actors deserve credit—and so do the sound and light operators—for throwing themselves so wholeheartedly into this quick-change tumult. Even in Slow Love, we still sense the bodies hurtling around backstage between the many scenes. Always we are conscious of the physical effort needed to transform the scudding shades of the cinema into theatrical substance. Kevin Kiernan-Molloy is particularly memorable as the eternally doomed central figure of Quick Death, staggering and swaggering and forever going down.

Live performance, the movement of bodies in an empty space, exhausts the glamour of cinema, pushes it until the spell breaks; and in the aftermath we sense the possibility of something new, something beyond the serried repetitions of the silver screen.

But I also wonder. The regime of images that these two plays engage recalls an earlier, perhaps simpler time, say of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. Today the romance machine produces gonzo pornography. And the death machine gives us a vast and always open library of digital snuff videos. It is no longer just Deleuze’s “bad film” which stands between us and the world. Now there is also the bad meme. Clichés proliferate at 100 megabits per second: can even the most passionately experimental live theatre keep up?

Or does it come back to faith—faith that there is always some new creative possibility hidden within the real? In these two plays, both more than 30 years old, you do sense a kind of reverent power, a manifest conviction, even if, in performance, it is apprehended only for a moment, in the darkness and the charged silence that precedes the applause.

[To read more about Quick Death, Slow Love and other works by Richard Murphet, go to Denise Varney’s Radical Visions 1968-2008, Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2011. Eds]

La Mama Theatre, Quick Death/Slow Love, writer, director Richard Murphet, performers Kevin Kiernan-Molloy, Emma Tufrey Smith, James Cook, Naomi Rukavina, sound design Daniel Czech, set design Jacob Battista, lighting Steve Hendy, costumes Rebecca Dunn; La Mama, Melbourne, 30 Sept-11 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 44

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

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

Matuse, Naomi Nazarin, Aida Zjakic, The Way

David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, once wrote of Australia’s suburbs as “a residential theme park in what is essentially a desert.” Though there’s some truth to this, I can only guess Byrne didn’t visit the western suburb of Bankstown, a small metropolis 45 minutes away from the city but vastly different from it. Greater Western Sydney is highly culturally diverse, with 40% of the population born overseas and with predictions that in the next 15 years, the area will accommodate 60% of Sydney residents; it’s hardly a marginal area despite its meagre arts funding allocation.

So it’s little surprise there’s something unique developing in the art world here. Though there is not one artist-run gallery in Greater Western Sydney (Hazelbrook’s West Space was recently moved on from its home), institutions like Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects and Casula Powerhouse continue to craft innovative programs that aim to find a home for arts and culture in the region rather than export the best of the west to the city.

To this list we can add Bankstown Arts Centre, which in October hosted a 10-night run of The Way, the final in a trilogy directed by Stefo Nantsou, produced by Bankstown Youth Development Service and gathering a number of local companies including the Australian-Macedonian Theatre Group. The production was born of a series of workshops from which participants’ own stories were crafted into a loose narrative. It’s one of those ‘day in a life of a community’ premises, tracing abundant subplots and families, beginning with an early morning scene at Sydney Airport Arrivals Hall and moving into the heart of Bankstown as characters find their way through the big personal-political issues of today. On the way, we detour through Bankstown Central shopping centre, the Sports Club, the main bus stop and a bunch of other locales that audibly stir audience recognition.

It’s a minimalist production, from the barebones set, live musical accompaniment from local musicians and large-scale projections providing backdrops of shifting locations. I counted roughly 30 people on stage and heard at least half a dozen languages. The subplots range from forgettable to compelling, the most fully realised being the stories of the Islander Tamati family reuniting after a brother’s death; a man called Minh Tran dealing with the break-up of his family and the migration of his elderly father; and a young Arab Australian, Mohammed, reacting with anger and shock to racist treatment by Border Security after a holiday in Thailand.

Though these subjects might seem dark, the show is less about a deep engagement with politics than empowering participants by just placing them on stage. Nantsou has crafted an irony-free zone with the dramatic stakes set low, creating a feel-good production about the unity of community—something Hollywood marketers might call the human spirit but which is really just the beliefs we all hold in common. Music is a particularly important storytelling ingredient in The Way, with the Tamati family leading the show’s high point—a mourning song at their vigil, which raised the hairs on my arms.

It’s telling that a community-based cultural development group rather than a traditional theatre organisation has produced The Way. Though the trilogy of which it is a part was originally made under the auspices of Sydney Theatre Company, where Nantsou has been artist in residence, The Way has the feel and the vitality of community theatre. This is its strength and its weakness. The night I attended was sold out, many of the audience members clearly friends and family—vocal, diverse and conveying the sense that we were all part of something. I felt that I participated rather than attended and was being spoken with rather than spoken to. It’s the kind of a show whose heart-on-sleeve hyper-sincerity would be considered discomfiting any closer to the CBD, a show during which you realise that the Chippendale ARI you’ve been frequenting is comparatively a pretty white place in contemporary art right now.

The Way isn’t a great show, nor is it deeply ambitious or substantial, it’s more like a lovely gathering. The directive is inclusivity and the drive is for optimism and theme over character and plot. This is the stuff that Bankstown Arts Centre specialises in alongside professional productions and development: cultural events like their excellent regular poetry slam, that highlight first-hand experiences of migration, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and class. The Way might not meet all the ‘excellence’ criteria being thrown around by arts policymakers; rather, it provides serious access to participation in the arts. That’s its function in the arts ecology. The Way understands that theatre is a shared experience—an exercise in empathy, for everybody.

BYDS [Bankstown Youth Development Service], The Way, Bankstown Arts Centre, 1-8 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 45

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

Bodies Over Bitumen, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellmann

Bodies Over Bitumen, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellmann

Bodies Over Bitumen, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellmann

Three interdisciplinary circus performers lead an audience on a 60-minute wander through the streets of North Melbourne. At intervals, we stop to watch their ‘tricks.’ But in a manner rare for circus-based works, Bodies Over Bitumen deeply engages both performers and audience with the site. Dressed-down in jeans, sneakers and hoodies, the artists carry stuff around that suggests they could be travelling, or even homeless.

The way we are led is fugal—a passing cyclist (Alex Gellmann) provides our initial cue to follow, disappearing when we notice another performer and stop to watch, then returning at unpredictable intervals. As one act finishes, another performer—not always Alex—subtly distracts us and we move to follow again. It’s a kind of guided flâneuring, each segment dovetailing into the next.

Early on we pause to watch Naomi Francis pull aerial silks and rigging gear from a bulky backpack. She contemplates an exposed beam over a gated laneway, figuring out how to rig it. Perhaps put off by a car entering earlier, she seems to change her mind, stops, stuffs everything back in her bag and strides off fast enough for us to lose her trail. She looks lean, maybe even mean. On her way where? The cyclist swings around a corner into view as she disappears into the night.

Francis’ initial caution is countered by her eventual claiming of the night-time streets: it’s she who later suspends herself from a tree to perform a space-eating aerial routine in black gym gear, no spangles or frills. And it’s her body that supports four heavy strands of webbing in the centre of a roundabout for Skye Gellman’s slacklining routine, evincing awareness of the risk, physical strength and vulnerability that lies at the heart of circus.

Alex Gellmann tore major shoulder ligaments in a cycling accident ahead of the show. His sling-strapped arm can’t help him as he rides his bike one-handed, or both one-handed and seated back-to-front, or carries it on his shoulder. His tricks are necessarily curtailed, but this evidence of a real-world encounter with risk and danger cements his role in the work. Somewhat ‘broken’ himself, Gellmann marks his path at intervals with miniature cairns of shattered pavement illuminated by bike lights. In a tricky balance-board routine, he incorporates these fragments, tossing them with his usable hand and catching them on his head.

In what for me is Bodies Over Bitumen’s key scene, the performers do nothing. Skye Gellmann lies starfished in the middle of a narrow side street; Alex Gellmann flops in the gutter, half on the footpath. They lie there for a long time. Francis crouches against a brick warehouse with her too-big backpack.

Now and then a car turns into the street. Francis calls “Car!” and the guys roll quickly to the footpath and sit facing the road till it’s passed; then return to position. The scene intensifies, sparks literally flying, when Skye Gellmann begins scraping the ground with a hefty flint. Entering vehicles hesitate and we feel their intrusion and ours—as well as the folly of lying in the middle of the road. It’s a poetic and visceral pause that stretches into long minutes, pulling our guts right down to the tarmac.

At the end of Bodies Over Bitumen, Skye Gellmann applies virtuosic pole-acrobatics to a parking sign, twisting, circling and shimmying without ever touching the car parked close alongside. With a rare combination of strength, technical ability and dancerly poise, he illuminates, tests and defies gravity. Even arching on the footpath at the base of the pole, he maintains a defiant, balletic relationship to gravity’s incontestable force.

With histories spanning homelessness, squatting and street daredevilry, Bodies Over Bitumen’s creators are credentialled with lived understandings of space and who it belongs to, as well as how to claim and disrupt it. With a shared language born of past collaborations, they create a mood sometimes of aimlessness, sometimes of interrupted purpose, and equally of experimental occupation. Even the best of ‘new circus’ often boils down to a sequence of thematically related ‘acts,’ failing to create emotional immersion. By contrast, Bodies Over Bitumen places us in direct relationship to the surface of the road, making the space of the streets subtly dangerous, but also a place to play. It illuminates and destabilises the city environment, gaining our investment in uncertainty and caution from the start. From a modest approach—this work really hinges on the ‘less is more’ philosophy—Gellmann, Francis and Gellmann, with off-stage creative collaborator Kieran Law, have created something quietly extraordinary.

Bodies Over Bitumen, creators, performers Skye Gellmann, Naomi Francis, Alex Gellmann with Kieran Law; Melbourne Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall (starting point), 18 Sept-3 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 46

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




“I’m thinking it would be more fulfilling for the viewer if she or he had read Othello.” Toni Morrison, NY Times, October 2011

Filling in at short notice for our reviewer suddenly confined to quarters with a twisted ankle and having no time to read the play, I invite a friend to accompany me to Desdemona, a former schoolteacher who’d spent the best part of a decade casting light on Othello for students. As it turns out, a close knowledge of the play proves in her opinion to be more of a disadvantage.

In his personal introduction, director Peter Sellars prepares us for a meditation. The stage is suitably serene—four narrow mounds of soil embedded with soft fluorescent light and glass jars containing candles as might be encountered in a burial ground. Desdemona’s ritual reappraisal of the events of Shakespeare’s play is carried out in the after-life.

The production works multi-vocally. Desdemona (Tina Benko) slips the confines of the play to recite her version of events in the slow, sensory, ‘right on’ tones of Toni Morrison, at times dropping into a resonant bass to channel Othello himself. In contrast, Malian singer/composer Rokia Taororé, eyes often downcast and with minimal gestures, delivers a smooth and sensuous counterpoint in song accompanied by two female vocalists and two musicians on traditional African instruments.

A word in Shakespeare’s text provides the impetus for Morrison’s departure—mention of “Barbary” and, following quickly on, the possibility that the maid who raised Desdemona was African and strongly influential in her upbringing.

There is a sense at the outset that we’re in for some revelations. Traororé as Barbary is a graceful presence, her strong words at the outset instructing the desultory Desdemona (“My name means misery”) in her feminine powers. But as the ritual unfolds and the rhythms of Sellars’ staging recur, the conceit drifts into question. “I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose,” says Benko’s Desdemona and I wonder, for instance, just how far a character may stray from the mind that imagined her and still answer to that name.

Distracted now, it occurs to me that an audience seated in the round or at closer quarters might have more sense of connection with this work. As it is, in the large space of the Sydney Theatre, the static Benko’s voicing of three characters now—she has added Iago’s wife Emilia—is having a distancing effect. Though Rokia Traroré’s songs attempt to disrupt Desdemona’s view of her predicament, she still appears to see herself through the eyes of her lover—taking on his voice, giving the impression she’s possessed by this man’s spirit or that the two exist in the one body.

“What happened to Iago and jealousy?” whispers my friend. Next day she emails, “Othello’s tragedy is that he doesn’t know himself and he’s coerced by the deceitful Iago into betrayal, believing that the innocent Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. He’s already jealous of Cassio and willing to trust Iago over the woman he loves.”

Wednesday and we’re still tossing it around. Certainly, we agree, there’s beauty and pity in Traororés music, which is full of sad restraint. But we’d expected Toni Morrison might have something stronger to say about this tale of a good and trusting woman going willingly to her death at the hands of her lover.

And then, in this production Desdemona is faced with an unlikely confession from Othello to a secret shared with Iago that they had raped two elderly women watched on by a young boy. Refusing forgiveness, Desdemona professes enduring love and surrenders once more to her fate. But, we wonder, where is the regret beyond that final line, ‘We should have talked about this’?

By Friday the two of us agree that while we’ve enjoyed talking through Desdemona, what Toni Morrison has described as a ‘talking back’ to Shakespeare is perhaps less revealing than a more directly engaged dialogue with the play might have been.

Desdemona, Toni Morrison’s Re-imagining of Othello, Director Peter Sellars, Sydney Festival 2016 Roslyn Packer Theatre, 23-24 October

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 47

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

Brandon LaBelle

Brandon LaBelle

Brandon LaBelle

The exhibition statement for Capitalist Surrealism is the ultimate in sponsorship acknowledgements: “this program of lecture-performances by sound artists is brought to you by the new cultural logic of capital—real, but honestly, also kind of surreal.” A one-night event, Capitalist Surrealism aimed to assay capitalist social formation by thinking through the surreal processes and possibilities that are our economic life. Held at the National Gallery of Victoria and curated by Liquid Architecture, Capitalist Surrealism encompassed nine lecture-performances that engaged, wrestled with and thought beyond our capitalist present.

Brandon LaBelle

The opening performance by Brandon LaBelle, an American-born and Berlin-based writer, artist and theorist, established the event’s theme. Titled Confessions of an Overworked Artist, or, Strategies for an Impossible Practice, LaBelle’s performative mixture of spoken word and visuals reflects the social structures the artist works within, while also attempting to work beyond them. From the beginning he presents himself as the third-person ‘every artist’: “he often imagines what might be possible, the horizon of ideas and solidarities.” The forcefully charismatic LaBelle delivers a stream of consciousness avalanche of ideas: flight details, questions about the republic, budget concerns, application deadlines, democratic crises, theoretical quandaries…. The larger concerns of aesthetic practice are interspersed with lines humorously referencing the quotidian life of the artist, as LaBelle says, “and what of cognitive capitalism? Have to pick up the dry cleaning.”

LaBelle’s quick and urgent recital captures both his own permanent restlessness and further mimics a world determined by speed and information overload. Yet no matter how abstract or conceptual LaBelle’s thoughts become, the accompanying photographic slideshow features scenes and objects that unavoidably entwine the artist with the social world. However, Capitalist Surrealism is rarely directly evident in LaBelle’s words and images; instead he subtly positions art as something social rather than purely money-related, echoing the notion that we live in a society, not simply an economy. The piece finally builds to the central paradox that concerns LaBelle as he asks, “Overworked? Or the work that sets us free?” The answer, of course, is both, LaBelle’s performance portraying the artist as perpetually moving through a social life of competing ideas, relations and possibilities.

Saskia Doherty

In the Miner’s Companion, Saskia Doherty takes to the stage to recite a list of seemingly unrelated words in alphabetical order, signalling for some of the audience a possible test of endurance, but the performance reveals an acute and noteworthy logic. Doherty’s long list is extracted from a 1920s South African mining lexicon that translates words from English to a South African dialect, Fanakalo. This lexicon, likewise titled The Miner’s Companion, ensured communication between English-speaking miners and the South African workforce—but through a dialect that only references the technical components of machines, extraction processes, injuries, money and the barest of quotidian terms. The dryness of the list is made evident by Doherty taking large, exaggerated breaths and then proceeding to whisper as many words as one exhalation allows. This process repeats until every term in the lexicon is extracted: a process not unlike mining itself.

Doherty’s recitation is meaning-laden, but my attention is foremost on her voice and whispering, her delivery mimicking that of a miner who has developed pneumoconiosis—miner’s lung. By evoking the body, voice and language of the miner and broadcasting it, miner’s lung becomes a form of communication which speaks of how the material basis of capitalism disadvantages certain voices and bodies. In thinking through the linguistic and bodily processes of capitalism, the virtue of the performance resides in its recuperation of a mining history that is rarely acknowledged, perfectly conveying the violence of mining and by extension capitalism. The contemporary relevance of the performance is subtler, prompting reflection on our own language and how it is unconsciously determined by capitalism.

Tom Smith

What might an artist do with Pro Tools, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, online costume stores and fast cars? The answer is found in Tom Smith’s The New Spirit, the highlight of the evening. Armed with a laptop and headset, Smith interprets The New Spirit of Capitalism, a book centred on how contemporary capitalism appropriates the ideal of freedom as the basis of its networked logic. Smith renders the book’s sentences as sound, evoking the generic nature of contemporary music by producing a sound work using only the most familiar drum beats, rhythmic patterns and post-production processes of a culturally dominant MP3 sound world. Consequently when he speaks the authors’ words he renders them generic, signalling a loss of agency and political meaning—words becoming auto-tuned beyond aesthetic control. Networked capitalism feels natural and seems to offer agency, while mainstream music may likewise feel like it empowers artistic creation, but perceived freedom is lost to generic convention.

As Smith plays his sonic creation, he simultaneously peruses the virtual aisles of dress-up costumes and luxury cars and humorously attempts to purchase fake SoundCloud ‘listens’ to use in his own music. Importantly these signal new capitalism’s illusion: that we each operate as free agents who maximise our own interests and build ‘unique’ identities through consumption of generic items.

These lecture-performances don’t realise Capitalist Surrealism’s critical ambition, to imagine ‘horizons’ beyond the naturalised surrealism of capitalism. Rather each takes a particular facet of capitalism we are not necessarily conscious of and shows how it naturalises the actually surreal everyday. For these artists thinking of another ‘horizon’ begins by first thinking through how capitalism works on us.

Liquid Architecture, Capitalist Surrealism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 48

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

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

An all-star band of swashbuckling musicians, the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble has a reputation for performing some of the most sublime and yet neglected Australian works. It makes sense then that they should champion one of Australia’s most sublime and neglected composers, Nigel Butterley. Butterley belongs to a generation of luminous and relatively well-funded composers including Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale, but stands out for not taking a reactionary, post-impressionistic turn in later life. His music is detailed and spacious like a rambling baroque manor house. One wanders the halls of his mosaic forms listening for clues, taking new paths, and circling back on old ones. Arcko celebrated Butterley’s 80th birthday with performances of iconic works and a new piano concerto by his former student Elliott Gyger.

Uttering Joyous Leaves

The piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves is a riot of colour. Pointillist atonality shares the piano with snatches of blues modes and tonality, here jumbled together and syncopated with exceptional spirit by pianist Zubin Kanga. Pitches are scattered around like the oak tree in Walt Whitman’s poem “Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend, a lover near.” But not all is joy and light. There are dark undertones, shadows under the leaves. Kanga smiles through the effort of realising this virtuosic piece composed for the 1981 Sydney Piano Competition. After the performance, Gyger explained how the piece is “distilled Butterley” with “almost” everything wonderful about his music condensed into five minutes. What is missing is the expansiveness evident in the rest of the program and in works like Laudes, which Arcko performed in May last year.

In the Head the Fire

Butterley’s radiophonic work In the Head the Fire eschews the musical meteorology of his generation. In the place of birdsong and rain one finds the howling of wolves amid incantations from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The piece is of its time, composed shortly after the Scrolls were popularised by their translation into English in 1962. The piece would also find favour with today’s ritual-and-wolf-obsessed art school students. Aided by the space and watts of the Iwaki Auditorium, the superimposed choirs and orchestras were vast and cinematic. The vocal writing and subject matter is reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which was transformed into a film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in 1973. In the Head the Fire notoriously pipped Berio’s Laborintus II at the post for the Prix Italia in 1966 and I like to imagine Huillet and Straub tuning in to this work of biblical proportions as they planned their film.

From Joyous Leaves

In From Joyous Leaves Gyger expands the material of Uttering Joyous Leaves into a 25-minute concerto for piano and chamber orchestra. He provides a nuanced mosaic form that speaks an obscure and enticing narrative (though Gyger insists the stakes are purely musical). The effect is like listening to a story told in another language, an experience I recall from Defunensemble’s All Finnish concert at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music in September. The piece opens, like Butterley’s From Sorrowing Earth, with sweet harmonies in mellow violas. The orchestra and piano begin quoting Butterley’s piece, Kanga throwing fistfuls of note-confetti into the air. The magnificent display of orchestration continues until—all of a sudden—the piano strikes out a metallic tone, then another and another. The piano had been prepared all along (a reference to Butterley’s performances of the prepared piano works of John Cage), but Gyger carefully avoids the 22 prepared keys until halfway through the piece. The transmutation of the piano is revelatory, a little musical miracle at the heart of this intricate work.

From Sorrowing Earth

Butterley’s From Sorrowing Earth is as much a masterpiece as dozens of other works that regularly grace our state orchestral programs and Arcko deserves high praise for mustering the large forces required for a well-overdue performance. The title refers to the piece’s epigraph, a poem by Kathleen Raine describing renewal after environmental desecration. The piece likewise moves from plodding, dark episodes to freer, lighter textures, ending on a single harp harmonic. According to Elliott Gyger’s program note the piece’s message is moral and spiritual rather than political, but a 30-year-old listening to the work is not going to hear it the same way as an 80-year-old (or even the 65-year-old who composed it in 1991). The piece reflects the Cold War binary of destruction and renewal, at a time when a change of spirit really was essential in avoiding nuclear holocaust. But the decline of humanity under global warming will be slow and painful fuelled by actions not taken long ago, actions half-taken now and who knows what sort of action in the future. But perhaps the spiritual message of From Sorrowing Earth is precisely what is needed in the face of global environmental collapse.

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, From Sorrowing Earth, composer Nigel Butterley, piano Zubin Kanga, conductor Timothy Phillips; Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, 31 Oct; podcast by ABC Classic FM

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 49

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

Reflection Tour

Reflection Tour

Reflection Tour

The TURA-led Reflection Tour brought together two of Australia’s most revered Indigenous musicians, William Barton and Steven Pigram, with a range of instrumentalists from different performance contexts to make up the Narli Ensemble. Travelling to 12 locations around Western Australia’s Kimberley and Pilbara regions, the eclectic ensemble performed concerts and school shows for around three weeks before winding up in Perth for a finale concert. The night was filled with surprises, with music that ranged from traditional and story-led songs to atmospheric and electronic offerings. It’s hard to describe how such different kinds of music fit together so well, but the night felt entirely fluid, as if every musician were telling the same story from their own unique perspective.

Over the course of the concert musicians wandered on and offstage, resulting in an ever-changing ensemble that performed a range from solos and duets to full band works. The night opened with a solo improvisation titled Kimberley Night Sky by didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton. As he plays, it’s hard to take your eyes off him, such is his focus and intensity. He traverses the boundary between traditional and experimental music with ease, mixing stick taps, whistles and abstract sounds with the drones and barks of the didgeridoo sound with which we are more familiar. It’s an effective opening to set the tone for a night which is both meditative and engaging, steeped in tradition but focused on the exploration of new sounds.

Barton is soon joined onstage by Tristan Parr (cello) and Errki Veltheim (violin) for Parr’s own Strati, a piece with quite poetic origins created by manipulating satellite photos of Reflection Tour concert locations to be translated into a graphic score. Each iteration incorporates a live recording of the last, such that the final concert contains audio from every performance on the tour. In a similar vein is Veltheim’s Silence of a Falling Star, delivered by the full ensemble later in the evening. It is a meditative exploration of softly evolving textures, enhanced by radio static and a softly bubbling electronic undercurrent. It would have been quite an experience to have seen this performed outdoors under the stars as intended, as the enclosed space of the Octagon Theatre somewhat dampened the spiritual effect.

As soon as Steven Pigram took to the stage the energy changed from meditative to entertaining. Pigram was engaging in an entirely different way from Barton. While Barton was inwardly focused on his sound, Pigram was friendly and conversational, guiding us through his songs by cracking jokes and telling stories. From Pigram and the full ensemble (now joined by Ron Reeves on percussion and Steven Magnussen on guitar) we heard the foot-tapping “Nothin’ Really Matters,” humorous “Crocodile River” and others.

There were more instrumental offerings along the way. A highlight was Stephen Magnussen’s virtuosic solo guitar piece New Digs. The guitarist traversed the instrument with ease, delivering a flowing and complex array of melody. Then there was the Perflewdj trio of Barton, Tos Mahoney (flute) and Ron Reeves (percussion) who performed a curious and spacious improvisation.

Perhaps the emotional high of the night came when the ensemble was joined for two songs by Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert, a veteran musician, performer and storyteller from Broome. Baamba has a unique stage presence, peppering his performance with stories from his childhood and beyond. His voice is throaty, aged by a life of singing, adding so much character to the songs. We get “Slomat Tingal,” the trilingual pearl-divers’ song, as well as an unexpected cover of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” Before long Baamba retreats offstage, but not before he has met his rapturous applause with a cheeky smile.

The full ensemble ended the program with the catchily rhythmic Kalkadunga Yurdu by Barton and Mimi, a tribute to Pigram’s granny. There was a final all-in, groove-heavy encore of Pigram’s “Saltwater Cowboy” and then the ensemble bade farewell. What a rare opportunity it was to witness the coming together of such an eclectic group of musical minds. I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced such a varied and intimate evening of music making, and given the standing ovation the musicians received I’d say I’m not the only one.

Reflection Tour, Final Concert: William Barton, Stephen Pigram, Stephen Magnussen, Errki Veltheim, Ron Reeves, Tristen Parr, Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert, Tos Mahoney, Tura New Music, Octagon Theatre, 29 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 50

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

Jochen Gutsch

Jochen Gutsch

Jochen Gutsch

We hear Bronwyn Cumbo’s amplified violin before we see it. A forlorn melody heralds her entrance from behind a curtain. A second violin voice is soon added as Natalya Bing enters from the other side of the stage. The peripatetic violinists feed off each other, the music an improvisatory conversation until they reach their music stands and settle into a rhythmic ostinato. Jochen Gutsch takes to the stage on electric guitar, his sound dry and percussive. The final member of the quartet, Simeon Johnson, joins on electric cello. Described by Gutsch as “a truly collaborative work that has the handwriting of all four members in it,” the world premiere of Patches and Paths is the result of The Hinterlandt Ensemble’s week-long residency at Campbelltown Arts Centre.

The opening rhythmic figure intensifies before it segues into a more conventionally tonal idea: Gutsch strums a chord progression while the violins trace repeating scalic patterns. Johnson taps on his cello’s frame, sending a deep bass percussion beat through the speakers. This motif becomes an almost pop-style refrain throughout Patches and Paths that the ensemble returns to between more adventurous excursions.

The components of a drum kit are scattered between the players, drums and cymbals used to highlight cadences and climaxes—the suggestion of a drummer without the saturating repetition of a relentless drum beat. Distortion kicks in on electric guitar and cello, Gutsch’s rock background making itself heard. Despite the raw sound, the balance is sensitively controlled and the ensemble maintains the feeling of chamber music’s intimacy.

The music darkens; electronic pedal effects throb. Rhythm and pitch disintegrate and drift. Sweet high notes from Gutch’s guitar add a naivety that is soon undercut by the intensification of the electronic manipulation. Freer episodes such as this intersperse with the rhythmic patterns and chord progressions of rock and pop music. At one point the music shifts completely into an electronic world: synthetic warbles and slides flutter at Gutsch’s fingertips on a console. At other times the tonality is conventional, Gutsch strumming guitar or playing a nostalgic trumpet line over the string trio.

Patches and Paths reaches its conclusion fading into a wash of atmospheric electronica. Players leave the stage one by one, but Gutsch remains at the controls. Memories of earlier melodic material emerge from the fog of sound, but soon decay. Gutsch exits and the ambient noises dissipate into silence.

The first half of the concert comprised two acoustic works by Gutsch, written specifically for Hinterlandt. Alltagswelt (Everyday World) opens with a spiky repeating pattern on guitar. Bing and Cumbo join (staggered entries are a recurring theme) with short measured trills on violins before Johnson initiates a rising figure that passes around the strings. Gutsch alternates between guitar and trumpet; the five-movement work touches on genres including rock, folk and Spanish music, as well as improvisatory passages that wander into the atmospheric—a cloud of siren string glissandos and guitar slides.

Like Alltagswelt, Umgangswelt opens with a rhythmic pattern. Cumbo begins an unsettled heartbeat on xylophone, Bing joining on a second xylophone to fill the off-beats. The title translates less readily into English, but suggests interactions and social frameworks. Though Gutsch describes Alltagswelt and Umgangswelt as “similar in length, structure and aesthetics,” the colour palette of Umgangswelt is expanded: xylophones, glockenspiel, woodblock, bass recorder and bamboo wind chimes augment the regular line-up of violins, cello and Gutsch’s guitar and trumpet. The music meanders through disparate worlds: from layered rhythmic grooves to burlesque circus music.

Gutsch announces the encores as “fun” pieces. The first is “Tiny Ugly World” by psychedelic punk rock band Alice Donut. Gutsch sings and strums acoustic guitar, Cumbo, Bing and Johnson providing back-up vocals. Tom Waits’ “No One Knows I’m Gone” follows. Gutsch plays the vocal line on glockenspiel, an innocent chiming to replace the melancholy lyrics, while the string trio accompanies.

The Hinterlandt Ensemble expands the intimacy of classical chamber music to an eclectic fusion of styles. The long-form works took the audience on journeys through diverse sound worlds, the unconventional line-up of instruments creating unique possibilities and timbres. The wandering narratives could be unsatisfying at times; Patches and Paths in particular felt rather episodic. Fascinating ideas were presented but often passed by before they could be developed or explored in depth. That said, the ensemble’s cohesion and refined musicianship drew the audience in, inviting listeners to immerse themselves in shifting musical landscapes.

Jochen Gutsch & The Hinterlandt Ensemble, residency performance, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 52

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

Herman Kolgen, Seismik

Herman Kolgen, Seismik

Herman Kolgen, Seismik

Despite the emphasis on the aural implied by the festival’s title, Sonica is equally about the visual. When sound meets vision (and vice versa) there is some sort of implied interdependency and with no overt theme to the festival, I found myself looking and listening to the works of the first weekend of Sonica 2015 via the conceptual framework of interrelation—cause and effect—in particular how aesthetic choices either clarified or obfuscated (not always in a bad way) the connection between sound and vision.


Tipping Point

UK artist Kathy Hinde’s Tipping Point, commissioned in 2014 by Cryptic for Sonica, offers a pleasing level of complexity within a cause and effect relationship. In a darkened room 12 tall glass tubes containing water are suspended in counterbalanced pairs and lit from within. A mechanical armature raises one tube above the other syphoning the water between them in gentle seesawing motion. Unseen microphones in the tubes generate pure feedback tones, amplified via speakers at the base of each pair. As the water level changes it affects the resonant frequency of each vessel and the tone glissandos to another pitch.

I experienced the piece in performance mode, where Hinde ‘plays’ the rise and fall of the tubes, augmenting the pure tones with processing via guitar effects pedals. The ‘choral’ result is both visually and aurally mesmerising. While it is clear that what we hear is a direct result of the activity of these tubes, the actual mechanics of the sound generation remains mysterious, the tones essentially drawn from the varying ‘emptiness’ of the vessels. Here the aesthetic choices add a complexity to the cause and effect; we have to interrogate the work to understand the magic.


The New Alps

A 2015 Cryptic for Sonica commission, The New Alps by Robbie Thomson (UK), offers an example of a clear one-to-one ratio action to sound relationship. Housed in an empty swimming pool at the Govanhill Baths, Thomson’s kinetic sculptures are made from heavy industrial materials and produce sharp, angular sounds—all about the attack. One machine drums a spasmodic riff on a sheet of metal culminating in a skull-reverberating gong; another goes through a series of motions to expel a sudden blast of compressed air; another whirls a speaker around at speed, the susurration of static bouncing back at us from the tiled pool walls. The machines seemingly graze on the edge of a rusty puddle of water down at the deep end, occasional water spurts and bubbles softening the clang and rupture. Adrift from any industrial function, Thomson’s melancholy machines are caught in a non-productive cycle of cause and effect—a bleak poetic postscript to our end of days.


Order and After

In the Ladies Bathing Pool at Govanhill Baths is the Sonica-commissioned Order and After by Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto. Working with notions of national identity viewed through the lens of the post-Suharto Reformasi period, this is a poetic interpretation of cause and effect—an extended transitional terrain of political action-reaction-action. Through the haze of artificial fog and blinding spotlights, two large red flags adorned with gold script are suspended over the empty swimming pool. Over the roar of industrial fans, which cause the flags to flutter, we hear a voice singing fragments of song and speaking a collage of verbatim texts from interviews and speeches. Without warning the flags drop to the bottom of the pool, only to be later re-hoisted, the cycle of reformation and nation-building activated again. While simpler than Kuswidananto’s previous army of robotic soldiers, this piece is no less performative and effective for the concentrated metaphoric power expressed most strongly in its visual aspects.


Herman Kolgen

It’s clear from the Sonica 2015 program that Cryptic curator Cathie Boyd’s tastes favour the highly polished, energetic and spectacular—a combination well-realised in the practice of Québécois audiovisual artist Herman Kolgen. In the first of three pieces, LINK.C, Kolgen performs the visuals to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 played by the Maxwell Quartet (UK). Kolgen’s vertiginous flyovers of 3D-rendered high-rise cityscapes in constant slice-and-dice reconfiguration meet the cyclical propulsion of Glass head-on, creating a dramatic and immersive visual hymn to urbanity.

In AfterShock, Kolgen takes over the sound as well, offering an aestheticised nightmare of a post-apocalyptic world. His non-specified disaster is introduced with jarring bolts of noise probed from his modular synthesiser with what looks to be a screwdriver. Once the world has ended the game-like flyover perspective implicates the viewer, we become collapse-porn voyeurs cruising around the broken artifacts of the Anthropocene, the scene propelled by a soundscape of uneasy roil and rumble. Rendered in smooth-skinned, monochromatic 3D animation, the apocalypse has never looked so good.

In the final and most substantial work, Seismik, Kolgen uses realtime seismic data from around the globe. This is sonified and augmented by his own synthesised rupturings. Placing a microphone in the space he also hopes to make a feedback loop that will shake the building. His visuals have us floating through fault lines, twisting between tectonic plates and soaring over vast and terrifying topographies, all sliced and fractured with his by now familiar spidery data feeds. It’s stunning and awesome in scale but with not quite enough variation or development to sustain its extended duration of 45-50 minutes. Also, given the emphasis on the realtime data feed, the actual presence of this as a clear sonic element and driver of the action is not so evident. Here the aestheticisation of the cause dilutes the effect.


Oscillon Response

Scottish artist Mark Lyken’s Sonica 2015 commission, Oscillon Response, is also a highly aestheticised audiovisual work. Based on six examples of electronic pioneer Ben F Laposky’s Electronic Abstractions—beautiful spectral images created using an oscilloscope—Lyken has created six audiovisual studies. Lyken’s is a sensuous interpretation of Laposky’s images, his music a textured ambient electronica, laced with processed choral vocals that swirl around his animated versions of the oscillator figures. However, given the oscilloscope’s ability to visualise sound as electrical wave a stronger relationship of sound to image was missing with the sound-image interplay appearing merely decorative. Of course Lyken has to find his own way into this material, but it was hard not to compare it with the tightly-sutured dynamism of Robin Fox’s oscillator work, Volta (2006).



As well as delivering a presentation about the soon-to-be opened Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (M.E.S.S), which I didn’t catch, Robin Fox was at Sonica for the festival’s opening night performance of Transducer, created with Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti. (See Totally Huge 2013, RT online). Given space constraints I’ll concentrate on the other half of Speak Percussion’s concert, Fluorophone, which explores the relationship of light to sound. The program opens with Damien Ricketson’s Rendition Clinic, inspired by the click of the electrical discharge of strobe lighting. Performers Louise Devenish and Matthias Schack-Arnott undertake small rhythmic studies—the tapping of stones, the spinning of wind wands, the chime of struck metal tubes, underscored by just audible sub-bass tones played from a laptop by Ughetti. All action is illuminated by strobes creating a cool fracturing of image that is somehow softened and unified by the delicacy and subtlety of the sound palette—a clever balance of spectacle and understatement.

Ughetti’s Pyrite Gland also challenges expectations, refusing to deliver any sound that we expect from the featured instruments, three tom-tom drums. The toms house sound-sensitive lights that respond to succinctly scored extra-musical experiments involving air mattress pumps, balloons, water and tensioned strings. The result is a rigorous yet playful study of sonic and visual expectations.

Simon Løeffler’s enigmatically titled piece, e, is the most ambitious in the program, using a triangular sculpture made from fluorescent lights. With foot pedals the performers switch the lights on and off in increasingly complicated sequences. Meanwhile the electrical current running through their bodies issues an underscoring of hums and buzzes. The audible clicks of the pedals sync tightly with the on/off of the lights, while the electrical sounds are harder to parse with the action, the body conduction causing buffering and delays. The final section introduces the metallic clang of a struck triangle nested in the centre of the sculpture, a curious and unexpected sound in the midst of the clicks and buzzes. Løeffler’s work is as sonically challenging as it is visually arresting.


Beyond aesthetics

From the dozen or so events I experienced of the festival’s first weekend, it seems that what makes Sonica unique is its prioritising of the aesthetic—everything just looked so damned good! However I did want some of the works, Kolgen and Lyken for example, to present a more complex intertwining of sound and vision that reaches beyond illustration to a point where each element actually challenges our understanding of the other. But perhaps my concern can be satisfied elsewhere in the realm of media art with festivals that have a more interrogative agenda (sometimes at the expense of aesthetics). But really, I am being greedy, because even only experiencing half of the festival, there’s no denying that Sonica offers a rich and generous banquet of sonovisual delights.

Cryptic: Sonica 2015, curator Cathie Boyd, co-curators Patrick Dickie, Graham MacKenzie; Tramway, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Govanhill Baths, Mitchell Theatre and various venues Glasgow; 29 Oct-8 Nov.

Gail’s travel to Sonica was assisted by the Australia Council and Arts NSW, and accommodation was provided in Glasgow by Cryptic.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 53

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

A Garden of Parallel Paths

A Garden of Parallel Paths

A Garden of Parallel Paths

The first thing you notice about the group exhibition People Like Us at UNSW Galleries is the sound. You enter a foyer through glass doors and immediately hear snippets of violin, the ascending tones of woodwinds and a soaring operatic soprano. Michael Nyman’s The Art of Fugue (2012) is a video work situated outside the main gallery space, and before you see the screen its arcing melodies are resonating around the high ceiling. When you arrive in front of the work, the movement of amateur male photographers and their scantily clad female subjects immediately becomes operatic as Nyman’s composition turns this recorded experience in Mexico City into a kind of choreographed performance.

Like the photographers in Nyman’s piece, who mediate their way of seeing the world through the barrier of the lens, this exhibition is concerned with the interrelationship between art, technology and human experience: how technology facilitates or disrupts our connection to information and the environment. Curator Felicity Fenner gives us a diverse array of contemporary works that seek to challenge the anxiety that technology is isolating, that it is making us withdrawn and disengaged. As the exhibition title infers, what is significant here is the human, our personal relationships not only with technology but with the people around us.

This tension between community and isolation, between switching on and plugging in or tuning out, thematically runs across all the works. Daniel Crooks’ A Garden of Parallel Paths (2012), which splices video of Melbourne laneways into one single moment, each laneway sliding into the next, brings together the virtual and the real. There’s something eerily familiar about all of these paths and, when viewed in a constant scroll, the work becomes like a maze, claustrophobic and compact. It’s oddly jarring when figures pop up in the laneways, seemingly walking beside one another but separate all the same, as a hushed drone plays out over the top. Similarly, there’s an element of intimacy and pathos right alongside separation in Jason Wing’s Syrinx (2015) where you peek round a black curtain to find a solitary empty wooden chair and a pair of headphones and focus your attention on the shrieks of black cockatoos that tell the story of Aboriginal suffering and displacement.

Wing’s work sits next to the whistlers in Angelica Mesiti’s The Calling (2013-14), a three-channel video installation showing three remote communities where this tradition is carried on. While Wing is focused on absence and deletion, Mesiti turns to communal presence. A teacher stands before a class, a common enough occurrence, but here he is communicating entirely through whistling—a call and response with the students. Mesiti takes the time to focus on a particular gesture, a raised hand, a smile and three pieces of women’s clothing on a line, swinging in the breeze. This is finding the transcendental in the everyday moment, a kind of sacredness, and yet she is also questioning how a tradition can fit inside the modern world. Will it change in the face of technological advancement?

In a separate room to the right of Mesiti’s work, the body appears: we are brought back to human limbs, sinew and blood. Yuri Ancarani’s Da Vinci (2012) is not for the queasy with its robotic surgical procedure projected on an entire wall. I like this movement from the transcendental to the physical. It feels as if metaphysical transport must be brought back down to earth and seen among the corporeal. As Ancarani’s title alludes, the work references that old collision between art and science, propelled forward since Da Vinci’s own Renaissance. Seeing surgical procedure close-up brings home an awareness of layers via technology’s capacity to reveal what goes on under the skin and to rupture, cut and repair. The curator’s note accompanying People Like Us suggests an artistic preoccupation with our ‘inner selves’ and indeed Ancarani turns inside, forcing us to acknowledge the pulsating veins and vessels that make up the body.

Grouping such disparate works brings with it the sense of a lack of cohesion, with some of the works sitting uneasily beside others. Su-Mei Tse’s purring cat portraits seem an odd choice right alongside Mesiti’s poetic videos, and George Poonkhin Khut’s interactive Brighthearts app, which monitors breath and heart rate, jars against Nyman’s elegiac Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial (2014). Then again discord does form a significant part of our relationship with technology and indeed with each other, particularly in our attempts to negotiate excessive amounts of information. If Felicity Fenner is attempting to question how technology impacts on our way of viewing the world, then these moments of dissonance need to be considered.

Sound does provide a form of unification: there are birdcalls and the hiss of a spray can from Joan Ross’ The Claiming of Things (2012), Mesiti’s whistles and Crooks’ subtle bell tones. With a sideways glance to Nyman’s work, you can think of that sonic experience as being like a fugue, a musical composition that relies on contrapuntal motion—the movement of melodies against one another. The word ‘fugue’ stems from the Latin ‘to flee’ and ‘to chase’, and I like the idea that each sound seems to chase after another; with the whistle, the bird cry, the whirring of bicycle pedals, there’s a brief meeting of tones, one emerging as the other subsides, interlocking the works. And when thinking of the exhibition as a whole, and trying to reconcile moments of disparity, the placement of the works can also be likened to the harmonies of a fugue. Because what People Like Us is offering is a similar kind of experience: it is simultaneously an interchange of different ideas, interweaving at some points and crossing over, before falling away.

People Like Us, curator Felicity Fenner, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 5 Sept–7 Nov

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 54

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

To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz

To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz

To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz

In the early days of the historical avant-garde, Futurist and Dada manifestos were recited, performed and even shouted by their authors in front of audiences. These announced a violent rupture in the historical continuum by passionately propelling society into a newly imagined future; through radical rhetoric, they aspired to nothing less than changing reality with words. As Galia Yanoshevsky writes in her analysis of the manifesto as a defined genre, “manifestos are violent acts, spectacular acts, a way to sound your voice, whether the act is artistic or political.”

Amy Ireland and Virginia Barratt carry on this tradition of public manifesto recitation in an eccentric performance that is both artistically and politically charged. The performance is presented as part of an exhibition at Woolloomooloo’s Firstdraft gallery curated by Frances Barrett. Entitled Haunting, the exhibition explores artworks that use historical narratives to produce temporal shifts by conflating past, present and future.

In Ireland and Barratt’s performance, it is two feminist manifestos, and two of the women who produced them, that communicate across a 20-year gap. Dressed in white jumpsuits, Ireland and Barratt engage in forwards and backwards recitations of VNS Matrix’s 1995 Cybermanifesto for the 21st Century along with extracts from Laboria Cuboniks’ 2014 manifesto, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation.

VNS Matrix was a cyberfeminist collective of which Barratt was a member. Formed in Adelaide in the early 1990s, it injected a critical feminist discourse into the male-dominated space of the virtual. Alongside Donna Haraway who famously wrote she’d “rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” VNS Matrix, in their condensed and ferociously poetic declaration, announced themselves as “the modern cunt” and “the virus of the new world order.”

By contrast, Cuboniks’ recently published manifesto sprawls over 27 dense paragraphs categorised into seven sections. Amy Ireland is involved with this xenofeminist collective that is spread across five countries and three continents and whose stated mission is to “dismantle gender, destroy ‘the family’ and do away with nature as a guarantor for inegalitarian political positions.” Centred on trans-politics, the manifesto seeks to create “a feminism at age with computation” by calling on technology to be repurposed for progressive gender political ends.

It is a strange and potent experience to encounter these two feminisms, past and present, in dialogue. The performance space, meanwhile, evokes the uncertain space of a radical technological future, with a neon green X marked on the floor across which the women slowly travel, each on her own axis, alternately facing toward and away from us. At one point, three small remote-controlled flying toys are unleashed into the space, loudly buzzing and crashing into the walls but providing an unfortunate distraction from the power of the spoken words.

Cuboniks’ manifesto is readily accessible online but has been printed on paper for the occasion of Haunting. It reads as not so much haunted but rather inspired and impelled by the cyberfeminisms that preceded it. Yet while it echoes the urgency of past feminist manifestos, the text does not shy away from interrogating their limitations and failures, boldly reimagining the untapped political potential of technology for a contemporary era.

Alongside the printed text, the exhibition features two video works, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation (2013), and Geo Wyeth’s Quartered (2013-2014). In Boudry and Lorenz’s film, six artists perform a 1970 score composed by Pauline Oliveros and inspired by Valerie Solanas’ radical feminist “SCUM Manifesto.” The score tasks the performers to make autonomous musical choices and respond to the dynamics of the group by rejecting the hierarchical structures of traditional compositions. With the camera panning the performers who each play different instruments, the piece feels like an anarchic rock concert with no centre. The converging noises progressively take on a life of their own as the performers don’t just play but also listen to one another, becoming their own audience.

Quartered follows performance artist Geo Wyeth’s journey to the deep American South, tracing the history of an old relative. Wyeth’s identity as a biracial transgender man is explored in a dreamlike reverie, juxtaposed with jarring DIY-style editing that prevents us from getting too comfortable. Memory and history are revealed to be both real and imagined as Wyeth’s personal and family histories, national historical traumas and Southern mythology intersect in an original feat of evocative storytelling.

The works that make up Haunting are tied together by their interrogation of the past and fearless imaginings of the future. Joining these politically inspired artists and activists is an unexpectedly empowering journey.

Haunting, curator Frances Barrett, Firstdraft, Sydney, 2-25 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 55

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

Email us at giveaways [at] realtimearts.net with your name, postal address and phone number. Include ‘Giveaway’ and the name of the item in the subject line.
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One of the last works of the late, great film documentarian Albert Maysles. A verité portrait of equally famous New York “fashion icon” Iris Apfels.

3 copies courtesy Madman Entertainment

Far from Men

One of this year’s best films from director David Oelhoffen based on a story by Albert Camus. Set in 1950s Algeria, the film features a striking performance from Viggo Mortensen as a schoolteacher faced with a perilous challenge.

3 DVDs courtesy Madman Entertainment

The Streets of Papunya: The re-invention of Papunya painting

Another handsome volume from NewSouth Publishing, this of time Vivien Johnson’s wonderful celebration or the remarkable art of the women painters of Papunya.

1 copy courtesy NewSouth Publishing

Book: Dancing to His Song: The Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer

By film scholar Jane Freebury, this is part critical essay, part filmography and part study of the critical and audience response to the work of a truly radical Australian filmmaker.

2 copies of paperback and 2 e-books courtesy Currency House and Currency Press

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 56

Key image, Miss Universal

Key image, Miss Universal

Key image, Miss Universal

Atlanta Eke’s work tends toward the hybrid. It’s the essence of her choreography, drawing visual, sonic, new media and conceptual forms into new relationships of exchange with the dancing body.

“I’m probably more cerebral,” explains Eke, who last year won the inaugural Kier Choreographic Award. “The practice for me is concept first, image, relationship and then once we’re there it’s really a lot of learning.”

Is this a dialectical practice? Concepts are placed before and against images and relationships: the concept is transformed and ultimately transcended. But the synthesis, the thing which happens during the performance, remains haunted by what came before. This unsettled quality is a hallmark of Eke’s work. Those striking, unforgettable images—say, the troupe of naked women with black hoods obscuring their faces dancing to Beyonce in Monster Body (2012), or the slow-motion ballet for cars in The Death of Affect Restaged with a Return to the Japanese Nude 2017 (2015)—are shot through with intimations of something profound but elusive.

The work seems to invite interpretation, but no paraphrase can comprehend the experience. It always feels as if you’ve missed something.

For her latest work, Miss Universal, commissioned by Chunky Move, Eke cites the inspiration of thinkers such as Carolyn Merchant, Monique Wittig, Donna Harraway and the Spanish philosopher Rosa María Rodríguez Magda. It’s a diverse bunch, not easily reconciled, but Eke’s creativity is good at translating multitudes.

The work had its first incarnation earlier this year at Gertrude Contemporary. Pip Wallis, a former curator at the Fitzroy gallery, saw a short work of Eke’s—Fountain (2014), also at Chunky Move—that reminded her of the sculptor Claire Lambe, and she invited the two to make a collaboration.

“They were trying to figure out ways to exhibit their studio artists in different ways,” explains Eke. “I met with Claire and began this conversation on how we can work together and I came up with this Miss Universe idea, trying to appropriate the format of the Miss Universe competition as a model for another kind of cultural, transnational happening.”

That was in March of 2015. The work has since been completely revised for Chunky Move, but Eke is still attracted to the idea of an unconventional (or convention defying) theatre space, a space that’s more like a gallery.

“I guess the interest for me is the social ritual and that was why it was fun starting at Gertrude and having the audience in a choose-what-you-want-to-do kind of space,” says Eke, who has created work in a number of galleries over the last couple of years. “You’re asked to come in and do a 20-minute show in a gallery and people are just leaning against the walls and sitting on the floor, and it’s just like, ‘why can’t we do that more in a theatre?’”

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

Despite the attraction, she’s aware that dance audiences may not respond to the offer of freedom.

“It’s kind of a delicate thing,” she says. “We’re going to find out a lot about it by doing it. I want the initial entrance into the performance space to be a kind of uncanny experience. It’s going to be a replication of the space that they’ve just been in. There’s an interest there in a certain kind of violence: feeling like you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, undermining habituated behaviours. But, yes, there are a lot of performances which already have that freedom, and it has become a convention in and of itself.”

Once inside the space, Eke—along with performers Annabelle Balharry, Chloe Chignell and Angela Goh—is proposing an exploration of different ideas of the universal. Is it possible to recombine the fragmented moments of recent history as a new universalism? Is it desirable?

“What we’re trying to practice is transmodernism,” she says, with a nod to the work of Rodríguez Magda. “So, in relation to dance history, it goes modern dance, postmodern dance and now transmodern dance. I think this is how one could propose a new universality for today, to reclaim the sincere, progressive and positive aspects of modernity. We’ve been like, ‘Dance your memory of postmodern dance.’ And it’s the usual fragmentation. Let’s see what happens when we piece it back together.”

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body, Dance Massive, 2013

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body, Dance Massive, 2013

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body, Dance Massive, 2013

This kind of focus on the conceptual level can make Eke’s work sound more difficult than it is. In fact, her work is best characterised by its humour. There is, for instance, the section in Body of Work which looks like (or rather sounds like) one long fart joke. Or there’s the infamous scene in Monster Body where she reclines like a painter’s odalisque in a spreading pool of her own urine.

To the extent that the work is difficult, it is not because of a deliberate refusal to communicate. Eke and her collaborators know how to create a powerful connection with the audience, something absent from so much contemporary dance. It is one of the paradoxes of her oeuvre that what can seem at one level like cynicism or critique, can also have an attractive naive quality, like an earnest yearning for progress, for a genuinely communitarian, feminist future. And what better vehicle for hope than comedy?

But there is something urgent and sincere about the work. It’s not necessarily emotional or expressive, but there is an insistence through which the need for action is underlined. In Miss Universal, this comes across as a preoccupation with the theme of love.

“The thing is about love,” says Eke. “So we have these conversations where we focus in on the individual and love and then out on this idea of love as this other undefinable energy that attracts everything in the universe together.”

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

Atlanta Eke, Fountain, It Cannot Be Stopped, 2014

For Eke, love is the force which enmeshes and interconnects. It encompasses all the fragments and fugitive lines of a world without an organising centre. It gives coherence to the chaos. But is this only an artist’s figure for the absolute spirit, a way of explaining the mysterious unfolding of her own dialectical avant garde transaesthetic practice? There is a sense in which every artist yearns to be Miss Universal.

“The mission is to produce something unknown,” she says, “which is in the journey where it goes from the theoretical, cerebral thing to the art thing. But there’s something tricky about that—how do you do that without alienating people?” Maybe the only sincere way of doing it—all corniness aside–is to admit that the answer really is love.

Chunky Move, Next Move Commission, Atlanta Eke, Miss Universal, Chunky Move Studios, Melbourne, 3-12 Dec

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg.

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

still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand

still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand

In soaring song-speech, Kate Miller-Heidke intones Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand with fragments from other of his stories. She’s the lone figure (except when she encounters herself) in Dutch composer and multimedia artist Michel Van der Aa’s engrossing interactive online video work commissioned by the Sydney and Holland Festivals and made freely available online (give it time to download—watch the timer bottom left).

Playing a Borgean Alice, Miller-Heidke is lost in overlapping worlds that constitute the infinity of the endless book the writer conjures and which consumes its reader. She runs circles on desert dunes from which shoot translucent strips inscribed with arcane script. But, like Alice, she is actively curious. In one room she herself ‘writes’ the symbols on the blank ‘paper’ by gently pouring sand onto it; in another she prints the text with sand as if it is ink, adjusting a bizarre printer with switches that break up the soundtrack. The sense of the infinite and corresponding material impermanence is haunting, made moreso when time reverses. Our narrator falls asleep, the ‘paper’ slipping serpent-like around her and rising in a grainy mist of sand—a thin column of it flows up from her brow and then another from her open mouth as we hear her sing “I saw the Aleph.”

still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand

still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand

The musical accompaniment is propulsive nigh jazz-rock minimalism—more lyrical than chugging—over which the singer’s voice flies with infinite ease, although the text is tightly scored to suggest looping recurrence. Miller-Heidke sings solo or is double tracked or finely accompanied a capella by the 12- voice Nederlands Kamerkoor, adding a sense of the sacred that comes with notions of the infinite and the curious mysticism conjured by Borges.

The writer’s devotees might find the dramatising of his work an overloading of the magic his writing already coolly and ironically invokes. For newcomers Van der Aa’s creation might be a welcome initiation.

The interactive element allows the viewer to switch between locations or you can just let the work run—until you feel the need to break out into another space or return to one more closely. Miller-Heidke’s singing is lucid but there is a subtitle option, English or Dutch, if you wish.

Michel Van de Aa’s The Book of Sand, “a festival gift to Sydney,” says director Lieven Bertels, is well worth entering for its peculiarly attractive evocation of disorienting relativities which make us feel small—save for the sheer scale of our prompted imaginations—or exist not at all: “I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me.”still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand

still from Michel Van der Aa's The Book of Sand


Michel Van der Aa, The Book of Sand, free interactive digital artwork, Sydney Festival, 2015-16

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

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

Dancing in the Now – Full Length from Ubuntu Samaya on Vimeo.

Pippa Samaya is a 27-year old recent RMIT graduate in commercial photography who has made an engrossing, self-funded and ambitious 50-minute documentary, Dancing in the Now, freely available online.

The film features interviews with dancers—Stephanie Lake, Antony Hamilton, Paea Leach, James Vu Ahn Pham, Lauren Langlois, Tara Jade Samara and Sarah Jayne Howard—interpolated with footage of rehearsals and performances. The dancers speak lucidly and frankly about emotion, intelligence, risk, structure and, above all, dancing in the moment, the now. For artists who declare they prefer the language of movement and gesture over speech they are remarkably eloquent. Other dancers will recognise themselves in their words and young dancers will gain some sense of what lies ahead of them or is already felt, if not yet expressed.

Save for some passages shot in slow, fast or staccato motion (which are only occasionally revealing), the cinematography is fluent and engaging, capturing the energy and delicacy of movement of highly skilled dancers, alone or in groups in rehearsal, dropping in and out of the action, stretching or happily communing.

The film is structured as a series of episodes, each broadly addressing a theme, opening with the dancers’ embrace of contemporary dance’s openness, its capacity to “draw from raw emotions” without, says James Van Phu, “the illusion of smoothness” associated with ballet. Elsewhere Antony Hamilton says he’s come to reject the utopian goal of perfection,”of trying to find contentment in the next moment,” rather than now. “There is no destination. Then you can allow disorder into the work or your life. Let in mistakes and they can become the focus.”

In a section about emotion, Stephanie Lake speaks as a choreographer who “starts with something abstract and simple and ends up somewhere emotionally mysterious,” finding “emotional logic through structure.” Sarah Jayne Howard creates from feeling, but also, she says, from text “with its useful rhythms” and from the environment, as when “replicating a sweeping landscape.”

Samara speaks of the limits to emotional engagement in dancing; it can be too strong and draining physically—“sometimes it’s like an injury…but can also be healing—anger and love can give us the energy to move.”

As for being in the ‘now,’ it’s not simple. Samara speaks of “letting go and being in your body, but also of ”a certain skill in riding the experiential wave of awareness on a sensory level and letting go all the judgment as to what that is.” The performance is both ‘predetermined’ and in the moment.

For Antony Hamilton, the ‘now’ is in dance’s capacity to “shift thinking out of the everyday.” Several artists, like Paea Leach, speak of how much they are continuously ‘in’ their bodies in ways they think non-dancers are not. As if to underline this we watch a lone figure in a railway station performing tai chi while travellers speed by. One dancer evokes the physical intimacy of dance, of working so closely with other bodies in the moment but also“of coming home smelling of someone else’s sweat.”

There are reflections too on the ‘now’ of performance—Sarah Jayne Howard amusingly recalls times when she wondered if the audience would want to see her yet again, and Stephanie Lake speaks about periods of doubt but finds herself still a committed dancer.

What appeals to Tara Jade Samara is that dance now has “a contemporary intelligence and understanding of the body, and which changes” as our bodies evolve, moment to moment.

Tara Jade Samaya and James Vu Anh Pham, Dancing in the Now

Tara Jade Samaya and James Vu Anh Pham, Dancing in the Now

Tara Jade Samaya and James Vu Anh Pham, Dancing in the Now


You travelled widely at a young age. Was that influential in your becoming become a photographer?

My parents have always been adventurers of the world and as a child I was whisked along with them. Exposure to incredible cultures such as Nepal’s and trekking in the high Himalaya’s quickly opened my mind to the vastness of human experience. Also like my parents, I have always been artistic and, specifically, visually inspired. It was a natural progression for me to photography and film.

What specifically led you to photography?

I had an early introduction to photography via my father, who although he never went professional, shot incredible images all through his travels and has helped nurture my own interest since childhood. Studying commercial photography at RMIT was really just the final step moving me into the high-end professional realm of image making.

What is your focus as a photographer?

Although photography can be seen as superficial, I have always been interested in reaching further than skin deep. I strive for imagery that uses physical form to depict and inspire emotional states of being that cannot be seen but will always be felt. To achieve this and survive in the commercial photography world can be hard but I find increasingly that I attract the kind of companies and individuals who also share my values.

Why did you turn to dance? Are you a dancer?

Dance seems to me to be the perfect vessel to communicate the internal human experience through external expression. I’ve always danced, non-professionally, and loved it on an experiential level, but it wasn’t until I started to shoot dance at a high level that I really discovered just how powerful a still moment in this form of movement could be, and how many stories the body can tell. My partner is an incredible dancer and in recent years I have found myself increasingly surrounded by dancers and dance in many shapes and forms. It seems like a path that has been paved out for me that I am honoured to walk on.

What prompted the shift to film?

Working with dancers has led me in a natural progression to film; movement can often tell a whole other story from a still image. Once I began, there was no looking back. Although of course I still love still photography, I am now equal parts a videographer.

I approached several people I knew or had been referred to in the industry and many welcomed me warmly into their worlds. Throughout the interviews I was touched by some of the depths that we naturally moved into. Dancers are an incredible breed.

The dancers were generous to speak with you but also allow you to film them.

I did not ask for or require any previous footage of their work but many let me in to shoot my own throughout their rehearsal processes or even dress runs and performances. I would offer some still images in return, so we all left happy.

Where will your vision take you next?

As well as continuing to work in dance films and music films, I hope to take this project to a larger scale and eventually, with a little support, realise my dream of a film which documents and explores dance internationally—to explore the different uses for dance, social and traditional, for ritual, healing, spiritual, career, passion and romance, and how this reflects the humans who engage in it. Perhaps we will even reveal a cycle, which connects the individual back to the whole and exposes the interconnectivity of all life. Who knows?

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg.

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

“New Physics is an online exhibition that presents ten Australian artists who produce a collective though diverse aesthetic investigation of the dislocative effects of the internet, and the many unlikely collisions it has created.” New Physics, Introduction, Roslyn Helper

Sydney-based artist and curator Roslyn Helper has enterprisingly initiated an online gallery, New Physics, promising a series of exhibitions which open with extant works by Joe Hamilton, Alrey Batol, Josh Harle and Louise Zhang alongside works altered for an online context by Kusum Normoyle and Holly Childs and Stephanie Overs. Also featured are an ongoing work by Giselle Stanborough and commissioned creations by Ellen Formby and Peter Wildman.

Stanborough’s unfolding Instagram work is a series of often droll collages frequently connected by a pricked thumb motif, suggesting vulnerability, magic and blood sugar level checking, and including a striking visual prayer for the injured Red Cadeaux along with a lament for the many race horses who die or are killed prematurely. Alrey Batol's lightly interactive Clearance amusingly mocks the accumulation of everyday goods from phones to espresso machines in the form of a calculatedly irritating computer game. A more disturbing delirium is induced by Joe Hamilton’s beautiful indirect.flights with its mobile collaging of surfaces natural and synthetic, thick paint, Google Maps and snippets of equally hard to place functional sounds.

Peter Wildman’s code poetry is quietly multi-voiced over images of open mouths in which appear fragments of code and text with some witty outcomes within an overarching sense of delicate reflection on life and love. To enjoy Josh Harle and Louise Zhang’s fascinating interactive sensory blend of animation and sculpture, Blobs, you’ll need to spend $0.99 for the app. A panel of six performances on video by vocal noise artist Kusum Nomoyle are activated by hovering the cursor over an image and clicking (it’s no good trying to hit Play or Pause) which also introduces degrees of colourisation into the industrial landscape in which the artist vigorously performs. There are more works to embrace—and without the stiff backs that ‘real’ galleries so often induce.

Roslyn Helper brings to the task experience in curating exhibitions and events for ISEA (2013), This in Not Art (2013), Vivid Ideas (2014) and the Brisbane Powerhouse (2015). She is the current Artistic Director of Electrofringe.

Helper’s interest in the effects of new technologies on society, culture and politics is reflected in her degrees: BA (Media Communications), University of Sydney and MA in Arts Politics from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. An Australian online gallery focused on the themes that preoccupy her is an important innovation.


How did the New Physics come about and how do you envisage it?

It came about as an independent, self-funded project, the first iteration of a series of curatorial experiments presenting online art.

I'm not thinking of it as an online representation of a traditional gallery, but rather a new type of gallery: an entry + exit point / a distribution channel—a platform that caters appropriately to the artforms it presents. A URL can travel, relocate and decontextualise itself in the way that a room cannot.

The other thing to note with curating New Physics is that my approach inverts the traditional curatorial processes. Usually you start with a physical space and fit the artworks into it. In this instance, I found/commissioned the artworks first, and then designed a space around them.

What kind of work attracts you?

I'm not interested in a particular ‘style’ of online art. I think the beauty of the internet is that it presents such a plurality of perspectives. Rather, I'm attracted to art with a critical or conceptually rigorous underpinning: these works all play with familiar social, political and economic functions to examine and challenge the ways we think about and approach the ubiquitous online experience.

What kind of works will you curate and exhibit?

A combination of extant, reworked and commissioned pieces to create a more sophisticated art experience that properly caters to the net environment. A variety of online media have been chosen: website, game, app, instagram, video etc.

Internet culture has no aesthetic cohesion or unifying politic. Rather, the selected works present a diversity/plurality of perspectives that utilise, represent, satirise and disrupt online systems.

The New Physics catalogue essay illustrates the socio-political context that situates the exhibition and describes more fully the concepts behind each artwork.


RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

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

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

It is film history legend that the release of Star Wars (1977, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) changed the course of cinema sound. Director George Lucas and his gun sound design team used the just-emerged technology of Dolby Stereo Sound to hide a series of low frequency waves that accompanied the Star Destroyer and the Death Star at a pitch that the human ear could not detect but that the body could feel. As the monster spaceships passed across the top of the screen, the bass frequency produced a rumble that gently but tangibly shook the plush cinema seats and rang through the viewers’ bodies. It was a Freudishly evil move. The force literally inhabited people: the work was felt in the body rather than understood with the intellect.

I couldn’t help but think of this while experiencing Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda’s newest work, Superposition, at Sydney’s Carriageworks. A similarly advanced space-time force invaded those who ventured into this vastly imaginative and precisely realised video, sound and installation work, currently touring the world like a music gig. An artwork about data sounds dry, but Ikeda has created another work of extreme coolness and affective power.

Unlike Spectra—the sculptural tower of white light that punctured Hobart’s skies in 2013—Superposition is the first Ikeda work I’ve experienced that occupies a traditional theatrical set-up. Rather than being plunged into a big space to move through, we face a series of onstage screens from the comfort of seats. It’s also the first work of Ikeda’s that includes performers: a hyper-focused woman and man reading streams of data and inputting them to the work in real time. Not only does their presence bring the work into the realm of time-based performance, it gives us a human element and a start-point to relate to in the data stream.

For an hour, the duo taps out messages through an array of Morse Code machines, tuning forks and microfiche scanners, all of which are monitored by Go-Pros fixed to the stage and beaming live onscreen. In this way, the work quite literally realises the 21st century experience of information overload, a return from cliché to truth. Each new data source has a corresponding effect: every movement by a performer produces a sound and image. In this way, Ikeda’s work reminded me of a basic law of physics—that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This returns us to the work’s self-professed mandate of reflecting on how “we understand the reality of nature on an atomic scale…inspired by the mathematical notions of quantum mechanics.”

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Being conceived at the art-science nexus, Superposition also involves a crack team of offstage specialists involved in programming, graphics, computer systems and optical devices. Every little bit of the work–every little bit—is so fully realised, even the musical output could stand alone as a soundtrack, and was in fact separately commissioned by the Festival d’Automne in Paris.

But thankfully, Ikeda is smart enough not to prize the parts over the whole. There is too much to take in, but I suspect that is his intent: to drive us back to the realm of experience rather than analysis. He has developed a type of deeply conceptual art that embraces rather than rejects the aesthetic. While Superposition is mostly anchored in a Matrix-like monochrome palette, the artist understands the potency of an occasional thunderbolt of colour. Where beauty and sublimity have been central concerns of art since forever, Ikeda immerses us in a digital sublime of ones and zeros, bridging the massive with the minute.

Under Lisa Havilah’s directorship, Carriageworks continues to program works of the moment that have wide appeal. Audiences come to an understanding of a work through many factors: personal history, ideology, taste, other works, formal education and instruction in how to read an artwork. The scope of Superposition is so far-reaching that every viewer can craft their own set of associations in endless ribbons of interpretation. Given the movie theatre set-up, the work spoke to me cinematically, and as it devolved into something more abstract, I felt hurled into the final strobing third of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the trippiest part in which astronaut Dave is hurtled through space and time towards the star child and his own old-age.

But Ikeda’s creations are so much more than visual and aural representations of data dreams and physics and quantum mechanics. His are works to be soaked in and soaked up: truly immersive and experiential, even within the walls of a traditional stage space. In an age where much conceptual art must be clinically understood—dissected rather than felt—Ryoji Ikeda brings us back to the realm of affect and dreaming.
Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, superposition, 2015, Carriageworks, Sydney

Ryoji Ikeda, Superposition, Carriageworks, Sydney, Sept 23-26

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 29

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

Stelarc and audience, keynote for NEAF

Stelarc and audience, keynote for NEAF

Stelarc and audience, keynote for NEAF

The idea of experimental arts is evident in the branding of national bodies. The Australia Council for the Arts now has an Emerging and Experimental funding category, replacing its Inter-Arts Office. UNSW Art & Design (formerly the College of Fine Arts) incorporates the National Institute of Experimental Arts (NIEA). The Experimental Art Foundation has become the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF). Experimental arts have gone national, but what does experimental actually mean?

A series of discussions at the National Experimental Arts Forum (NEAF) in Perth sought clarity. They were shadowed by two conundrums: first, how best to articulate the value of experimental arts amid the recent threat to Australia Council funding; second, the relationship between experimental art and science.

This second conundrum came from NEAF’s host, the art laboratory SymbioticA, which had just held an international conference on Neo-Life and organised several exhibitions foregrounding collaborations between artists and scientists. Amid the sessions, an ongoing debate between Vicki Sowry of the Australian Network for Art and Technology and SymbioticA’s Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr revolved around the autonomy of artists in collaborative situations.

Zurr is concerned about the extent to which artists are being used to illustrate science and industry, the way that artists are employed for data visualisation and sonification projects. For her, a key difference between art and science is that art should be allowed to fail, rather than celebrate scientific success.

The value of failure, of process and experimentation, found another advocate in Australia’s savant of experimental art, NIEA’s Paul Thomas. In Thomas’ session on education, dLux MediaArts director Tara Morelos suggested that experimental art “makes strange with the technology, to force it where it does not belong.” Thomas then asked the group to conceptually disentangle arts made with technology and media from experimental arts, in the process illuminating some of the slipperiness of these terms.

Another angle on the problem came from Canadian academic Chris Salter, who in a concluding talk pointed out the similar histories of experimental art and experimental science. Both artists and scientists are expected to produce results of one kind or another that may or may not have anything to do with what actually takes place in their messy studios and laboratories.

Salter, Thomas and Zurr all work in universities that define themselves by experimental research, and are in something of a protected situation when it comes to making art. Many of the attendees, however, spoke about being stuck in funding cycles that shift from project to project, requiring outcomes rather than open-ended processes. These discussions had a depressing edge as participants tried to articulate what they did in terms of more concrete social and institutional values.

The recent threats to federal funding show how experimental artists need new and better arguments for their practices, and the conference rehearsed several of these. In an interactive keynote, performance outfit PVI asked whether art and politics should be distinct. Only Stelarc stood to agree with the proposition! His example may well stand as Australia’s best ontological argument for experimental art.

A video of Stelarc in the DeMonstrable exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, called PROPEL-Ear on Arm Performance (2015) shows his body being swung around on a robotic arm, jerked from position to position. This robot body has all of the profound qualities of the artist’s more famous works, its audaciousness making a simple, sensual argument for its own intrinsic brilliance.

PVI suggested another reasoning for experimental art through a Frank Zappa video. 99% of NEAP attendees agreed with Zappa that “progress is not possible without deviation.” This is what Chris Salter calls a logic of innovation, as if artists will come up with new ideas and new knowledge purely by being different. This is something of a self-defeating argument, as instrumental inventions may or may not come out of an artist’s studio.

Even more troubling was a session in which artists complained about their marginalisation from the Australian mainstream, but at the same time defining experimental art as that which is marginal! Surely, this logic will only keep experimental artists at the margin!

Stronger arguments were made in other sessions. Darwin Community Art’s Christian Ramilo reminded everyone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says everyone has a right to the “enjoyment of the arts.” For Ramilo, the recent threats to the autonomy of arts funding undermine this right.

PVI Collective's keynote/intervention, ‘quiet time,’ delegates trying to do nothing for 2 minutes

PVI Collective’s keynote/intervention, ‘quiet time,’ delegates trying to do nothing for 2 minutes

PVI Collective’s keynote/intervention, ‘quiet time,’ delegates trying to do nothing for 2 minutes

Sitting next to Ramilo, SymbioticA researcher Guy Ben-Ary described the speculative role of the artist who plays out the ethical implications of developments in the laboratory. As if to illuminate the point, Ben-Ary, on the night before NEAF, performed cellF, an improvised concert of cellular neurological networks jamming with a jazz drummer in Japan.

Despite the weighted and urgent nature of many discussions at NEAF, delegates came together for many highlights, notably three brilliant keynotes that took nothing for granted: an action packed performance lecture (PVI), a whisper quiet anti-performance lecture (Cat Hope) and a journey through bodies augmented, cellular and virtual (Stelarc).

So too in the many improvised discussions and fortuitous conversations, the serious atmosphere produced brutally honest and productive exchanges. Such is the vitality of what attendees were reluctantly calling a ‘sector,’ that like other sectors of Australian activity must learn to advocate for itself, to demonstrate its ontology in ways that everyone from the scientist to the voting public can understand.

As the field of science communication has been so successful in articulating the intrinsic interest of science and its social value, so the experimental arts need to be better at communicating themselves. We need an experimental art communication that brings the concepts of its practitioners onto a more public stage.

At NEAF in 2015, arguments and methodologies for experimental art were being tested among colleagues and friends. What remains is for these arguments and methodologies for experimental practice to make themselves more visible through punchy, quality art and its ideas.

SymbioticA, National Experimental Arts Forum, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 5-6 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 30

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

National Sawdust, New York

National Sawdust, New York

National Sawdust, New York

Last month Jon Rose was invited to be one of the curators in launching New York’s new ‘new music’ space National Sawdust with his Interactive Sonic Ball project and to undertake a 12-concert residency at The Stone performing with John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Mark Dresser, Shelley Hirsch, Elliott Sharpe, John Medeski, Sylvie Courvoisier, Peter Evans, Cyro Baptista, Chuck Bettis, Ned Rothenberg, Ikue Mori, Okkyung Lee, Francesco Mela, Ches Smith, Miya Masaoka, David Watson, Eyal Moaz, Lucas Ligeti, Andrew Drury, Annie Gosfield, Olga Bell, and Anthony Pateras. His experience of National Sawdust and The Stone has inspired Rose to imagine a model for a sustainable music culture in Sydney against the odds of power and property values if without optimism about Australian arts philanthropy and state arts funding. Eds

The composer & the philanthropist

I’m the last one to suggest any arts practice in Australia copies, or tries to emulate, an overseas model; our recent history is littered with cringing attempts at that. But occasionally something pops up elsewhere that is extraordinary, and we would do well to examine what has taken place and see if it is relevant (or not) to our local predicament.

Paola Prestini is an Italian-born, award-winning composer who has just presented those in New York who are interested in new music with an ultimatum (she doesn’t put it like that, but I do). The message is simple: in a world where performed music has lost nearly all its value and function, if we want live new music, then those who can afford to need to put their philanthropic best foot forward—and now.

Kevin Dolon is a tax lawyer and amateur musician; he wanted to do something about the state of new music in New York. Kevin is not your usual New York megaphone conversationalist; he is quiet and thoughtful and makes his way around on bicycle. He found a building that was literally the ruined shell of the National Sawdust Company in Williamsburg and persuaded other well-resourced businessmen to put up $6 million. Paola Prestini raised $6 million to match it—a composer and musician did that! With a final cost of around $16 million, another 50 donors chipped in too. Total running costs are $2 million annually.

In the US, there is always a clear bottom line, and in a place like New York even performing in poverty is expensive; in this respect Sydney is fast achieving parity. National Sawdust has five years to make itself into a going concern: the rent is free, the sponsors own the building. If the whole enterprise falls over, the owners can sell the building for a fortune. Since it’s on prime real estate in New York they cannot lose, but in the meantime they can create something exciting, unique and worthwhile—something they are proud to attach their names to.

It has to be said Paola Prestini has no intention of failing at anything. Her talent is aligned with a practicality and a relentless determination; she is also a top composer. The vibe in the opening month of National Sawdust is one of excitement and of generating a brave new performance option in a cultural environment and malaise that is drifting or even speeding in the opposite direction. The music in the opening weeks was a hard core of genres from modernist chamber music to 1990s rock, from free improvisation to electronica, from small scale music theatre to solo mandolin or oud virtuosity, from maximalists (John Zorn) to minimalists (Terry Riley), and just about every style of singing under the sun. It was inclusive, and nothing had been watered down for ease of consumption.

The building itself is state of the art. The actual performance space sits on huge springs that insulate it from the noisy streets and nearby subway. This I am critical of, as I would prefer to play in a space or place with specific resonance, not avoid the uniqueness of given sonic characteristics. The ubiquitous black box performance spaces dotted around the world are mostly interchangeable. One night down at The Stone (where I was doing another residency) the neighbouring sound world took its place in the band: the road adjacent was being resurfaced by giant noise-wielding machines, and we were taken to the world of high decibel industrial music (clearly audible in the club) whether we liked it or not—we went with it.


The situation for National Sawdust requires another operational aesthetic; it’s sitting on very expensive and escalating real estate. Paola will have to hire the space out to just about any kind of commercially viable event that involves music if NS is to survive. She looks at me sternly and says, “We won’t do weddings.” So there is a line, a line I crossed many times in the days when I was a professional musician—I once even played a divorce party on a fat cat yacht on Sydney Harbour.

My first glance at National Sawdust brings amazement and a feeling that this is not built for the use of humble musicians but for the enjoyment of architects. However, from the point of view of Paola’s long-term plan, she needs a performance space that can also be a recording studio for an 80-piece orchestra playing Hollywood film scores or TV shows, bringing in the mega sums of loot that will keep this place going. The location is also significant with respect to demography. The restaurants and bars in the nearby streets are packed out with 25-35 year olds wielding trust funds—if you are up and partying at two o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday night, it’s unlikely you have a real job to go to at eight the next day. The National Sawdust needs and wants their money to make itself sustainable. The multi-purpose character of NS has it fitted out with one of the best sound systems that these ears have ever heard—a paradigm of sound reinforcement as opposed to amplification. The smallest grains of sand falling on a table…a cranked up DJ—I heard both extremes and everything in between in the main auditorium.

But Paola’s passion remains for the new and the experimental; there will be no fewer than 500 concerts a year. All her methodology, planning and process runs at hyper speeds with this one aim in mind—the popular supporting the less popular or even the unpopular (likely to be the most interesting). The bottom line always looming. The financial support she has made available to musicians such as myself also goes beyond the accepted terms of engagement and generosity—my residency at The Stone was in fact made possible by National Sawdust.

A model for Sydney?

In the 1970s I had a choice of over 15 free venues in Sydney that were amenable to new and experimental music (galleries mostly, but also some jazz and rock clubs). Crushed by land speculation and basic greed, this option for performed new music has pretty well collapsed. The best venue in town for improvised music is now a private house holding 50-90 persons; entrance is by donation (it would be illegal to charge an entrance fee), and it is not on social media. The punters are, in the main, generous—they know the tenuous state of affairs for musicians. The People’s Republic in Camperdown is already a model for the performance of music, but obviously you can’t put a PA and a rock band in there.

So, what other kind of model could work in Sydney? Clearly, the few philanthropists who support music are going to stick with handing over their loot to those who already have the bulk of government funding—ie the models of late 19th century opera, orchestras playing largely classical music, or the use of celebrities who might make Mozart look a bit hipper (although the more Australian classical musicians try to act groovy, the straighter they tend to look).

Scale and appropriate use of resources are two factors that need to be addressed. The aesthetics and grandiose power displays of European empire in the late 19th century surely have no place in the 21st century. The Sydney Opera House is a black hole into which money is poured with little significant cultural return. Can’t we just sell it off to the Chinese and use the cash to promote musical activities that have some use and benefit to society? (The façade of the SOH stays of course, generating the tourist dollars—job security!) It would be cheaper anyway to send those who can’t live without Puccini or Wagner on a package holiday to Milan or Bayreuth where they can catch the real thing, rather than indulge their expensive taxpayer-funded fantasy in Australia. The capacity of National Sawdust in New York is 175 seated and 320 standing. The Stone is legally limited to 75. These are appropriate-sized venues for a city characterized nowadays (as are the metropolises of Australia) by a plethora of niche musics.

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

We have become such a controlled society that it is very hard to know where or how to operate as a musician and also quite challenging not to get depressed about the whole business. We all work for free, providing unimaginable amounts of wealth via our data to Google, Apple, Facebook, the government and the rest of them. Taking back control of our lives might be a start, but is that just too difficult?

At root cause, it comes down to the ownership of (once stolen) land. The Australian Opera says its tickets are under $100 a seat, but that is horse manure; the real costs of subsidising a building like the Opera House in Sydney’s bubbling real estate market are astronomical. If you want the proof, I suggest putting it on the market with plans to turn it into the usual apartments and restaurants (like “the toaster” next door)—it would be worth billions in seconds. Hey, why not add a casino as well?

Historically, non-classical music (what the Germans call Unterhaltungsmusik—music for entertainment) has been partnered with booze, drugs and, more recently, food. On the positive side, you could say the music was functional; on the negative, the music itself didn’t pay the bills—or enough for an entrepreneur to want to start up a club. John Zorn’s approach to The Stone club in New York City is reductive—no bar, no food, no drugs—just the music. The aesthetic shows off his puritanical side, but with audiences drawn from a population base of 20 million, it can work. It’s low-level street capitalism taking a small bite out of The Big Apple. There are other examples, but most come and go, run out of steam or money or get moved on. The Stone is still there after 10 years. To play at The Stone, you have to be invited by its owner—the club is booked for up to two years in advance—a two-year wait to play for the door! Every month there is a rent gig where Zorn’s own celebrity status ensures a full house. Despite the $25 entrance fee, I suspect the Doyen of Downtown music puts a lot of his money into the place as well.

You don’t have to wait two years to play in Sydney; there is not yet the population pressure, but give it a few years. Even if you do get to play in Sydney at a club or pub, the chances of earning an ‘adult wage’ without a subsidy are remote. Meanwhile, with the rationale of a third world dictatorship, extreme perversions of power are staged here. The previous Minister for Bullying putting his hand in the Australia Council till and walked off with 28% of it for his own slush fund in possibly the most blatant abuse of democracy ever to happen in the arts since federation—even New Yorkers are shocked by that! Similarly, the quarantining of the bulk of Australia Council funds for the benefit of a few reactionary institutions, which are never tested with any peer review, is a continuing profligacy—a casual insult by the powerful to the democratic process.

So, short of returning the favour and directly stealing from the rich and powerful, what’s to be done? To quote George Orwell, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”; that could be a useful start but would be considered too hazardous by most musicians. Biting the hand that feeds you is a tasty but tough ask.

Can a society with a limited funded sector organise itself better than we currently seem capable of? This probe goes right to the heart of the way in which power is organised in Australia and the few who use it—and use it only for their advantage, to protect their privilege and status.

Just after returning from New York, I heard a philanthropist on Radio National promoting her new concert hall at the Ngeringa Cultural Centre near Adelaide. Great, I thought. Australia is on the move. But then after the listener’s hopes are raised comes the reality check—some 19th century notions that hardly seem possible in a 21st century modern state—”bringing culture to nature” (in other words, human exceptionalism is something that nature can’t do without; nature has to be improved by human intervention) and “the perfect acoustic” (in other words, Vivaldi in Venice). So, despite the best intentions of putting money into the arts, it’s the colonial mindset that continues to dominate in Australia.

The crowdfunding solution?

Ah, but what about the wonders of crowdfunding? There are but a handful of successes, and those are in the realm of pop music. Well, you might expect that, as popular music assumes the hierarchy of popularity rather than an innovative and flourishing musical culture. Even organisations with clout like The New York City Opera couldn’t do more than raise $301,000 of a targeted $1 million in their quest to avoid collapse. Random generosity is a rare quality in our species; the chances are that those who want to support an organisation are already familiar with it and probably handing over their pennies. Crowdfunding doesn’t appear to cut it.

Survival and sustainability

Anyone who dares predict the future is likely to end up with egg on his face. But I do believe performed music will survive, and I think it will thrive, especially as the myth and delusion of continual economic growth (on a planet with diminishing resources) evaporates. The scale will be small, personal, and community orientated (that’s a hard one for most of Sydney), and it will have to be supported by those lucky enough to own property or other resources and willing to share on a regular basis. It will come down to personal relationships and a desire to contribute. The performance of music has always mirrored the great heaves of economies, the ebb and flow of migration, the collapse of empires; there is no reason to think that our time is any different. The cultural paradigms of post-WW2 are not quite gone with a bang, but they are whimpering.

In the past few years, under the guidance of Lord Mayor Clover Moore (who posed the question—what the hell happened to all the live music and venues of her youth?) the City of Sydney has made attempts to reclaim its live music culture. This is a Herculean task, but there are some results (The Tempe Jets practice space for musicians being one example). I think an integrated holistic town plan that involves the practice of music along with bicycle lanes, urban greening, the installing of car-free pedestrian zones etc is certainly a key to any sustainable quality of life in a big town. And if the citizenry can persuade the “big end of town” that such a process benefits them as well, we will by default have more options for the practice of music. The only problem with this officially granted approach is that we may end up with the clean, saccharin culture of a Singapore. One integral aspect of live music performance has always been the temporary loss of control—the access to another reality.

In this country there are many small organisations doing a great job (NowNow, Make It Up Club, Sound Out, Tura, Sound Stream, Clocked Out, Ensemble Offspring, Speak Percussion, Decibel, BIFEM etc) but all are to some degree dependent on diminishing government funding. This exacerbates the precipitous state of affairs, even defining the kind of music that must be squeezed out of the communal funding bottle—the last drops of the 20th century model. Even the hugely versatile MONA FOMA, supported by the gambling largesse of David Walsh, is underwritten up to 50% by the Tasmanian taxpayer. Australian corporate wealth tends to end up offshore, and it is highly unlikely to ever enter the philanthropic world on the side of the local, the appropriate, and the challenging.

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

In Sydney, millionaire Judith Neilson seems set to outspend Walsh with her new Phoenix gallery in Chippendale—there will be space for performance, but I cannot see new music being a priority. This is visual art: a world dominated by money and fashion where there is a toxic mix of dubious philanthropy and the use of taxpayer’s funding to support the visiting superstar of vacuity.

Maybe money is not the base problem or solution; perhaps it is one of time and commitment and a move away from the overpriced centres of our cities? Music was one of the first professions to be hollowed out by the digital revolution; to that extent, musicians are in the vanguard. There are no illusions, and the hardcore practitioners of new, improvised and experimental music have been writing the self-reliance manual since the advent of musician-run record companies and festivals in the 1970s. (The use of the word “experimental” is problematic, as words associated with creativity have been devoured and neutred by mainstream capitalism. If the Australian Chamber Orchestra professes to promote the “experimental”, you know the word is now meaningless. But I can’t think of a relevant replacement; “exploratory music” or “new music” have the same problems; this is why I used “other” in the title of this proposal.)

Australia will finally be a republic and have a non-colonial flag long before a group of millionaires come to the aid of “other” music as I witnessed in New York; we musicians will have to do it ourselves.

A proposal

My proposal is that Sydney develops its own network of say 10 musician/artist run spaces using The People’s Republic in Camperdown as a model. Despite an aging population, it is vital for the future of music performance that such a network be initiated by the young (and not established middle-aged musicians) and that the spaces (front rooms, garages etc) belong to them (or more likely their parents) and that they set the agenda. A monthly concert in a private space—it can’t be that hard, can it? If there were 10 such spaces (all distinctively different), that would provide 120 concerts a year, constituting an appropriate minimum-sized pool of musical creativity for a town such as Sydney. I did suggest such an idea to The City of Sydney when they were canvassing ideas for the rejuvenation of live music two years ago, but the terms of reference were limited to rock bands, singer-songwriters, and DJs—it’s as if most of the innovative music of the 20th century had gone missing or never happened.

In the 1980s and 90s, I lived in and helped run Die Küche (the Kitchen) in Berlin. There are many places currently in Berlin that follow a similar model. However Berlin remains cheap in comparison to Sydney, and the buildings are bigger—the war-torn history of Berlin still provides cheap unrenovated buildings suitable for live music (hurry, hurry, they are going fast). However, I think the problems of creating new music in a place like New York are more relevant to the contemporary over-priced bubble that is Sydney.

Creating a new reality

Meanwhile back in New York, Paola Prestini and John Zorn are both musicians who realised early in their careers that there are no free lunches, and if they were going to achieve their musical ambitions, they would have to be, by necessity, impresarios. Their visions are very different, but the cause of presenting challenging, live, contemporary music is mutual. Eventually it comes down to individuals sticking their heads up above the parapet of conformity and creating a vision and a reality where there was previously none.

Jon Rose, electric violin, Julia Reidy, electric guitar; plus The Great Fences of Australia multi-media event, Jon Rose, tenor violin The People’s Republic, Camperdown, Sydney, 6 Dec, 7pm; Jon Rose, Julia Reidy; plus book launch, Jon Rose, Rosenberg 3.0—not violin music; The Make It Up Club, Fitzroy, Melbourne, 8 Dec, 8pm

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

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

Stephen Whittington & Daruma, Japan

Stephen Whittington & Daruma, Japan

Sounds were ‘born free, but everywhere they are in chains’ (Rousseau). Captured, held prisoners in hard drives, USB sticks, iPods, smart phones, they are forced to remain mute in the darkness of their digital cells, released for a short time, if at all, at the whim of those who believe they possess them, affording their would-be owners a moment’s distraction, a fleeting pleasure, a soundtrack to the movie of their lives, before being cast back into the gloom of the digital netherworld, abandoned, without hope. In their prison cells they are mere cyphers, their sonorous existence reduced to nothing more than data. We are the gaolers of this digital prison, we who created the infernal machines that capture ephemeral vibrations and enslave them. Our digital storage devices are Piranesi’s imaginary prisons; his nightmarish vision is the reality of sound today – sounds are oppressed by us, who imagine we are their masters. Yet we are more enslaved than they are, enslaved to our delusions of mastery over the sounds that we oppress. Only by renouncing our claim to possess sounds can we escape from our own enslavement.

Sounds were born free, and ‘to win freedom is their destiny’ (Busoni). But for them to realise their destiny, we must recognise that we cannot own sounds. At best, we are the guardians of sounds, and role is to protect them, not imprison them. The ‘music industry,’ the ‘entertainment industry,’ the ‘media’ and the ‘art market’ have turned sounds into commodities that can be traded. This commodification has warped our relationship with them. We imagine that sounds can be bought, sold and owned. The value attached to sounds is their use value; the more useful they are to us, the more highly valued they are. We can manipulate them, control them, make them serve us, to achieve whatever ends we seek. We use them to make people pay attention to us, to love or admire us, to express ourselves, to advance our careers, to achieve wealth and power, to dominate and oppress our fellow human beings. We do not consider what we can learn from sounds, only what we can do with them, how we can use them, how we can consume them, what they can do for us. The intrinsic nature of sounds themselves is forgotten.

But our relationship to sounds is of a different order; we are like strangers who meet on a journey, who experience nothing more than momentary eye contact, a flicker of acknowledgement of one another’s existence, before going our separate ways. That is why an encounter with a sound is so often accompanied by sadness, whatever pleasure it may also bring. Sounds move towards us, but they also move away, and remind us that whatever and whomever we encounter in life we must eventually say farewell to them, or they to us. The evanescence of sound is an essential part of its nature, and for humans that is its greatest value. Sound is perpetually in the state of vanishing, slipping away from our attempts to grasp hold of it, defying attempts to make it a ‘thing.’ The perception that sounds are things, and therefore able to be possessed, is reinforced by the use of the word ‘sound’; it would be preferable to adopt a term such as ‘sonorous being’ or ‘sonic becoming.’

Freedom and truth are inseparable. The true nature of things is only revealed when they are free to be themselves, and only when that occurs that can we experience their true nature ourselves. All forms of categorisation are barriers to truth and freedom. We may find categories such as music, sound art, sonic art, performance and conceptual art useful for our own purposes, but from the perspective of sounds these are further tools of oppression, barriers preventing them from revealing their true nature. Sounds are entirely indifferent to any categories that we put them in; we trample on their right to be themselves by forcing them into categories which inevitably constrain the way in which we listen to them. Is it not sufficient that we have now incarcerated sounds in our digital dungeons? Do we need to restrain them further in categorical straitjackets?

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/85/8501_Large_Ulam_VLF_Loop_(graphite),_Joyce_Hinterding,_image_courtesy_MCA.jpg" alt="Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite), Joyce Hinterding (see RT 129).”>

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite), Joyce Hinterding (see RT 129).

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite), Joyce Hinterding (see RT 129).

If sounds are to be free to ‘be themselves’ (John Cage), we have to surrender our illusion of mastery and learn to attend to them in a different way. The dominant current mode of listening is oppressive; it imposes use value, and egocentric gratification onto sounds. We must renounce our ownership of sounds and learn to listen – again, or perhaps for the first time. This means reaching a stage of listening in which we acknowledge that sounds have an existence that is independent of us and our desires. The act of listening begins with the acceptance that sounds have an intelligence of their own, and all that they ask of us is to become resonating bodies in which they can reveal themselves. We must accept the responsibility we have to liberate sounds by cultivating the act of listening; the responsibility of the arts is to assist us in that cultivation, which demands an approach to art that respects the right of sounds to freedom, and refuses to “push them around” (Morton Feldman). Instead of asking what we can ‘say’ with sounds, artists must ask what sounds want to say to us.

Everywhere we look—and listen—we find sounds that are oppressed by commodification, objectification and exploitation. It is a pitiable sight to see innocent and defenceless sonorous beings, which long ago in human history belonged to the realms of the magical and numinous, reduced to slavery, at the beck and call of capricious masters, ruthlessly exploited for egocentric and materialist ends.

Accordingly, we need a declaration of the rights of sounds. The underlying principles for this declaration are:

1. Sounds have the right to be free and to reveal themselves in the truth of their own nature

2. Sounds are not possessions, and cannot be owned, bought or sold

3. Sounds must not be controlled, manipulated, exploited or oppressed for the gratification of human desires

4. Sounds have no interest in art, and any art that oppresses sound for its own purposes is not worthy of the name

5. The liberation of sound requires the active cultivation by humans of non- oppressive modes of listening

Therefore I call upon all those who love sounds for their own sakes to join in the struggle for the liberation of sounds from their state of oppression, to fight for the rights of sounds to sound in freedom, peace and harmony, to end the exploitation of sounds for the basest of human motives, to learn to listen to sounds by becoming ourselves resonating bodies, and thus discover what sound has to teach us. Let us renounce for all time the delusory belief that we own sounds and can do with them whatever we like.

Once we have ended the enslavement of sounds, we will end our own. When sounds are free, we too may hope to be free.

Declaration of Sonic Rights, Stephen Whittington, on behalf of the Sonic Liberation Movement, first read at the Australian Experimental Arts Foundation’s Art on Tap, Adelaide, Oct 15, 2015

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

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

Louise Devenish, Electroacoustic Music for One Percussionist

Louise Devenish, Electroacoustic Music for One Percussionist

Louise Devenish, Electroacoustic Music for One Percussionist

Perth percussionist Louise Devenish teamed up with local sound engineer-extraordinaire Stuart James to deliver a program of new electroacoustic percussion works, including three premieres, in the cozily retro setting of Mt Lawley’s Astor Lounge. Over time Devenish has established herself as one of the key figures in Perth’s new music scene, and it was a great pleasure to see her execute her very own concert. The program was concise and varied, offering an exploration into both the ambient and percussive capabilities of a blended electronic-acoustic sound.

The concert opened with Warren Burt’s Chromophone. The way in which this piece came together is fascinating. The composer had mixed his original sound material by improvising in real time to create an electronic track, over which Devenish then improvised her own exploratory textural material. A definite connection between both elements could be felt; it is, as Devenish puts it, a “beautiful way of making music with someone” (program note).

Andrián Pertout’s Esposiciones for glockenspiel and tape delves into possible divisions of the octave and an array of polyrhythms. What is satisfying is that one need not necessarily understand anything about the work’s highly complexist structure to find it enjoyable. As the divisions of the octave grow smaller, we encounter harmonies that feel familiar—a few pentatonics, hints of the blues—as well as chords that feel wholly unfamiliar. The piece feels almost improvisatory, casually wandering through harmonic structures and subdivisions of pulse. The fact that Devenish could pull this off while actually navigating an incredibly virtuosic mix of layered polyrhythms is further testament to her skill as a percussionist.

Lindsay Vickery’s InterXection (a relatively ancient piece, 13 years old!) dealt with the idea of magnification, exploring the various sonic effects that can be produced when focusing in on and processing barely audible sounds from a drum kit. The outcome was powerful; a simple drum roll would elicit an earthy shriek from the electronics, and it was fascinating to hear the shifts in timbre between different instruments. James Hullick’s K(LING) utilised a video score with randomised blocks of score interspersed with instructions. Devenish performed gestural, pointillistic figures as snippets of news media faded in and out of the foreground.

Stuart James’ own work, Kinabuhi/Kamatayon, dealt with the beautifully shimmering sound world of an assortment of small gamelan gongs complemented by a hushed but ever-present electronic ambience. The piece was at times quite rhythmic, melting between time scales as the extensive ring of sound hung hauntingly in the air. This time Devenish coaxed an array of voices from a gamelan with a combination of scraping, tapping and beating, while James’ masterful electronic manipulation provided the perfect enhancement. For the most part it was subtle and subdued, but always felt very responsive to the gamelan, almost alive. Of the works on this program, this had the most heart.

Electroacoustic Music for One Percussionist, Louise Devenish, Stuart James, Astor Lounge, Perth, 16 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 40

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

Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015, Perth

Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015, Perth

Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015, Perth

RealTime 129 features ‘liveness’ and its burgeoning manifestations in experimental art practices. It’s an exciting time to be testing the limits of art and finding audiences that keenly embrace direct engagement as participants, co-makers and experimenters.

At the very same time, many artists, groups and organisations are facing death by government. Despite his art ministerial demise, George Brandis’ vanity funding project, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, lives on in the hands of Mitch Fifield (also Minister for Communications, a market-driven portfolio if ever there was one and with Brandis’ copyright domain added to his brief).

To date, Fifield is committed to the NPEA, but says he’ll change the guidelines (perhaps money for individual artists?), while repeating the Brandis mantra that no money has been taken away from the arts. This reveals the same level of insensitivity to the lives of artists—and their audiences—as his predecessor.

Fifield says he will listen to the outcomes of the Senate Inquiry into the effects of the Brandis heist, but will he act on them when he’s already clinging to NPEA as if it’s now a slightly damaged toy of his own that just needs new wheels? Besides, there are no Liberals involved in the inquiry, so he can brand the recommendations as a Labor-Greens-cross-bench plot.

Such is the impact of the Brandis heist that many artists have already lost continuity of practice and opportunities to show their work let alone negotiate tours. So dire is the situation that Artspeak called the Meeting of Cultural Ministers (MCM) in Mildura on 2 October “to implement a plan for transitional funding to alleviate the potentially destructive impact of recent cuts to the Australia Council’s budget.”

Minister Fifield, instead of tweaking the NPEA guidelines, take serious note of the 2,200 submissions from artists and arts organisations to the Senate Inquiry. Be responsive, be responsible and return the $105m to be used for NPEA and the $6m taken out of Literature to the Australia Council. Allow Australian artists to get on with their creativity and, inseparably, their lives.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 2

Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak

Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak

Once upon a time avant garde art-making was driven by a need to provoke, shock and outrage, to liberate minds from seriously oppressive socio-political norms. The subsequent neoliberalisation of nearly every aspect of our lives and postmodernism’s rarification of art have muted such challenges. On the other hand postmodernism instigated, or reflected, an opening out of the arts to hybridity, popular culture and all kinds of cross-disciplinarity. There are outrages still when governments blow intermittently censorious, but for all the horrors of our age, art seems gentler these days, inclusive and, with the growing preoccupation with liveness, more about liberating bodies and consciousness—through participation, various kinds of interactivity, game playing and sensory enhancement—than taking on politics directly, although of course there are exceptions.

In our Degrees of Liveness feature you’ll find articles that reflect not only this inclusiveness and direct engagement with audiences, but also a huge diversity of topics including environmental awareness, art as labour capital, risk as art, smart phone addiction, gender fluidity and more. Live art has opened performance up to almost any subject and context—all kinds of sites and spaces, public and private. The reported performances in this edition involve walking, running (in tandem with a marathon in Finland), street protest, pole dancing and Filipino macho dancing, hysteria as performance, live dance as portraiture, fire stunt work, the animation of gallery objects, a gathering of cars and people in a raceway and an intimate work in which you read aloud personal letters involving the artist’s sex life. On a trip to the US, Caroline Wake discovers more liveness in an exhibition of digitally restored faded paintings by Mark Rothko than in retrospectives of works by Yoko Ono and Joan Jonas. There are also previews of forthcoming experimental art events: Perth’s Proximity Festival of one-on-one performances, Performance Space’s Liveworks and Near and Far, produced by Adelaide’s brand new Performance & Art Development Agency (PADA).

Helen Cole, founder and director of Bristol’s In Between Time festival of live art, who will run a masterclass for Proximity, provides a vivid account of her live art experiences. These include Gardens Speak (pictured above) by Tania El Khoury, in which the audience ‘unearths’ voices, digging deep into emotions about the war dead in Syria.

Liveness: questions

I asked people working in the arts about the current surge in liveness—live art, one-on-one performance, participatory events, real time live/digital interactivity and resurgent performance art (nowadays also delegated and mediatised). Is liveness a response to an increasing demand for authentic art-making and audience experience as an antidote to an inherent sense of isolation in the digital era? Is it a desire for both artist and audience to engage more intimately? Is it yet another drive by artists to expand their fields of practice and escape categorisation? Is liveness being rapidly commodified as another neoliberal venture with the artist as contractor? The option for respondents was to answer any of these questions or to make a statement of their own about liveness.

Theron Schmidt: it’s in the -ness
Anyone who defends the value of performance will invariably point to its ‘liveness’ as its defining, and unique, characteristic. I do it too: it’s what I tell myself makes it worthwhile to trek out on long journeys in the evening when I might rather stay home, because I want to ‘be there.’ But it seems to me what matters about ‘liveness’ is not the ‘live’ but the ‘-ness.’ The ‘live’ is everywhere, undifferentiated, all around us; only in performance do we find the ‘-ness,’ the frame around our being-together that marks it as wilful, constructed, considered. This ‘-ness’ is next to the ‘live,’ and it is the condition of being next-to, near-to, in proximity to, that gives performance its energy. This is what makes it intimate: it is an excited state, vibrating just next to the everyday, if only for a moment.

Malcolm Whittaker: from futility to joy
The turn to liveness is the latest in a rich history of futile endeavours by artists to ‘go beyond representation.’ We know it can’t be done, yet we continue the chase all the same. However unattainable such a goal might be, the effort to achieve it with ‘liveness’ is still to be applauded. An interest in liveness offers innovation within dominant aesthetics. It privileges context as much as content (often more so), and with this we have the closing of critical and authoritative distance and the opening of a space of co-habitation with the possibility of emancipation. With the rise of liveness comes a shift in how artistic virtuosity and mastery is read and understood, and work becomes charged with contemporary vitality, vulnerability and joy.

Ben Brooker: a perpetual re-thinking of the live
At a recent symposium on liveness, I was struck by how much of the discussion was shot through with 20-year-old, pre-digital age theory—Auslander, Phelan, names that have hardened into a sort of shorthand for debating the ontology of the live. Peggy Phelan herself knows the limits of the discourse she did as much as anybody to create, these days choosing to distance herself from much of her key work from the 1990s. I think there’s a clue for us here. Even as the social atomisation of the neoliberal, tech-saturated era makes us yearn for unmediated experience, the distinctive qualities of such experience seem to elude us—contestable, contingent and at the mercy of late capitalism’s co-opting, corrupting zeal. Liveness is always in retreat, and the more we attempt to bed it down, the further it seems to slip out of our grasp. This, I think, is Phelan’s frustration—that what constitutes the live must be continuously rethought as the practices of individual artists and companies are transformed in remarkable ways by new technologies, ways that fundamentally challenge traditional conceptions of liveness as the physical co-presence of audient and performer. This is a frustration for me, which is compounded by the relentless commodification of the live—but mitigated by the exhilarating new possibilities for performance that keep arising, defying easy categorisation and plugging into our deep human need to feel something.

Fiona McGregor: exploitable intimacy, commodified liveness
The surge in liveness: I think it’s good, even when it’s bad, as long as artist, audience and critical voices are heard over the din of publicity and spin.

A demand for authenticity? In affluent societies such as ours, the thirst for performance in recent years has largely been driven by saturation with material things. Performance may offer a more raw and immediate experience in its use of the body and deployment of more senses than just sight and sound as characterise two-dimensional art. This thirst is also faddish, like any other impelled by what seems to be new. Because even experience can be a commodity, and even a passing moment preserved to be re-packaged as yet another thing. Depends how it’s done, like any art.

A desire for more intimate engagement? Yes, often. But I think we need to question if we are exploiting intimacy—perhaps another longed-for state in an urban, fast-paced context. Its novelty can startle us into a sort of obeisance to the form, because intimacy—especially one-on-one—is highly codified for good reasons. It’s often taboo in certain contexts, for example staring into a stranger’s eyes isn’t something done in everyday life. I for one wouldn’t like to be eyeballed all the time! Of course this act alone will confront—does that make for a good artwork? These are questions for myself and my own work as much as for anyone else. Is that confrontation a short-cut to a state, perhaps heightened or raw, that seems therefore precious and deep, but could actually be gratuitous?

Liveness as a business? I don’t think any performance artist can run a ‘profitable business’ unless diversifying into educational, photomedia and object based work. Kaldor, Biesnbach and Obrist have turned a fat dollar with live art but they exploited much in the process—workers, bodies, public funds that could have done better elsewhere. To that extent there is safe performance art, and challenging, and the latter will always be harder to make, and harder to find.

Barbara Campbell: aliveness is the issue
Conceptually, I’m more interested in aliveness than liveness as a generative project of meaning making. Aliveness is what extends every human animal in the greater political realm. As political beings, our coming into the world is immediately registered by the state. Also on the way out. Beyond death, our having been alive is presumed to leave a legacy. During our life we’re encouraged at every turn to make our being alive count, to ourselves and others, other humans and other animals. We must prove ourselves worthy of being alive. Sometimes, proof of life is necessary. Political prisoners, the disappeared, missing persons, illegal aliens, Ariel Sharon [when in a coma. Eds], Fidel Castro, in their indeterminate states of aliveness, hold us all in suspense.

Angharad Wynne-Jones: in the petri dish of liveness
The Festival of Live Art is now affectionately known in its second iteration as FOLA, because it’s shorter, more ambiguous, and therefore better able to encompass the phenomenal breadth of liveness in the practice of live art. In FOLA 2016, Footscray Community Arts Centre and TheatreWorks will be presenting a heap of new works from across the country and around the world, many of which could be claimed by different artforms, their lineages merged, converged and reformed. At Arts House we are excited to be premiering four new works that have no performers in them…except each other as audience members and the intervention of an app or device. It seems only natural that as we create life in petri dishes so our experience of liveness is now mediated and sometimes incorporated into the digital. We only have ourselves to fear, right?

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 3

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

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

The drought is about to break, impatience and irritability soon to be quelled as Performance Space’s looming storm of experimental creativity, Liveworks, brings promise of relief and excitement, flooding expectation with a mass of negative (wicked, outrageous and, of course, subversive) cultural ions, invigorating the spirit and inducing aliveness.

For Performance Space regulars it’s been a long wait. The organisation decided to compact much of its 2015 program into an October-November festival. Having devised the program with his staff, Performance Space Artistic Director Jeff Khan is now a man with a mission, eager to sell the season, deftly summing it up when we meet: “There are 10 major works that we’re presenting across all of the gallery and theatre spaces at Carriageworks. There’s also a free performance program in which there are three major commissions, one per week: by Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs in the first; Garth Knight in the second week; and a collaboration between Force Majeure and Ghenoa Gela in the third. Alongside those three major works there’s a whole series of free performance interventions in the public and external spaces of the building that will take place once or twice each, popping up and surprising audiences throughout the festival.”

I ask Khan if live art will be at the forefront of the festival. His response is firm: “I find myself less and less interested in the genre of ‘live art’ as a label. We’re thinking about the festival in the broader framework of experimental practice to provide a context for the kind of works we are presenting which have affinities with live art, visual arts, dance, theatre and other practices. Thinking of ourselves as an experimental arts festival frees us up.”

I wonder why Khan has retained the Liveworks title of former Performance Space festivals. He says, “it looks back to the first initiated by Fiona Winning in 2008 and continued by Daniel Brine in 2010. It very much shares the philosophy initiated by Fiona of creating a really immersive experience for audiences. But we’ve greatly expanded it both in terms of the number and scale of works and its duration, activating the entire Carriageworks building as a creative site. This is the Liveworks of the future. Rather than presenting isolated seasons of, say, a dance production that runs a week, we’re really encouraging audiences to dive in.”

Khan is particularly keen on foregrounding the conversation an intensive festival can generate: “There’s a strong public program that runs through the core of the festival. That’s always a priority for me, to be able to expand on the works, not just to see a show but for audiences to be offered the chance to drill deeper and for artists to present their ideas on different platforms. So Track 12 will be entirely dedicated to public programs throughout the festival. Tulleah Pearce has done a great job of shaping a meaty program with a whole bunch of perspectives: festival artists in conversation about their practice; workshops and masterclasses; and some new initiatives. I’m very excited about Live Works Meditations where you meet with an expert in the artist’s practice for an hour to be guided through discussions or activities or exercises related to what you’re about to see.” Afterwards, participants “gather for half an hour to discuss and, over a glass of wine if you like, reflect on what you’ve seen.”

Jonathan Jones, Guguma Guriin/Black Stump

We move on to discuss the works in the festival program. A new work by Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones, says Khan, is inspired by research in his country “around the expression ‘beyond the Black Stump,’ that notion of a marker between colonial and Indigenous territories. He’s been collecting stumps from Wiradjuri land around Narrandera in southern NSW, which are going to be sculpturally treated and installed in a constellation in the gallery alongside a series of pared back, minimal works that refer to the landscape and borders between colonial and Indigenous cultures and the knowledges that those landscapes contain, the different layers of knowledge from colonial times to Indigenous pre-colonial times.”

Wade Marynowksy, Robot Opera

Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters of performance company Branch Nebula are providing dramaturgical input to Wade Marynowsky’s Robot Opera with a score by Julian Knowles. Past audiences have been entranced by the artists’ frocked robots swirling about and making gnomic utterances but now they’re part of a live performance, each with “a distinct voice,” says Khan, “with the capacity to merge and shift in timbre and form but also to harmonise with each other. The soundscape has little in common with traditional opera; the operatic element is in the epic scale. There are tightly choreographed sections and then moments that dissolve into an interactive experience where the robots follow, respond and speak to the audience.”

Triumphs & Other Alternatives, Muscle Mouth

Triumphs & Other Alternatives, Muscle Mouth

Triumphs & Other Alternatives, Muscle Mouth

Going international: Muscle Mouth, Eisa Jocson

While discussing overseas guests in the festival, Khan says, “One of our ambitions for Liveworks over the coming years is to grow it from a national experimental arts festival into an international festival with an Asia-Pacific focus, bringing the kind of experimental practice that’s so strong here in Australia into conversation with the experimental practice happening throughout the Asia-Pacific regions. This year we’re bringing New Zealand dance company Muscle Mouth with the Australian premiere of Triumphs and Other Alternatives, which premiered in New Zealand earlier this year. We also have Eisa Jocson from the Philippines who has toured Europe and Asia.” Of Muscle Mouth’s dance theatre, Khan promises “virtuosic and really high octane, physical work. There’s a sense of flesh being sculpted out of the physical form but also out of Ross McCormack’s choreography. These works will kickstart a dialogue and showcase works from Asia-Pacific artists who are very mobile globally but, ironically, little or not previously seen in Australia.”

Victoria Hunt, Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water

Sydney-based Victoria Hunt will present Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water, her second full-length work following the Performance Space premiere of the solo Copper Promises in 2012. The new work features 10 dancers, “a big leap for Victoria,” says Khan, “including most notably a collaboration with Kristina Chan who is undoubtedly one of the finest and most skilled contemporary dancers in Australia. As an inter-disciplinary work it’s extraordinary. Fausto Brusamolino who works with NZ’s Mau is the lighting designer, collaborating with video artist Boris Bagattini to create mist curtains—with droplets falling at varying levels of density—and the illusion of a sparkling field of stars. Add to this the rigour of Victoria’s cultural research into her Maori heritage and ideas around female authority and the thresholds between life and death.”

Nicola Gunn, Piece for Person & Ghetto Blaster

“Nicola Gunn’s new work, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster,” says Khan, “is part of the trilogy of solo works that she’s made about trying to be a better person and the tension between individual subject and big global issues—in this case world peace. This work is part of a Mobile States tour, premiering with us and then touring nationally.”

Vicki Van Hout, Thomas Kelly, 30 Ways with Time and Space, Performance Space, 2013

Vicki Van Hout, Thomas Kelly, 30 Ways with Time and Space, Performance Space, 2013

Vicki Van Hout, Thomas Kelly, 30 Ways with Time and Space, Performance Space, 2013

Vicki Van Hout, Les Festivités Lubrifier

Khan is excited about Vicki Van Hout’s Les Festivités Lubrifier (The Lubricated Festivities), “developed from a rough sketch she created hot on the heels of her Cité residency in Paris and performed in collaboration with a talented young Indigenous dancer she is mentoring, Thomas Kelly. It really mirrors their hilarious, antagonistic, collaborative and mutually supportive relationship, all of which comes out in this duet. And it showcases a different side of Vicki from that seen in Briwyant and Long Grass. It’s so funny, and so light but has all of the cultural politics that Vicki navigates.”

Cmielewski and Starrs, Dancing with Drones

Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Dancing with Drones is a duet between a dancer (Alison Plevey) and a drone developed in a residency at UNSW hosted by Performance Space. There’ll be, says Khan, “large-scale projection of footage shot from the drone’s perspective in the artists’ continuing investigation of the new technologies we have for apprehending the landscape.”

Blood Consciousness, Garth Knight

Blood Consciousness, Garth Knight

Blood Consciousness, Garth Knight

Garth Knight, Nemeton

A photographer who specialises in Japanese rope bondage techniques, Garth Knight is building a large-scale cumulative rope installation in the foyer, “growing like an organism over the course of the of the festival,” explains Khan, “so that it gradually consumes more of the Carriageworks architecture—with objects and bodies suspended in it. The process is very sculptural and performative so we thought it would be interesting to translate it into a live performance context.”

Ghenoa Gela, Mura Buai (Everyone, Everyone)

“We’ve invited Torres Strait Islander dancer and choreographer Ghenoa Gela, in collaboration with Force Majeure, to present an expanded version of Game of Seven, a durational improvised performance based on Viewpoints techniques focused on the body in space. We’ve asked her to re-imagine that structure incorporating her TSI movement vocabulary. The result will be Mura Buai (Everyone, Everyone), three hours per night in the final week of the festival with a great ensemble of nine dancers, Indigenous and non-indigenous. Other free performances will feature Zin Collective, Lauren Brincat and Bree van Reyk, Colin Kinchela and Latai Taumoepeau.”

Hissy Fit, I might blow up someday

The storm at the centre of the Liveworks program will manifest as Hissy Fit. Khan is proud that “they formed through a Stephen Cummins Bequest residency at Performance Space and the material that they generated was so strong that we curated them into the first Day for Night in 2014. They’re all super strong, brave performers and as you might imagine from the subject matter, female hysteria, the work will be very intense, very physical—the three of them as mediums for hysterical performance. It’s gonna be wild!” [See our interview with Hissy Fit]

Liveworks is ready to energise us with radicalised hysteria, the unleashed psychic energies of inherited cultures, the uncanny presences of drones and robots, the transformative sculpting of black stumps, rope and bodies and the dance into otherness of the mosh pit, the macho man, pole dancer and the dancethon Mura Buai. Embrace the storm!

Performance Space, Liveworks, Festival Of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22 Oct-7 Nov

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 4

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

Hissy Fit, Episode, Day for Night, Performance Space (2014)

Hissy Fit, Episode, Day for Night, Performance Space (2014)

Hissy Fit, Episode, Day for Night, Performance Space (2014)

“It’s an exciting trend that contemporary art in Sydney is now performance art,” says Nat Randall of self-proclaimed queer, sexy art group Hissy Fit. “Five years ago that shift was not evident in gallery spaces. It’s an amazing platform for us as people making small, weird, queer performance art.”

That approach has seen the Sydney collective, also comprising COFA graduates Emily O’Connor and Jade Muratore, draw heavily on the aesthetics of queer club performance and punk rock heroines to make works that are closer to glittery rock concerts than gallery-bound art. Following appearances at Sydney Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Vivid Sydney, Tiny Stadiums, Mardi Gras and You Are Here festivals, their newest work for Performance Space’s Liveworks Experimental Art Festival takes the symbolic motif of headbanging and aligns it with subversive queer, feminist politics. Working with lighting designer Toby Knyvett, dramaturg Emma Price of The Kingpins and choreographer Lizzie Thompson, they call their upcoming work a “gig” combining video and sound—albeit in a performance art context. Leather-clad and shoulder-padded, the trio aims to induce mass hysteria where beery audiences can move beyond the ways gender norms have affected them.

Given the group’s central concern—the ways in which women are allowed, or rather not allowed, to take up space in public—issues of space and movement are in the vanguard of their artistic decision-making. Hissy Fit is less about putting forth a new singular vision of the female body and the feminine and more about creating spaces for women to move outside the straight-line of the norm—to open up small spaces of freedom in a gender-delineated society.

“We were all thinking back to spaces,” says Nat of their time in residence at Carriageworks developing the Liveworks performance, “where we feel we can be freer in our bodies and angry and violent. We’ve spoken a lot about spaces where women can do that and spaces where men can. My personal history is very sports-oriented. On a sports field I could be quite violent. Boys have the capacity to be that from a young age. We tried to identify different legitimate arenas where women also had the capacity to be quite violent and where it was okay.” Their logic is that if those arenas can be carried into the art world, new spaces can be created in which a trigger is pulled and gender norms can change for a moment in time.

For that reason, a previous iteration of their new work I Might Blow Up Someday saw the creation of a death-pit, which Nat describes as “the front of a mosh-pit, a human cyclone with people just rolling in. It could only happen if the audience participated. People got fucking wild. Emily got a black eye because [the artist] Nell hit her in the eye. It was exactly what we wanted. We create this soundscape, we create the lights, we create a seething environment. And then we just want to bust it, and make people reactive, whether in anger or movement or celebration. We just want them to go through a particular journey with us.”

For Hissy Fit, playfulness needn’t contradict politics. Despite the zeitgeist nature of pop-culture discussions about gender and sexuality, the group’s interventions are worlds away from the reductionist slogans of ‘girl power’ that often characterise what might be better called consumer feminism today. “Feminism is in vogue,” says Nat. “We’re very aware of that. It’s been co-opted into marketing frameworks. But we have serious feminist politics that transcend clickbait feminism. We all have a queer understanding of our bodies and we are drawing from 90s heroines in a punk-rock aesthetic when these women were really angry.”

Emily continues: “Our kinds of performance groups are few and far between in the art world. Kingpins and Brown Council were really the only two Australian performance collectives that looked at gender. Kingpins were looking at gender binaries, dressing up as drag kings, and now Hissy Fit is looking at the fluidity of gender and breaking down binaries. Nat and I were having a conversation about why women aren’t angry anymore: why does the next generation have a really chill, relaxed feminist vibe? We are paying tribute to feminisms that have passed, women who we respect, with our own queer politics.”

In their words and in their art actions, Hissy Fit’s references are to heroines from eras when it was tougher to declare oneself a feminist—or just be a woman in public. Chrissy Amphlett, Wendy O. Williams and Peaches and the bands Vixen and Girl School all perform what Jade calls “all sorts of hysterical gestures in punk-rock visual language. It’s about looking to popular culture as a site of interrogation.” Framing the art collective as a band seems a natural way to relate to this site.

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Some Day development

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Some Day development

Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Some Day development

So does the idea of creating live spaces for participatory audiences to connect directly to queer and feminist politics. A dynamic relationship with the audience, says Jade, is crucial to “the idea of contagion and mass hysteria. Music has a really innate ability to create that: people start moving along to a beat and they get swept away.”

“The audience is as important as our actions in creating the work and creating a gig feel,” says Nat. “We want to be able to drip off the stage and come into the crowd—that’s the sort of off-stage shift we want to occur. We’re sort of trapped, at the moment, onstage. To truly lose control has to come from the audience. That’s what we’re grappling with: creating a work that is about being out of control but being in such a theatrical space. How can we not shock but surprise audiences?”

Beyond the Liveworks performance “our broader enquiry is into deviant, volatile bodies,” says Nat. “The headbanging is just one element of looking at hysteria. That smashing together of popular culture and queer feminist theory—that’s the accessible frame that we want to work in. I can talk to my mum about this work, and I can also talk to a lecturer about it, and have a different engagement. I don’t know if my mum likes our work, but I can talk about it with her, and her experiences.”

“That will always be our inquiry,” says Jade, “the deviant, queer, othered body, how does it operate in the world and what does it do?”

The question is how to engage with the concerns of a wide audience from the edge of the mainstream, staying part of the wider cultural conversation while maintaining political effectiveness. That could be the essential question for Hissy Fit, and for contemporary artists wishing to make change today.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Hissy Fit, I Might Blow Up Someday, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-25 Oct

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 5

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

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

In an unlikely underground bar on the outskirts of Geneva, as part of the 2014 Antigel Festival, contemporary Filipina dancer and artist Eisa Jocson delivered Macho Dancer, a solo performance based on her study of male macho dancers, a distinct breed of performers who haunt Manila’s gay bar scene. Trained as a visual artist and with a background in ballet, Jocson investigates representations of the body. I sat down with the artist to discuss her views on exposing gender biases, the politics of seduction and what constitutes Filipino identity.

In your solo Death of the Pole Dancer, first performed at Odin Teatret’s 2011 Transit Festival in Berlin, you portray a sensual female dancer, moving vertically up, down and around the pole, with almost mechanical precision. In Macho Dancer, however, you completely transform your body movements into those of a man. How did you learn to dance like this?

For Macho Dancer, I often visited a bar called Adonis close to my house. This club became my macho school where I asked macho dancers to become my mentors. In the beginning, when I invited them to teach me in my house, they would bring a back-up person with them. They did not really trust my request and indeed, it is strange for a young woman to ask for macho dancing lessons. I would also study YouTube videos and recordings of my macho lessons at home. I copied the movements and practised every day, recording myself on video and reviewing what needed to be improved.

Your rendition is incredibly accurate; the audience sees a young man dancing on stage with cowboy boots and shorts. How did you achieve that degree of control in your facial expressions and body movements?

I went to the gym! That made a huge difference in how I approached macho dancing. I became aware of my muscles and how to engage them in movement. I learned a whole new body language—posture, stance, walk, gestures, gaze, ways of gyration and undulation—all through the physical quality of my body and my muscles.

How did this develop into the Macho Dancer theme?

It was only when a foreigner friend pointed out that he had never seen this kind of macho dancing before in clubs outside of the Philippines that I started to take an interest in macho dancing. I became more and more fascinated by the physical quality and vocabulary of this type of performance and started researching how it all began.

Macho dancing is performed by young men for both male and female clients. It is an economically motivated language of seduction that employs notions of masculinity as body capital. The language is a display of the glorified and objectified male body as well as a performance of vulnerability and sensitivity. The music used in macho dancing is mostly power ballads, sung by artists such as Mariah Carey or Celine Dion, as well as rock like Metallica and Scorpions.

These love songs from the 80s and 90s are heard everywhere in Manila, when riding jeepneys or on the radio. What is this fascination with nostalgic music?

Yes, this music is pervasive in Metro Manila. I find that the movements of these dancers are really dictated by this type of music—they physicalise a kind of limbo state that is neither here nor there. Their bodies move through thick nostalgia, seemingly in slow motion and stretched over time.

At one point in your performance, the music and smoke machines turn off and we just see and hear your body physically pounding the stage as you throw yourself onto your knees and gyrate. It’s very different from pole dancing, isn’t it?

It’s quite the opposite. Pole dancing is vertically oriented and works with the illusion of lightness and grace, while macho dancing is horizontally oriented and works on the illusion of weight and volume. It’s more compact.

You have also created sketches of your Macho Dancer work, which were presented at your recent show at the Jorge B Vargas Museum in Metro Manila. Can you tell us more about these?

The sketches were made for the “Philippine Macho Academy” exhibition and are a first draft. They are straightforward and didactic, and help illustrate and break down the physical principles of macho dancing. The process of deconstructing the movement vocabulary by text and illustration helped me to clarify and define the physical principles in macho dancing that I experienced.

The Philippine Macho Academy is a fictive structure or institution that serves as a classroom where the principles of macho dancing are fleshed out and conveyed. The exhibition is a documentation of my research and an articulation of the vocabulary of macho dance movement. It comprises artifacts, texts, drawings, video, installation and performance. I offered introductory workshops every Friday of the exhibition at the museum. Approximately six to eight people showed up each time.

You have worked with other dancers in the past; any upcoming collaborations? What themes will you be working on next?

Currently, I’m researching the japayuki phenomenon in Japan, where exported Filipino entertainers perform in what are known as “salarymen clubs.” I’m thinking about naming this piece The Hostess and it would become part of a trilogy, after Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer. [The completed work is now titled Host; the trilogy is part of the Performance Space Liveworks program. Eds] All of my work converges around this theme of the Filipino body and its labour capital in both the local and global entertainment industry.

Alongside performances of her trilogy Death of the Pole Dancer + Macho Dancer + Host for Liveworks, Eisa Jocson will conduct a choreographic workshop and be interviewed as part of the In Conversation series.

Performance Space, Liveworks, Eisa Jocson, Death of the Pole Dancer + Macho Dancer, 4, 5 Nov, 9pm; Host 6, 7 Nov, 9pm; Carriageworks, Sydney

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 6

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

Helen Cole

Helen Cole

Helen Cole

Life is full of the most fundamental of encounters—the one-on-one experiences that shape us in the interplay between our estimation of self and our reckoning of how we are perceived by one another (and then the others). It’s a life-long loop of re-calibration unless our egos lock down in self-defence. When we gaze through the fourth wall of performance we principally see ourselves as observers, but art can address, seduce, implicate or chastise us even as we sit among hundreds of others. The affects can be deeply personal, even visceral, when a work tellingly ‘hits a nerve,’ ‘packs a punch’ or ‘goes for the jugular’ or you find yourself ‘moved to tears’ or ‘laugh yourself sick.’ One-on-one performance can trigger the same but its intimacy, its openness to any discipline or craft or subject and its freedom from established formulae means that it can surprise and enlighten in the most unexpected ways, as Helen Cole—a leading UK live art producer and Artistic Director/CEO of the renowned In Between Time festival of live art and contemporary performance in Bristol—told RealTime.

Cole is the special guest of the 2015 Proximity Festival in Perth, conducting a three-day masterclass titled For You Or With You, Not To You Or At You and a one-day workshop, Dear City, Together We Will Imagine. We asked her about the experiences and ideas she’d be drawing on and bringing to Proximity for the masterclass. We also asked if live art had changed over the time she’s engaged with it.


Helen Cole: masterclass

Some time ago in a one-to-one performance I was asked to write a letter to my future self. I was told this letter would be sent back to me in 5 years time. I pitched myself forward and imagined where I would be. I imagined what I could give and what I should expect in return. I couldn’t do it, didn’t want to pin myself down. As Joe Strummer of The Clash said, “The future is unwritten.” I sent myself a blank page.

The masterclass is a blank page that will evolve in the face of the people who sign up. It is a collaboration between myself, PVI Collective and Proximity Festival. Responding to the context of Proximity Festival, we will use the rules and terrain of the one-to-one.

Over the years, many of my seminal performance experiences have involved just two people: myself and the artist. The performances happen numerous times, repeated with different people, but each performance is unique. I’ve been offered freshly baked bread laced with the artist’s blood, gently cut a small incision in the skin on the back of another with a sharp surgical blade, I have had my feet washed, my nails decorated with iconic women’s faces, my hand placed on another’s heart. I have been sung to so closely that I have seen right down the artist’s throat. I have been shackled and hooded. I have danced with a bear. I have been lost in darkness and had stories whispered to me. I have been adorned with incredible jewellery, danced with a stranger, been fed strawberries and pearls and sent up a tree alone in a forest to see the world through its canopy. I have been lulled asleep in a bed at the foot of an immense statue of Queen Victoria. I have been immersed in a rain curtain, enveloped by sound in an anechoic chamber, watched a man run out of breath. I have been made to feel lonely, fearful, tested, overwhelmed, maternal, claustrophobic, delighted, safe, uncertain, tearful and in love.

Like any one-on-one performance, the masterclass is open and alert to the possibilities that its participants offer. It will explore intimacy, participatory exchanges, networked performance, digital platforms, public space, game-play. We will develop manifestos getting to the essence of why we do what we do. We will exercise agency and require courage and trust. We will explore ideas together and test assumptions without compromise. By the time we emerge we will have affected each other.


Live art’s power to change

I passionately believe in live art’s power to change. I have seen it happen so many times. In a woman bricked up behind a wall, a long string of autopsy threads, a blanket made from human hair, a gun repeatedly pointed at the audience, a fake moon, a line of women pissing down a wall, a library of bones, a fog bridge, a glass kiss.

Live art’s history and continuing evolution embraces the edges, and these edges keep on shifting. It is live art’s job to seek out and interrogate the margins of form, contexts and body; to go beyond category and containment; to be fearless in the face of unknowns. In doing so, live art is mobile and responsive in the face of new realities.

In 2015, our world is uncertain, in transit, in crisis, in pain. At In Between Time, we cannot ignore this truth and neither can the artists with whom we work. The world is screaming and we are screaming too.

As an international producer I am privileged: I travel, I meet artists and I see work. I am constantly thrown into the new. This is my job. But what do I do with this privilege? How do I use my power to rewrite, contest, decolonise? How do I blow apart my own privilege and open up spaces for others to come through?

Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak

Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak

At Fierce Festival in Birmingham in 2014, I am dressed in white overalls and I am lying in the dark on cold earth. I have been searching for the name of a man I don’t know, a man I will never know, written in Arabic on a grave stone. I have found him and I dig with my hands. I dig until I uncover a speaker and I lie with my ear to the ground. I am told the story of this man and how he died. An ordinary life violently ended during the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. In Syria, his home, he has no marked grave, as funerals are targets for further bombing, killing mourners, described as activists, because of the loved ones they have lost. So people are forced to bury their friends and family members secretly in their own gardens. No public naming, no marking, no place to mourn. Through this incredible work, Gardens Speak by the Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury, thousands of miles away from his home, this man has a voice. He has a grave. I am lying at it. His story is known to me. He was a grocer who was killed by shrapnel on the way to his shop one morning. He left a wife and small children still in hope for a better future. Through the work of El Khoury and his family this future gets just a small step closer. He is heard.

El Khoury’s work reminds me that Live Art can never ignore the context in which it finds itself. Live Art creates the conditions for shared knowledge and understanding, the combustion for new ideas. Art reminds us of this all the time. Live art at its best rubs our noses in it. Screaming right in our faces, it beautifully, seductively pierces our armour to remind us that, for this moment, we have agency, we can do something. We are truly, urgently present.

In 2015, Live art remains the space in which artists can be most angry, most beautiful in their deviance. It is the space in which we learn and tell the truth.


2015 Proximity Festival program

Featured artists in this year’s program are Chloe Flockart (WA), Monopolly (body part investment strategy consultation); Malcolm Whittaker (NSW), Once of Twice Daily (“a sensory gallery experience leaving you with a fresh aftertaste”); Mish Grigor (NSW), Sex Talk (from a family’s frank discussions); Jackson Eaton (VIC), Current Mood (self as selfie in the gallery); Tom Blake (WA), Micronational (build a State of You); Phillip Adams (VIC), After (A surreal encounter with the other with invited nudity); Mei Saraswati (WA), Meditations on Water (connect sonically with Perth’s wetlands); Caroline Garcia (NSW); Beings-unlike-us (“guided rituals from tribal Filipino spirituality”); Leon Ewing (WA), Raised by Brutalism (sonically “embrace the cold hard edges of architectural heritage”); Emily Parsons-Lord (NSW), You will always be wanted by me (“explore our connection to celestial astronomy”); Brett Smith (WA), When you’re here, I’m nowhere (“solo sound and light journey into the unknown”); and Jo Bannon (UK), Dead Line (“Take a moment to contemplate your mortality”).


Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015

Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015

Promotional image, Proximity Festival 2015

About Proximity Festival

Perth’s artist-led Proximity Festival was co-founded in 2011 by James Berlyn, Sarah Rowbottam and Kelli McCluskey to “provide critical peer support, encouraging artists from all disciplines to experiment with new modes of practice in the creation of participatory art” (website). One of Proximity’s goals is for each festival to occupy a venue and exploit its spaces—the Blue Room Theatre in 2012, Fremantle Arts Centre in 2014 and, for 2015, the Art Gallery of Western Australia. RealTime asked Robert Cook, curator of International Contemporary Art, to tell us why the gallery decided to partner the Proximity Festival and how ‘liveness’ fits the gallery ethos.


Robert Cook: Proximity, performance & AGWA

At the end of last year the Gallery released a document called the Essence of AGWA. It basically captured, in a very pared-down form, the aspirations of the institution, its board and its staff. A key aspect that came out of the discussions that lay behind it was a strong desire from all to connect, more fully and more authentically with the arts community around us. We understand that this is best done step by step, so that connections are engrained. In light of this, one strategy we enacted was the establishment of a WA Focus space that rotates four times a year. This responds directly to local practice and will continue to expand to include alternative visions and approaches to thinking about art and what it constitutes.

In terms of local projects that have been pushing boundaries (in this latter sense), a key initiative in our community is Proximity Festival. I was a member of the curatorium for the 2014 Festival held at Fremantle Arts Centre. This experience added to my respect for what they had achieved in the first two festivals. In particular, I was super impressed with how they approached their curation in relation to not just program development, but their care for artist development and individual performance outcomes. There was an amazing spirit behind the whole production and, anecdotally, I knew that artists involved were really happy with the project, but not just happy, happy in a critical sense, in that it pushed their practices in positive new ways. It expanded what was possible for them. That’s a perfect, sustainable approach. At the same time, our Director, Stefano Carboni had been looking with some considerable urgency actually, at getting performance into our program. Proximity was a neat fit.

In relation to the concept of ‘liveness,’ it is a simple fact that all galleries want liveliness in their buildings. We all yearn for buoyancy of engagement of real time activity, for art to be part of people’s living, in dialogue with their reflection (of course the split is not as straight as this implies). But beyond that, and this was Stefano’s main driver, it is an acknowledgement of the fact that the performative is a hugely significant part of contemporary visual culture and that we need to expand our approaches to properly present this work, and importantly to find ways for it to synthesise with the gallery’s other material.

This is a long term project and of course in saying this, the inclusion of Proximity is just a step. It’s been very useful though. Immersing ourselves in it, is helping us institutionally to open up to its challenges; it’s a terrific learning and growth opportunity. We’ve also initiated a permanent space for presenting moving image works. I should also say that, naturally, the gallery has some history with performance, for instance Edge of Desire: recent art from India (curated by Chaitanya Sambrani; 2004-5), featured performance works by Shilpa Gupta and NS Harsha.

Anyway, I think the key for us is that we want to find ways to open up to the reality of practice, that we see this as a long-term project, and that it is about growth for us; meaningful institutional change occurs gradually. This might frustrate some, but I think they’ll be surprised at where we get to over the next five years.

Proximity Festival 2015, curators Sarah Rowbottam, Kelli McCluskey, co-presented by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth Cultural Centre, 28 Oct-8 Nov

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 8-9

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

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo, Raghav Handa, On View

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo, Raghav Handa, On View

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo, Raghav Handa, On View

The commonest expression shared among the subjects of portraiture—in painting, photography and film—is in fact an absence of expression, a neutrality which allows artists and viewers to search for meaning in the gaze, the wrinkled brow, a downturned lip, a scar, the tilt of the head. How often do we prejudge before even hearing a word uttered by a new acquaintance or fall in love across a crowded room? The Archibald Prize, sports cards, the family photo album and the selfie all confirm our passion for reading faces. In much of classical ballet and modern dance the expressive body does the talking, while the face is silent.

In On View, a modular work that can be exhibited as installation, screen works or live multi-media performance, filmmaker and choreographer Sue Healey provokes fascinating questions about the nature of portraiture as well as its relationship with dance. The large-scale performative version feels in some respects open-ended, a series of overlapping portraits, in others as though making a statement, which might be read in the work’s overall structure.

Shona Erskine, On View

Shona Erskine, On View

Shona Erskine, On View

A pre-show set of intriguing installations introduces us to the dancers in enigmatic poses and actions not clearly related to what follows, if certainly a prelude to the mutability we’re about to witness. Once inside the performing space we observe a series of ‘portraits’ in which each dancer appears live and on film shown on five suspended screens. Sometimes the association is literal, sometimes lateral, as is the order of appearance—perhaps first the image, then the performer, the latter emerging from the shadows as if coming into focus, performing idiosyncratically and eventually fading out. A dancer as image might dart, prance or stumble from screen to screen while asynchronously realising the same movement on the floor. A live feed from a camera wielded by one dancer multiplies a second into various selves including one screened on his own body—self on self.

Between the realising of these individual portraits the dancers form small groups or gather as a whole. Initially their movements are disparate, panicky and uncohesive as if not knowing ‘where to put themselves.’ As more portraits form and fade, the performers connect more confidently in tight geometrical patterns. Later they embrace in various configurations, as in the live camera portrait-making, and finally there’s a sense of ritual (a striking golden cape shared between dancers), transcendence and commonality underlined by a booming score replete with high choral voices. Perhaps On View adds up to nothing more than a reverential celebration of our being at once discrete individuals and members of an ideally harmonious species, and perhaps that’s more than enough.

What saves On View from overstatement is the specificity of its portraits, even where there is redundancy (the juxtaposition of similar movements live and onscreen is not always meaningful) and over-elaboration (our having to constantly choose which aspect of the portrait to take in).

Nalina Wait breaks the neutral expression rule with eye-to-eye seductiveness as she parades in long wig and high heels past the audience (like a performer from Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof daring a smile). Later she indulges in before-the-camera face-pulling. Unwigged and high-heels removed, she dances sinuously like the fish swimming in the film behind her. But a massive soundtrack crunching presages the disintegration of her self-possession into staccato stumbling across stage and screens, utter vulnerability revealed. So it is that each dancer appears in different personae, settings and sounds. On film Raghav Handa comfortably handles and rides a horse; on stage his Indian-influenced dance requires the same kind of low centre-of-gravity virtuosity. Martin Del Amo’s trademark ambulatory dance is likewise earthed, gaining new intensity with slow, tight turnings.

Benjamin Hancock, On View, photo Heidrun Löhr

Benjamin Hancock, On View, photo Heidrun Löhr

Benjamin Hancock opts for relative stillness, his body unfolding slowly with exquisite, angular yogic poise, seen in parallel with a praying mantis on film balanced on the performer’s skin. This dancer’s capacity for transformation here and elsewhere in On View is remarkable. Nature appears again with Del Amo seated on a stone plinth in a cemetery, an owl perched next to him and another bird swooping down aggressively; it was one of those ‘did I see that?’ moments which added to the work’s escalating sense of strangeness. Shona Erskine dances with her usual supple refinement becoming amusingly erotic when she sensually embraces a fox fur in a series of poses.

As with any portraiture the connection between subject and image is tenuously suggestive. Yes, for example, Handa does ride horses; no, Erskine is not a fox fur fetishist (the prop prompted interest when found in the development phase of the work; so we were told in a Q&A). Healey seemed to have been interested in finding places and things with which each dancer might feel some affinity, whether deep or circumstantial, and which might be revealing. Of all the portraits, the one of Nalina Wait seemed the most literally and effectively suggestive; but was it ‘one’ portrait or two, or merely two games? When a camera multiplies images of Del Amo and projects them onto him, are we seeing contemporary narcissism laid bare or a reflective personality?

Benjamin Hancock, On View

Benjamin Hancock, On View

Benjamin Hancock, On View

Healey’s fine 2013 feature documentary Virtuosi, with its accounts of eight leading New Zealand dance artists in words and movement, revealed the filmmaker’s precise grasp of the portraiture idiom. On View is a very different take on it—a busy, impressionistic live work mixed with expressive cinematography (Judd Overton) and rich in detail with which we aggregate imagined personalities for its impressive performers. It challenges its audience to muse on the meanings, values, strengths and limits of portraiture while enjoying idiosyncratic performances that collectively perhaps add up to something quite singular.

Branch Nebula, Artwork

On a very large screen in Carriageworks’ vast principal performance space, we see a row of unidentified, seated people receiving instructions from a man with a clipboard, including a reminder to fill out Taxation Office forms to ensure their payment for the work they are about to do. In what follows, these people are casual workers. In the spirit of the production, my work is to list what they did: one labours with bucket and mop, one with a tea trolley and one bashes a cushion with a cricket bat. The tedium of these tasks is underlined by extended duration, the amplified rattle of tea cups and the mopper’s brief escape into dance. An older man simply stands before us as one of the camera crew circles him close-up such that we read the face in intense detail projected onscreen. In the far distance a girl bounces a ball off a wall. Someone wheels a clothes trolley. A chair is thrown. A camera is aimed at the audience which is puzzled, bemused, giggling, indifferent. The ‘workers’ walk towards the audience blank-faced. The tea trolley man slowly devours a whole packet of potato crisps. The workers cover their heads with blankets. A flood of table tennis balls is released. We hear a call centre conversation and from time to time catch repeated speech fragments: “going to the beach … the very last day of his life…we all deserve respect …we’re all human…a portion of soul.” There’s dancing and at the end some smiling. Members of the audience join the workers, sharing in the labour of collecting the table tennis balls.

Extreme lighting states, a heavily dramatic sound score, simultaneous performances, live video feed and the venue’s extreme depth of field lend the actions a strangeness that heightens the banality of the unskilled labour portrayed by these non-actors, who, aptly, are minimally instructed, but not rehearsed, when they arrive shortly before the show. At the same time, as a work made with unskilled performers, Artwork is one of many to be found in live art and the likes of post’s Oedipus Schmoedipus. But Artwork is the sparest and most basic of these, a kind of instant theatre—here are all the effects, just add people. As far as we know, Artwork is not about these people: there’s little information about the ‘auditioning’ process. Are some the exploited workers they represent? All they can do is perform like the exploited, for the most part with a minimum of visible confidence. The company cannot claim that the performers are empowered, but if they are, we’ll never know. Next to Branch Nebula’s conceptually stronger, provocative creations of many years, Artwork is a slender conceit that awaits embodiment.

Performance Space: On View, Live Portraits, film Sue Healey, choreographer Sue Healey in collaboration with performers Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa, Nalina Wait, director of photography Judd Overton, music Darrin Verhagen, Justin Ashworth, lighting Karen Norris; Carriageworks, 17-25 July; Carriageworks: Branch Nebula, Artwork, collaborating artists Sean Bacon, Phil Downing, Teik Kim Pok, Matt Prest, Lee Wilson, Mirabelle Wouters, dramaturg John Baylis; Carriageworks, Sydney. 5-8 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 10

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

Fields of Glory

Fields of Glory

Fields of Glory

ANTI is a small but mighty contemporary art festival in the Finnish city of Kuopio, set in a region dominated by lakes, pines and the people’s enthusiasm for outdoor activities. Though ANTI has gained international renown as an annual event of live and public art, its organisers have signalled a shift in their model to be more responsive: the festival will “not depend on a particular date, but will appear unexpectedly in places where it is demanded.” For September 2015, ANTI created a partnership with the Kuopio Marathon, producing a festival themed around endurance and running. Live art strategies of community engagement and site specificity stretched their legs, while developments were explored in the crossovers between running and art.

The “ordinary people” of Kuopio were called upon for Fields of Glory, working with local choreographer Jarkko Partanen to make a nearly two-hour epic in the city’s main stadium. Twenty or so pastel-outfitted men and women occupied the field with a sense of strangeness that was compounded by a rather Lynchian sound design and our ‘on high’ perspective from the stands. The performers often seemed just like shapes with Partanen working to create formations to activate the vast space. Unlike sport, which has recognisable rules, the actions of these people followed an ever-shifting logic. They teamed up to carry someone over the high-jump bar and all cheered, ran to the long-jump pit and belly flopped, their shrieks and exclamations ringing out almost musically. After a series of absurd parades, the show moved more into contemporary dance territory with the detectable influence of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ambulatory choreographies. It is testament to Partanen’s clear visions that he created such impressive ensemble and movement-based images with non-professional performers.

The Kuopio remount of Fun Run from Australia’s All the Queens Men is worth mentioning for its nuanced local participation. In the generally sombre cobble-stoned market square, performer Tristan Meecham ran a marathon on a treadmill surrounded by plenty of pop spectacle and local ‘talents’ performing to rouse the crowds. Over four hours a narrative emerged around local heroes. To the war cry “Kuopio, this is your story,” Meecham, like the master of a mixed martial arts academy, time and again let his young students ‘take him to the ground’ with their astonishing dedication to special interest activities like historical re-enactment sword fighting or pole dancing,

In town on Fun Run’s production team, Melbourne-based Aphids director Willoh S Weiland shared in a little glory herself, picking up the substantial ANTI International Prize for Live Art, now in its second year. Accepting the €30,000 award, which recognised her body of work and commitment to innovative and collaborative forms and funds her to create a new work for ANTI in 2016, Weiland remarked that this is “an important time for the visibility of experimental art practice” and gave thanks for this support for “art-making that explores socially-engaged, queer, feminist, radical and difficult perspectives.” On Facebook, she wrote, “These are dark times for the support of the arts in Australia and I hope this award will give real cause for thought to the Minister for the Arts George Brandis. Evidence of the fact that the art being made in Australia by independent artists and small companies is internationally important. Mr Brandis, what is your vision for experimental art practice in Australia? … How will you support the partnership based collaborative model that makes interdisciplinary practice unique?”

Further testament to the calibre of the award is last year’s winner Heather Cassils. Returning to the festival in 2015 and linking in with the theme of endurance, Cassils’ performance work often broaches extremities of human form. The video Hard Times, screened inside a gym where we were offered a free workout, and shown examples of body sculpting, with Cassils in the form of a female body builder. Standing on a podium, oiled, tanned and flexing in a pink bikini, she is made monstrous with B-grade horror gouged-out eyes. The video ran three times while I begrudgingly exerted myself on the rowing machine, marvelling at Cassils’ efforts, as much in life as in art, to present a transgender physique achieved without hormones or surgery. The artist tells of a mother who wrote seeking a more ‘natural’ way for her transgender teenager to assume a masculine form. Cassils replied questioning the naturalness of daily training and extreme dietary vigilance. Nonetheless, this is a professed lifelong commitment for Cassils, working every day to construct a sense of identity.

Another video by the artist, Inextinguishable Fire, was screened on a building wall. Again dealing in artifice, Cassils performs a full-body burn stunt for 14 seconds. The image struck me as Biblical, although the performer appeared impossibly calm for a person on fire. For Cassils the work is about “indexing” in the sense of ‘pointing to,’ here to trauma while recognising the impossibility of representing it. Thus a Hollywood backdrop is revealed as the camera pans out and there is the final intervention with fire extinguishers. This theme returns in a new performance commissioned as part of the 2014 prize, The Powers that Be (210 kilometres), referencing the proximity of Kuopio to Russia where LGBT people suffer from blatant oppression and violence. Inside a multi-storey carpark at night, we are led to an area marked out by the headlights of three cars where we witness Cassils performing a fight with an imaginary opponent. At times I believe I am watching a gender queer person being brutally beaten. Sometimes Cassils seems the aggressor. It is dirty and spontaneous. Again there is intense physical discipline that suggests real bodily experience inside the performance, the artist absorbing imaginary blows with skilful stage fighting techniques. [Read about Cassils’ Becoming an Image at the 2013 SPILL Festival in RT115]

Dialogue is important to ANTI. Heather Cassils was markedly present throughout the festival, talking about the work and inviting an LGBTQIA activist with links to Russia to talk in a ‘meet the artist’ session. There were also Pecha Kucha nights and a half-day symposium, a revelation from which was RUN! RUN! RUN! International Body for Research, an art and sociology collaboration. There was much to muse on—running as a cultural form and the bio-mechanical disposition of humans to run long distances. The festival’s co-artistic director Greg Whelan even suggested running is the very performance of humanness. The most compelling example came from a piece by Vicki Weitz, Running Beyond Language. In the latest in her series of running works Weitz ran for 26.2 hours up and down a street in Kuopio. We were invited to join her and many rallied to see her through, or to try running for themselves. Ultimately it was the artist who endured, if nothing else a testament to the possibility of simply keeping going.

ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art, Artistic Directors Johanna Tuukkanen, Greg Whelan, various locations, Kuopio, Finland, 1-6 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 11

© Megan Garrett-Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net




From the squeaky clean to the neglected and the vertical to the convivial, Field Theory’s Site is Set encompassed locations as diverse as a skyscraper stairwell, a suburban dance competition, a Brunswick lounge room and Melbourne’s Calder Park Raceway. At the latter two sites, works by Mish Grigor and Zoe Scoglio, respectively, provided very different experiences (big/small, chilly/cosy) and teased out more subtle relationships between the monumental and the intimate.


Zoe Scoglio, MASS

The program notes for MASS list Order of Service: from Gathering and Entry Procession through The Hearing (a sermon?) to Ascent and Descent (literally, of Calder Park Raceway’s banked earthen wall), Sacrament and finally, Dismissal and Exit Procession. Held at 5pm on a full-moon Sunday, MASS is a ‘mass’ in the ritual sense, but also in scale, with 60 carloads of us, a large mass of people.

Like a congregation directed to stand, sit, or kneel we follow instructions, narrowcast through our car radios or given non-verbally by marshals with glowing batons. We assemble, we wait. A slowly pulsing soundtrack both soothes and builds tension. Eventually we proceed along a rough road to a desolate backblock, bounded by highway, fences and the Raceway embankment. It takes us a full half hour to park our cars in a perfect circle, guided carefully, one-by-one, into place. Time slows.

We leave our vehicles and are given headphones; the soundscape builds and ripens, including diegetic as well as musical elements. Is the jet engine recorded or can I hear that plane descending towards Tullamarine? We walk up the human-made escarpment and view weed-infested plastic seating banks on one side; city skyline, crumbling earth and power pylons on the other. The sun sets and the moon rises, hidden behind clouds.

We’ve been indoctrinated by a monologue about our anthropogenic impact: we are “earth-shapers, earth-eaters.” We contemplate the impact of our “metal shells, fleshy inside, shiny outside, fossil-fuelled.” A ‘mass,’ as a form, doesn’t raise questions. Rituals and ceremonies spell things out—in a sense, MASS is a ‘spell.’ Several cars, like metallic angler fish, ‘swim’ what we know is an ancient sea-bed below, their headlights like lures searching the dusk. One breaks out of formation, its movement regressing into a lawless, solitary burnout frenzy. Later we circle this car together, walking faster and faster, like pilgrims at Mecca. Swinging censers exhale clouds not of frankincense, but the scent of burning rubber. As MASS ends, we’re reminded of our collective intimacy: we are connected, geological objects whose mutual gravitational pull will now begin to weaken.


The Talk

The Talk

The Talk

Mish Grigor, The Talk

In the Brunswick lounge room where The Talk happens, the earth could self-destruct but we wouldn’t notice—the family would doubtless remain intact to the cataclysmic end. The Talk asks: what happens when we discuss sex with the family we grew up in? Running a gamut of topics—parents’ and siblings’ sex lives, a brother’s coming out, a devastating disclosure—Grigor evokes emotions and reactions from hilarity to awkwardness, skirting the borders of taboo. We are not passive observers: plying us with warm champagne, Grigor ‘casts’ around half the audience as her immediate family, then co-opts them to read out scenes with her. The un-actorly delivery—right down to fake laughter and uncomfortable pauses—adds amusement and pathos in equal measure.

Grigor doesn’t hold back on explicit detail. And she tells us it’s all true: that The Talk is based on real conversations with her family, that they’ve all signed off on the script and that she faked the script in order to get them to sign off. Do we believe her? The question of ‘ethics’ drifts around The Talk like the black-and-white cat that occasionally wanders in, ignoring laughs and angst alike.

For there is angst. The Talk is troubling in multiple, subtle ways. We see how family members exist both in solidarity and irrevocable separation—perhaps in endless competition. We watch Grigor hijack her brother’s revelations, drawing attention to her own sexual misadventures—ostensibly to deflect intrusive focus on his sexuality, and upping the ante with graphic, gratuitous descriptions of her own.

There are some monumental performance moments in The Talk—moments where Grigor does much more than press buttons and mess with our heads (which she does so well): channelling a protective instinct and distress for her brother and drawing us into her persona’s disbelief, confusion, hysteria and anger. But are we exploring empathy or sibling rivalry? Is The Talk about differentiating ourselves from our families, our love for them, both or neither?

The wide and the close cross paths in these works. I felt acquaintance, confidentiality, within the ritual of MASS; and in The Talk, the inevitable distance between our private worlds and our families. Both works took significant risks—with emotions, with logistics and with emotional logistics—and with each I sensed there is space yet for the work to grow. Hopefully MASS and The Talk will both enjoy opportunities for refinement and consolidation through further development and presentation following this season.

As part of its Site is Set season, MASS and The Talk were produced by Melbourne-based Field Theory, “a collective of artists committed to making and supporting art projects that cross disciplines, shift contexts and seek new strategies for intervening in the public sphere” (fieldtheory.com.au). Curated by Jason Maling, Lara Thoms, Martyn Coutts and Jackson Castiglione, the program also included works by Matt Prest and Castiglione.

Field Theory, Site is Set: Zoe Scoglio, MASS, artist, director Zoe Scoglio, sound Marco Cher-Gibard, lighting Katie Sfetkidis, dramaturgy Jason Maling, Martyn Coutts; Calder Park Raceway, 30 Aug; The Talk, devisor, performer Mish Grigor; a lounge room in Brunswick, Melbourne, 9–12 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 12

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

Cut Piece (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965

Cut Piece (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965

Cut Piece (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965

The relationship between performance and the gallery has come under renewed scrutiny lately, however it has a long and complex history. Of course, further complications ensue when this history itself is returned to the gallery in the form of an exhibition. On a recent trip to Boston and New York, I saw three such exhibitions.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-71

In New York, the Museum of Modern Art is staging a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work. The date span covers the first decade of her now 55-year career, starting with Painting to Be Stepped On (1960-61) and finishing with her unofficial exhibition at MoMA in 1971. That year, she advertised a “one woman show” titled Museum of Modern (F)Art but when visitors arrived there was nothing more than a sign stating that Ono had released some flies on the museum grounds and the audience could now follow them throughout the city. If the former introduces her aesthetics of interaction and instruction, then the latter demonstrates her flair for the ephemeral, the playful and the critical. In the intervening years, Ono also honed her performance and experimental film practices and, of course, met John Lennon.

Each aspect of her practice survives slightly differently in the exhibition format. Obviously any institutional critique is diminished but this is counterbalanced by the instructions, which retain both their clarity and beauty. The exhibition augments the aura of the original Grapefruit (1964) instructions by installing the typed yellow cards on a white wall. I appreciate their elegant analogue aesthetic, in the same way that I enjoy the simplicity of putting my feet on the Painting to Be Stepped On. Elsewhere, however, the interactive elements suffer, paradoxically, from the presence of too many people.

On the day I visit, there is a line for Bag Piece (1964), which consists of a black bag on a low white platform. One at a time, visitors hop into the bag and stretch, crawl or roll—in privacy but in plain view. Visitors also have to wait to climb Ono’s new work, To See the Sky, a black spiral staircase that heads towards the heavens, which happen to open up on the day I’m there. I tilt my head back to admire the storm through the skylight before heading back down. In contrast, Ono’s famous Ceiling Painting or Yes Painting is there but audiences are not allowed to climb the ladder, merely to admire it. Does it still say “Yes”? I can’t tell you.

We are allowed to play with a copy of the White Chess Set (1966) in the Sculpture Garden, but only for three hours a day, four days a week and my visit doesn’t coincide. Speaking of sculptures, Apple (1966), which consists of an apple on a plexiglass plinth, and Half-A-Room (1967), a series of domestic objects sheared in half, are the low point of the exhibition and lack the complexity of some of Ono’s other work. Last but not least, it is a pleasure to be able to see films like Film No. 4 (1966-67) and film documentation of performance like Cut Piece (1964), in a higher resolution and larger format than the versions circulating on the web.

 Yoko Ono interacting with people activating Bag Piece (1964), a participatory work in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, on view at MoMA, 17 May-7 Sep 2015

Yoko Ono interacting with people activating Bag Piece (1964), a participatory work in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, on view at MoMA, 17 May-7 Sep 2015

Yoko Ono interacting with people activating Bag Piece (1964), a participatory work in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, on view at MoMA, 17 May-7 Sep 2015

I leave the exhibition having enjoyed the ephemera—the Grapefruit cards, the Fluxus correspondence, the performance documents—but feeling as if I have somehow missed the more interactive and playful aspects of Ono’s practice. Perhaps it is because Sydney just had a Yoko Ono exhibition or perhaps it is because the institution of MoMA and the spectacle of the summer blockbuster have overwhelmed the delicate practice that is performance: either way, I feel as if both Ono and I have been shortchanged.

Joan Jonas: Selected films and videos, 1972-2005

Born just three years after Ono, in 1936, Joan Jonas is this year’s US representative at the Venice Biennale. To coincide with this, the MIT List Visual Arts Center organised a small retrospective of her earlier video works. The first work you see is Good Night Good Morning (1976, 12 min), for which she recorded herself greeting the camera at the beginning and end of each day for three weeks. Clad in pyjamas, silky robes and on one occasion just a sheet, Jonas performs both intimacy and duty. Indeed, it’s almost like a miniature, feminised and feminist version of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece).

To the left of this work is Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972, 17 min), a work full of masks and mirrors, halves and doubles, water, hammers and fractures. In it Jonas assembles and disassembles her double, Organic Honey, by donning and doffing a waxy doll-faced mask and an elaborate headdress and then performing a series of inscrutable rituals. She stands in front of a fan, a jar of water, and several different mirrors of different shapes and sizes (polygon, circular, triangular). Each prop destabilises the image in a different way: the fan wafts her hair upwards, the water throws a wobbling glow onto her face, and the mirrors refract her face into the centre of the frame and reflect her gaze back at the viewer.

In another ritual, her elegant hand traces a series of objects including a doll, a roll of electrical tape, a spoon, a doorstop and a hammer. In the next frame, she appears to bang two hammers together until a crack in the image reveals that one is a reflection of the other. Towards the end, Organic Honey laughs, but without any facial cues to accompany it, this hilarity is creepy. It finishes with Jonas’ bare face: illuminated and then extinguished in full and then in halves before the image blacks out. Even though it’s over 40 years old now, this strange, seductive work feels completely contemporary.

Joan Jonas, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, ACE Gallery, LA, 1972

Joan Jonas, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, ACE Gallery, LA, 1972

Joan Jonas, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, ACE Gallery, LA, 1972

Inside the main room, one screen shows a series of four works: Songdelay (1973, 19 min); Mirage (1976, 31 min); Double Lunar Dogs (1984, 24 min); and Volcano Saga (1989, 28 min). The first and fourth of these provide some fresh air after the rather interior pieces that induct the viewer into the exhibition. In Songdelay, several performers (it is hard to tell how many, but there are 15 in the credits including Steve Paxton and Gordon Matta-Clark) enact simple choreography in several locations (again, it is hard to tell how many). Standing in an abandoned lot, they bang wooden blocks together, occasionally interrupted by the low horn of a boat that then glides by on the river behind them. The image and sound are out of sync, probably because sound always arrives slightly behind the image it accompanies or possibly because of the editing. It’s a clever deconstruction of liveness, which is premised on the synchronous, spatiotemporal co-presence of performer and spectator. But where does presence end and distance begin? When the audience stands even a short distance away, optics and acoustics no longer coincide and the performance becomes—even before it is recorded and remediated—asynchronous. There is a politics to this, as revealed in another scene where the men in the foreground talk about taking a vow of silence while ignoring two women in the background who are yelling at each other “listen to me” and “come here.” Only those who are already seen and heard can contemplate the pleasure of withdrawing from the economies of visibility and audibility.

The last video is Lines in the Sand (2002-2005, 48 min), a recording of the performance Jonas made for Documenta 11 in 2002. Taken together, these videos remind me of the inherent theatricality of Jonas’ artistic practice. While many of her contemporaries were proclaiming the singularity of performance—its inability to be repeated—Jonas routinely returned to her pieces, remounting and remediating them even before the latter term existed. Perhaps this is why I am less troubled when she returns to early work as opposed to say, Marina Abramovic, who always rejected theatre’s repetitions.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals

Beyond being in Boston, there would seem to be little connection between the Jonas exhibition at MIT and the Rothko one at Harvard. From a different generation, working in a different medium and market, Mark Rothko poses a different curatorial problem. If the task for the Jonas curator is to familiarise an audience with an artist whose work is not as famous as it deserves to be, then the task for the Rothko curator is to defamiliarise an artist whose work is instantly recognisable. Nevertheless, I find an unexpected connection between the two exhibitions via theatre.

The Rothko exhibition centres around five murals, commissioned by Harvard in 1961 and installed in the dining room of its Holyoke Center in 1964. Rothko did 22 sketches and 10 murals, six of which were brought to Harvard. In the end, only five were installed—a triptych on one wall and two standalone pieces—so the sixth went to his children who rolled it up and placed it in storage. It’s an important detail, because by 1979 the sunlight in the dining room had so badly degraded the red pigments in Panels One to Five that they had to be removed. Now, 36 years later, the paintings have been “restored” to their former glory through a new, non-invasive method of digital projection.

Unable to touch the paint, the conservation team determined what the paintings looked like in 1964 by looking at old photographs (which also had to be restored) as well as taking colour measurements from the uninstalled Panel Six. This gave them what they call a “target image.” They then photographed the panels in their current state and set about developing a “compensation image” through a series of algorithms. The final compensation image has over two million pixels and is then projected onto the original panels, rendering them in all their sublime, saturated glory. It’s the first in a series of moments throughout the exhibition that strike me as theatrical: for all its technical accomplishments, it’s an almost old-fashioned use of theatrical lighting. In addition, there is the exhibition room itself, which replicates the dimensions of the original dining room. On the far wall, as you enter, is the triptych; behind you, are the other two panels. Both of these walls are painted an olive-mustard colour, as the original ones were. To the left and the right, the walls are left white to signify where the windows would be. Once again, this strikes me as theatrical, which is to say it’s almost a set.

Of course, it is impossible to appreciate just how much work this set and these projections are doing without a point of comparison, a problem the exhibition solves in two ways. Spatially, it has the audience enter through a room where Panel Six hangs alongside several studies; these are set against a white wall rather the yellow we see next-door, meaning that the reds are nowhere near as sumptuous. Temporally, the moment of comparison manifests at 4pm each day, when the projectors are turned off. On the afternoon I attend, at least 40 people come from around the gallery to witness this moment. The head of security introduces himself, explains the order in which the projections will be extinguished and then, pulling his smartphone from his pocket, proceeds. Yet again, I think of theatre, specifically the tradition of the “reveal,” and appropriately enough the audience gasps. When the projections disappear the paintings are vastly different: the lush, infinitely varied pinks, cherries, maroons, and blood-blacks lose their depth and range and become dull, flat and even.

If Yoko Ono confirms the suspicion that performance can never be properly documented or remediated, and Joan Jonas adds an important caveat by suggesting that it can, especially when the performance itself is already mediatised, then the Mark Rothko installation goes even further. When strategies of lighting, sets, live bodies and reveals combine with highly sophisticated media technologies, the result is more performance-like than even exhibitions that are explicitly devoted to it. Yet again, the relations between gallery, theatre and performance have been recalibrated for me.

Exhibitions: Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-71, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 17 May-7 Sept; Joan Jonas: Selected Films and Videos, 1972-2005, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Boston, 7 April-5 July; Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, the Fogg Museum, 16 Nov 2014-26 July 2015

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 14-15

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

Mummy of Panechates, Son of Hatres, (Egypt 1st - 3rd centuries AD)

Mummy of Panechates, Son of Hatres, (Egypt 1st – 3rd centuries AD)

Mummy of Panechates, Son of Hatres, (Egypt 1st – 3rd centuries AD)

Something that has always irritated me is placing media art works together on the basis that they all plug into an electrical wall socket or are made with a computer. Such a curatorial mode removes media art from the world at large. In addition, events like ISEA (International Symposium of Electronic Art) play to the notion of art and technology as affirmative action belonging to a special fraternity of artists, scientists, curators and academics, but rarely question the default method of displaying media art. Other approaches are clearly needed. Anything that removes these works from the media art exhibition ghetto or the technological trade show/expo vibe that so often accompanies them is a good thing.

One way forward was evident at The Vancouver Art Museum in the exhibition Lively Objects curated by Caroline Langill (OCAD University, Toronto) and Lizzie Muller UNSW Art & Design, Sydney). It was part of this year’s ISEA series of exhibitions but you wouldn’t have known it. Lively Objects clearly embraced ISEA’s ‘disruption’ theme placing works in relation to a network of other physical objects and artefacts and displaying them throughout the permanent collection of the museum. The exhibition deployed the notion of distributed agency and presented new ways of considering objecthood in relation to the digital.

The media arts works spread throughout the museum activated strange and uncanny readings of the collection of objects, figurines, dioramas, display cases and machines, now read too as having agency, hidden lives and meanings beyond their ‘mummified’ stasis. Lively Objects explored that hazy zone of in-between states, of things half seen and encountered and of non-technological objects imbued with a form of animism. Here technology reached into the past to bring the dead back to life.

This ‘lively object’ relationship was seen in Simone Jones and Lance Winns’ End of Empire, an oversized robotic projection machine which projects slices of a video inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire, about the Empire State Building. The device never allows us to see the building in its entirety, but only in fragments. As the machine returns from its slow vertical pan to its original position we are left with the disappearance of the iconic building from the skyline. While Warhol’s Empire was an expression of the building as a celebrity, an icon of American capitalism, End of the Empire provides the inverse: the collapse and erasure of the American empire. Positioned next to this work was a mummified Egyptian child in a display case. The weird cognitive dissonance generated between the robotics of End of Empire and this mummified child, yielded a profound and wonderfully disturbing pathos.

End of Empire, Simone Jones and Lance Winn

End of Empire, Simone Jones and Lance Winn

End of Empire, Simone Jones and Lance Winn

Looking like a 19th century instrument, Steve Daniels’ Device for the Elimination of Wonder rolls back and forth along two parallel cables that span the length of a room, taking an assortment of measurements by lowering a mechanical plumb bob and representing this measurement as a grey scale image on a page. The device disrupts the museum collection with a useless process, but also draws attention to the static museum artefacts it seeks to measure. The flickering electronic surface of Norman White’s Splish Splash One, produced as far back as 1974, suggests art and its relationship to technology is not simply born of the computer and animates the museum space with a sense of historical relativity.

Germaine Kohs’ Topographic Table at first appeared like a standard display piece from the museum collection—a table with a topographic, textured surface representing the mountain range north of Vancouver. The table however shook in response to local information concerning seismic activity via its internet connected electronics, resulting in the work suggesting a liveness beyond its initial static appearance.

Lively Objects explores notions of post-disciplinarity in which the connections between objects break down, producing new kinds of relationships and aesthetic resonances. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, famed for a being “a museum about museums,” plays a similar game by framing natural history objects (including deliberately questionable ones) with technological devices. Like Lively Objects it sees technology and ‘media’ not as limited to digital ones and zeros but as activating a kind of animism which permeates the physical world.

Museum of Vancouver, Lively Objects, 16 Aug-12 Oct; ISEA2015: Disruption, Vancouver 14-19 Aug


RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 16

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

Emma Hall (and goat) in Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out Touch Faith (2014) which will be performed by Josephine Were in Near and Far

Emma Hall (and goat) in Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out Touch Faith (2014) which will be performed by Josephine Were in Near and Far

Emma Hall (and goat) in Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out Touch Faith (2014) which will be performed by Josephine Were in Near and Far

A new contemporary arts organisation in Adelaide, Performance & Art Development Agency (PADA), is about to stage its first event, Near and Far. Its founders, Emma Webb and Steve Mayhew aim to develop “new artworks, initiatives, networks and public programs with multidisciplinary artists locally and across Australia”(website). I asked Mayhew about the motivation for forming PADA, whether or not Adelaide has the experimental artists to sustain it and if there is a critical context that will adequately respond to and support it.

Mayhew explains that he and Webb “had often worked with each other in our various guises and came together mid last year and said let’s make this ‘official.’ Back in the mid 2000s we’d combined on CCD programs and have since been collaborating between our organisations,” Vitalstatistix, where Webb is Creative Director and Country Arts SA, where Mayhew is Creative Producer. Both organisations are located in Port Adelaide. Mayhew worked with Webb on Vitalstatistix’ first Adhocracy (a national gathering that develops new experimental and interdisciplinary projects) and “when touring a work regionally for Country Arts I consider how our city-based audiences can also benefit from seeing it.”

I ask how important for the founding of PADA were Mayhew’s experience of programming the 2012 National Regional Arts Conference, Kumuwuki (RT110, p12; RT112, p12), renowned for its focus on live art, and Webb’s curating of Adhocracy. “They were major catalysts,” he replies, “turning points for both of us to look to each other for support, knowing that we weren’t working alone. We said, ‘let’s consolidate what we can do through PADA.’”

What is it, I ask, about experimental work that excites Webb and Mayhew? “I think Emma agrees we get charged up on ideas from artists and how they articulate them in a ‘live’ sense. I love feeling like I’m one of very few people spoken to, touched and related to in a performance. The fewer the audience, the better for me. I don’t want to sit in a crowd of 10,000. I want to be in an audience of one to 200. That immediacy is really special; I’m fascinated how artists manifest it and I love working with artists to manifest it. For me, it’s about not being lost in the crowd.”

The organisation’s website states that PADA aims “to contribute to the contemporary arts culture and ecology in South Australia.” I ask Mayhew if there are the experimental artists to work with PADA and grow that ecosytem. “That’s what we want to explore. I think they’re there, but we’ve to find them. They’ll come from all kinds of disciplines. For example, local live art performer Josie Were is performing Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out Touch Faith II in Near and Far. Were and some other women are taking live art by the horns and really wrestling with it. There are some local government cultural officers who have been using live art approaches to engage communities about how to better activate ‘dead’ public spaces. They’ve employed people like Josie and others from Adhocracy in suburban Adelaide (eg Linger Longer, a public art performance for Unley City Council in which the artist tucked people into a bed so they could “dream about what was possible in our public spaces” and hear others’ dreams recounted. Eds). Hats off to them for using live art—the unexpected is a beautiful thing to happen upon,” says Mayhew.

I ask if Mayhew and Webb still have their day jobs. Mayhew laughs: “If you want something to happen, you just have to do it. We’re working more hours to do it. It’s rewarding.” PADA gained the support of Arts SA for its first 12 months—“we put a compelling argument”—and has applied for funding for 2016. “It’s going to be year by year, nimble and simple. If PADA gets bigger, great, but that’s not going to happen now. And if either of us leaves, that’s it.”

The Near and Far program includes Sarah Rodigari’s Reach Out… lecture performance with a goat, to be performed by Were who will receive the script three days before the performance with Rodigari present to delegate the work. Jason Sweeney, a long-time Adelaide pioneer of provocative performance, installation, music and sound works, is, says Mayhew, “one of the most resilient artists I know and always with a singularity of purpose. He’s presenting the third part of his Silence series. Fifteen people at a time for a very meditative experience.”

While Iceland’s Kviss Búmm Bang will not be onsite, they have provided instructions for their audience to engage with mobile phones and answering and machines to create the participatory work 101.IS TO 5000.AU. The group of three women were recommended by Sam Haren, co-director of the Adelaide based creative studio Sandpit, after a recent visit to Iceland. Mayhew took the advice and on his own visit participated in the group’s six-hour work, Hospice, at the Reykavik Locale Festival. In pyjamas and groups of 12 or three or alone, the audience is led through an empty theatre where they are encouraged to contemplate mortality. Mayhew said the opening was 1984-ish with the audience having to repeat life-affirming phrases. Later, “We talked quite emotionally with palliative care workers about how we care for each other in the last days, ate mushroom soup and sat in a waiting room completing a totally white jigsaw puzzle. There were plenty of moments for reflection. We were each given a book to write in, for our eyes only. Finally, we were led to the top of the theatre’s fly-tower, guided to a black hole in the floor and told to fall backwards into nothing…and that we’d be okay.”

On the subject of a responsive critical culture PADA is adopting an interesting strategy. Local reviewer Jane Howard “goes to places in criticism that few people in Australia are prepared to,” Says Mayhew. “In her online project Simple Art Transfer Protocol, she’ll write broadly about the works in Near and Far to a critic in each of Sydney, New York and London while they talk about what’s happening in their cities. Each night there’ll be an online summation of the resulting conversation, placing works, cities and critics in context with each other. The conversations provoked by our program might influence our programming in the future.”

Also providing context in the Near and Far program is Artists in Conversation with Jason Sweeney and Sarah-Jane Norman hosted by Jeff Kahn (Performance Space, Sydney); Sarah Rodigari and Dan Koerner in conversation with Angharad Wynne-Jones (Artistic Director, Arts House, Melbourne); and a conversation about having conversations about art—with Jane Howard discussing her Simple Art Transfer Protocol.

With the formation of PADA and the staging of its premiere festival, Near and Far, with the passion of its producers for collaboration and multidisciplinary practices, Adelaide audiences and artists can look forward to considerable expansion of local experimentalism and increased opportunities for national and international networking.

PADA, Near and Far, Queens Theatre, Playhouse Lane, Adelaide, 5-11pm, 16-20 Oct, 1-5pm 18 Oct; pay what you want. Book at Eventbrite.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 17

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

Stance, Liesel Zink

Stance, Liesel Zink

Stance, Liesel Zink

Some years ago a professor of surgery at a teaching hospital, for whom I was doing some data collection, remarked, “Students these days. They’re only concerned about their part time jobs. No one marches anymore.” I did not challenge the good doctor (after all, I had my job to consider). I reflected however, that unlike his generation, students today do not go to university for free.

Liesel Zink and collaborators have perhaps also noted this apparent lack of public demonstration but have addressed it a little differently, protesting through performance in a very public way. The result is The Stance, a durational work taking place over a day in Brisbane’s King George Square. The Stance meshes live dance and sound and was the opening act for the Slipstream Festival of Time Based Art, presented by Metro Arts in August.

When I first attended the work at midday the square was throbbing with the lunchtime rush. Oddly, nobody raised an eyebrow at the young bodies in street attire evoking figures in propaganda posters; all that was missing was the sickle. Later these figures were forcibly dragged away by others, appearing from the crowd like plainclothes police. Later again there was a stoush, a stylised struggle between two protesters, perhaps on different sides of an unnamed ideology. No one observing broke any of this up. Baudrillard’s notion of “war porn” came to mind—the idea that we are so now accustomed to seeing images of war virtually. In their proliferation these images become a parody of real violence and no longer shock (Baudrillard, 2005).

Telling was the audience’s engagement with the work; people crossed the square texting, eating and running errands in their lunch hour, oblivious to the strident demonstration going on around them. At the registration tent, two women were turned away, presumably because they didn’t want to hand over their drivers’ licenses, the collateral required to borrow a pair of headphones to participate. By this stage, someone from the ensemble had been ‘shot’ and the body was dragged away.

I didn’t experience the political fervour that the professor of surgery had so missed from his student days. Yet The Stance still appeared to subtly infiltrate the madding crowd. There was a moment in the work where time stood still, and this, the most moving image, was also the simplest. The young bodies lay face down in the square, eerily inert. The moment was ghosted with memories of the images of the students in Tiananmen Square after the tanks rolled in. They were reproduced around the world in 1989 and made the West stop mid pork bun. Perhaps we roll over too many important moments these days, simply because we have to get back to work.

Walking, Gregory Stauffer

Walking, Gregory Stauffer

Walking, Gregory Stauffer

Also concerned with time and part of Slipstream was Gregory Stauffer’s Walking. To begin, in the dark, Stauffer heralded us to a primal forest with his drum. Here he spoke sweetly of the animals he encountered, of the deer and the snake, and it was agreed that they would have a picnic together, despite the fact that they would all ultimately die some day.

Stauffer then walked for the large part of an hour—and to watch him was fascinating. The articulation of his limbs, the infinite variations and possibilities of the human form in executing this everyday activity was incredibly engaging. For me, his walking read as an evolution of humankind; initially he was early man struggling out of the muck, then he struck a patch of bindii eyes and now he was on the catwalk; look at him go!

It wasn’t all fun and games though and things got downright difficult at a point. He was literally on his knees from exhaustion and we silently barracked for him to get up, to keep on walking, no matter how difficult the journey seemed. He eyeballed the audience intermittently to ensure we were fully appreciative of his efforts. We grew to love him, even when he’d worked himself into a lather of sweat and had to take all his gear off. He seemed as surprised as we were by his nakedness.

At that point, he exited stage right, giving the audience a moment of reprieve. Unable to resist our adoration, however, he returned for the final part of his journey. This time he was a Pan-like wood sprite in a rainbow caftan dancing in a glade and playing the recorder via his nostrils. Our neo-shaman had a glow stick round his ankle; the little drummer boy was all grown up. In any case we rejoiced that he had finally found his feet. All it took was a little time.

Metro Arts, Slipstream, Festival of Time-based Art, The Stance, choreographer Liesel Zink, sound artist Mike Wilmett, producer Leah Shelton, dramaturg Martyn Coutts, King George Square, 13 Aug; Walking, creator, performer, Gregory Stauffer, Metro Arts. Brisbane, 13-15 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 18

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

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

While waiting in the foyer for this performance to begin, audience members were handed a card with a mobile number on it and invited to SMS a cat photo for later use in the show. This is probably the first audience participation request I’ve ever embraced. But it wasn’t all warm fuzzy feelings about felines, as the performers (all of whom, I assume, haven’t known life without the internet) unpacked the increasingly precarious distinction between our on and off-line selves.

Our modern sense of self has, of course, never been free of technological mediation, nor has live theatre. Though new dramaturgical questions about bodies in space are raised by our digital present day, considering how often we are also partially absent. At one point the performers make confessions in a kind of social media hall of shame: someone wants to get red stop lights while driving so she can check Facebook, someone else goes to the bathroom when out with friends just to check his messages.

Though this was ostensibly ‘youth arts’ the mea culpa was likely felt by every audience member no matter what age: these are shared affects. As one performer searched frantically for a lost mobile phone I writhed, remembering the mis en abyme that similar moments have generated in me. When the phone was found, the screens behind the stage were suddenly flooded with message notifications and there was an audible Pavlovian sigh from the audience. It may seem wrong to use a dog metaphor, in a show about cats, but one punter did SMS a photo of his dog as a joke, which later came up on the promised cat photo feed. At that point I’m not sure if anyone else cared about my cat, but seeing Calliope (she is a foster cat, I didn’t name her) make a cameo was, I admit, personally gratifying and I poked my companion in excitement. Indeed, while a lot of this show felt a bit too obvious to me, there’s no denying that it was also operating on a subliminal level and our complicity was assured.

Physical and gestural engagement with social media is also something that live performance can bring to the dissection of social media mores. The performativity of the ‘selfie’ is balletic, and was contrasted with moments of unselfconscious and unbridled dancing. There is also the obligatory, but increasingly rare, performer who isn’t on Facebook. Overall the show doesn’t seek to demonise social media as much as look at the effects it has on the individual (using a UCLA Loneliness scale from the 1970s).

At one point the performers quote from a media article saying social media is more addictive than drugs and alcohol. No One Cares About Your Cat wasn’t about society’s external moral panics, but more about the users of social media themselves, and I’m struck by how apt the word ‘users’ now seems.

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

No-one Cares About Your Cat, Tantrum Theatre

The eponymous cat of the show’s title is Spot Marion, a popular agony aunt fake Facebook profile that was set up by a Hunter woman after her cat died. The idea of random people from all over the world asking a cat for advice on-line evoked the purr-fect pathos and Spot Marion later made an appearance, with a performer wearing a striking cardboard mask designed by Fold Theory. This was a show that was largely narrated in Facebook status-update style, as the performers responded to statements from the loneliness scale such as “People are around me but not with me.” Incorporating live feeds and mobile phone usage (including the audience shining their torches) as part of the performance No One Cares About Your Cat was an atmospheric and haunting work about loneliness in the era of social media.

Paper Cut with Tantrum Youth Arts Theatre Makers, No One Cares About Your Cat, dramaturg David Williams, commissioned by Tantrum Youth Arts, Civic Playhouse, Newcastle, 16-19 Sept, ATYP, The Wharf, Sydney 30 Sept-3 Oct; Crack theatre Festival, Crack House, Newcastle 4 Oct

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 18

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

Classical music isn’t dead: it’s just riddled with the corpses of its former self. Not rotting ones, but made-up, dressed-up, done-up ones. Classical music is marketed by coroners, morticians and grave-diggers. This results in a deluge of memorial portraiture: dead bodies posed to appear alive. You know the images: from young ensembles all dressed in 80s Soho black to ecstatic youthful faces caught mid-flight while Adobe After Effects particle plug-ins trail their body into succulent sweeps of confetti, flowers or strawberries. The marketing machines of classical music think this is humanist, sensual, alive. It’s not. It’s dehumanising, fetid, dead. Indeed, classical music’s self-visualisation is far more necrotic than hi-image Nu/Death Metal bands from California caked in shopping mall Halloween face paint.

Classical music has ended up being the one-stop-shop for assessing how image is employed to extend music’s life beyond its use-by date. Most other forms of music accept their death or revivals graciously (despite the current vogue of 90s bands reforming/re-performing their first ‘classic’ album for curated festivals). Conversely, classical music—assuming that its historical legacy exempts it from all industrial manipulation—is the only form of music that believes its own hype: that if it were not to exist, civilisation as we know it would cave in to the music industry’s ruthless neo-liberal dominance.

While one might begrudgingly accept how classical music markets itself globally in an attempt to justify state spending on promotion for state-funded orchestras and operas, there’s an implied acceptance of how classical music needs to exist beyond marketplace pressures. It’s a weak stance when viewed from either contemporary critical trenches or neo-liberal capitalist citadels. Now while it’s ridiculously easy to attack classical music—and thereby negate out-of-hand its canon, its myriad histories, its experimental markers, its interiorised complexity, its phenomenal allure—it takes greater precision to separate its musicological lineage from its contemporary and transitional logistics in presentation. In other words, attacks on classical music can be deserved when levelled not at its argument to ensure its livelihood (surely all musical forms have that right), but at the mediarised methods it employs to fabricate how unthreatened its livelihood could be at this present moment.

2Cellos’ video clip for their version of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck (2014) is a good place to aim a few fortississimo punches. They’re a Croatian-born UK-trained Sony-signed YouTube-hyped Wikipedia-biog-ed management-controlled cello duo in their late-20s. With all the panache of the most boring marketing firm in the universe thinking they’ve come up with a stunningly original idea, 2Cellos appear on a Viennese stage of the Baroque era, appropriately attired and musically correct. They commence playing a mashup of Bach and Vivaldi finger exercises which devolves into the infamous Thunderstruck double-beat fretwork of Angus Young’s signature one-hand presto-paradiddling. One cello carries this like a busker with a loop pedal; then they each overlay both Thunderstruck’s coal-miner wordless chant and power chord patterning. Old farts in the audience have their brocaded collars ruffled as they attempt to stop their young children from being aroused by this devilish music (duh); the piece finishes with a stunned audience à la Mel Brooks’ Broadway bomb in Springtime For Hitler (1968) (double duh). The subtle message: young guys playing classical music aren’t as stuffy/nerdy/pretentious/whatever as you thought they were.

The ‘subtlety’ commenced two years earlier, in a video for their cover of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell (2012), with 2Cellos stumbling into New Jersey’s famous Guitar Centre where Steve Vai is doing an in-store signing. The cellists head for the back room and start playing cellos loudly through amps; the ‘kids’ leave Vai and start ‘rocking out’ to the cellists. Then 2Cellos welcome Vai to overlay his branded guitar falsetto atop their pummelling acoustic-rasping cello chords. The video features an audience of about 50 culled from rent-a-youth. Once the track gets really rocking, it devolves into that icky trope of male producers directing young dumb women to unconvincingly shimmy and slink around as if they’re ready to fuck because the music is getting them hot. Of course it isn’t—these women look more like they’re ordering soy lattes than ‘getting hot’—but that’s the wet-dream of marketing executives who likely suffer erectile dysfunction.

In 2Cellos’ video for their cover of Avicii’s oompah-rave-folk-anthem Wake Me Up (2015), their life literally flashes before our eyes as they appear as rambunctious kids, groovy studs at tacky Geordie Shore clubs and an old peoples’ home replete with a Benny Hill-style nurse. Throughout, their pithy faux-folksy gypsy cello thumping and bowing gets people hot and excited (especially those bimbo clubbers). Wow. Classical music is both sexy and timeless—like a baroque Viagra.

Should I be offended by yet another cynical exploitation of youth’s collective vitality, social inhibition and libidinous expression? Not really, because that’s what all advertising and marketing has been doing since Baby Boomer executives televisually fondled their inner boy in the 80s, creating multiple waves thereafter to relive their lost youth through modes of puppeteering teens and imagineering tweens. This imaging of classical music, then, is just as cynically focused not merely on how to update an outdated musical culture, but on how to represent it according to the current codes of youth exploitation. The narratives of the 2Cellos videos thus perform retrograde ejaculation: the erotic ebullience of both the music and its image is imperceptible. Their riot isn’t going on, there is no revolution to be televised and no-one is seeing the future of rock ‘n’ roll. (Please, 2Cellos, don’t do a video rebooting Young Einstein.)

People say I’m cynical, but could anything be more cynical than these flagrant and flamboyant admissions of audiovisual self-cancellation? Like the invisible cum shot of retrograde ejaculation, they exemplify the desperation of today’s image climate, wherein images can boldly lie without any worry that their truth value will be exposed as fatuous. Does any serious aficionado of classical music really care about 2Cellos? And does anyone watching their YouTube clips on iPhones on public transport really care about classical music? And if no-one is at all interested in the simulated synergism of their marketing, why does it exist within the mediasphere?

Weirdly, music might win out in the end. 2Cellos’ Thunderstruck unwittingly (I presume, though one never knows) uncovers one of the amazing facets of AC/DC’s song writing. I term it AC/DC’s “modularity of cadence.” The brothers Young sculpt riffs and power chord sequences hewn from the western diatonic cadence: that monumental musical shifting from C major to G major and back again. It’s the ‘da-dah!’ of harmonic resolution instituted in the Baroque era; the musical equivalent of a gilded picture frame, a proclamation’s bold lettering, a tower’s turret—anything that states its obvious power by stating that obviously it has power without needing to state it. Thunderstruck’s middle section of final halted power chords forms a symphonic coda of cadences which—in true Baroque logic—define AC/DC as rock that simultaneously empties itself of everything and builds itself into a monument to that exquisite emptiness. In AC/DC’s aging sonorum, it’s dead but alive: the polar opposite of classical music as delivered by the blooming likes of 2Cellos.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 19

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

David Gulpilil, Another Country

David Gulpilil, Another Country

On the Dox always supports long-form Australian documentaries, but as I’ve outlined in articles since 2012, they are becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Two recent Australian features that have managed to emerge show us ways of looking at the world that are quite different from the neo-liberal outlook to which our governments, broadcasters and public institutions seem so utterly beholden. We are constantly told that nothing is of value unless it can be economically quantified. Another Country and Reindeer in My Saami Heart beg to differ.

From David to us

Molly Reynold’s Another Country is refreshingly straightforward in its approach, although it is perhaps a misnomer to call it a “Molly Reynolds film.” It is, in fact, the latest instalment of an ongoing collaboration between Reynolds, her personal and artistic partner Rolf de Heer, and the legendary Australian actor David Gulpilil, a trio who have been working together since Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr) in 2006. Since then they have made Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013) and the experimental Still Our Country: Reflections on a Culture (Molly Reynolds, 2014). All of these explore the culture and stories of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land—Gulpilil’s home and the place he returns to when he is not being a movie star.

Another Country is built around Gulpilil’s voiceover, unequivocally constructed as first-person, direct address from the actor to non-indigenous Australia. It’s a statement of facts that is never hectoring, a call for comprehension that is never sentimental or mawkish. In simple and clear terms, Gulpilil explains with humour and grace the issues plaguing his people, in terms even non-indigenous people should understand.

He starts by explaining the origins of his hometown, Ramingining. “This town is all wrong,” he states matter-of-factly, noting that the remote settlement—400 kilometres from the next nearest township—was created by white authorities when various Indigenous groups were forcibly herded off their lands. Cut off from their traditional country, their food supply and way of life, the townspeople were left with no jobs, no prospects and no money—other than the welfare white authorities have seen fit to dole out.

Alongside Gulpilil’s voiceover plays a series of beautifully shot scenes and vignettes of life in the town. Some are literally illustrative, others elliptically counterpoint his comments. A long, surreal re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion during a monsoonal downpour, for example, illustrates how Yolngu life has been irrevocably changed by invasion as well as revealing the durability of local culture which adapts external belief systems to local conditions.

Gulpilil brings to his narration the same warmth evident in his iconic screen roles in Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976), Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) and Charlie’s Country, inviting the audience to see things from his perspective, rather than provoking them to feel guilty. He argues that the beginnings of a solution to the many problems he outlines is really very straightforward. “You have to try and understand us,” he says. “Listen to our history. Listen to us. Listen to what we say. Listen to who we are.” Such simple advice, so difficult it seems for us to put into practice.

Reindeer in My Saami Heart

Reindeer in My Saami Heart

Sweden’s Stolen Generations

Reindeer in My Saami Heart also focuses on an Indigenous culture, this time in the far north of Europe. Sydney-based documentarian Janet Merewether first encountered the Saami people—traditionally nomadic reindeer herders in the Arctic Circle—through a series of black and white photographs sent by an Australian friend living in Sweden. The aging images by an unknown photographer depict Saami children placed in boarding schools by the Swedish authorities following the Second World War. Shortly after the images were taken, the wider Saami community was forced into townships, making the children in the images the last generation who knew something of their traditional nomadic way of life.

Reindeer in My Saami Heart is largely built around the voice of Inghilda Tapio, a poet and prose writer who was among the children Merewether first encountered in the old photographs. Through interviews, Tapio, who is now a youthful looking grandmother, recalls her childhood with her nomadic family, and the intense pain of separation when she was placed in a boarding school. Like other Saami children, she received a compulsory education in Swedish, which for her was a foreign tongue. Tapio eventually attended university, and became an advocate for Saami culture and language through her writing.

The film contains many passages of Tapio’s evocative poetry in both English and Saami, although some of its effect is inevitably lost in translation. Through her writings and reminiscences, we are introduced to a way of life structured around the extremities of the Arctic seasons, which oscillate between summers of riotous green and winters under thick blankets of snow. Like Indigenous Australians, the Saami traditionally worked with their land rather than imposing themselves upon it, living in large, fluid family groups that provided systems of mutual support and tight social networks.

The parallels with the clash of cultures between Indigenous and non-indigenous people that occurred in Australia, and the assimilationist policies in both places, are striking. The Swedish authorities appear to have been less extreme, with Saami school students at least reunited with their families during holidays. Nonetheless, young Saami children were subjected to compulsory placement in boarding schools for prolonged periods, Indigenous languages and practices were discouraged, and Indigenous people were forcibly removed from lands that were then put to various industrial uses, including mining and hydro-electric power generation.

Despite these parallels, little is made of them in the film itself. Merewether notes in publicity materials that Australia’s long tradition of feature documentaries on global issues—from Dennis O’Rourke’s work in New Guinea, the South Pacific and Afghanistan, to David Bradbury’s films about revolutions in Latin America, to Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s Highlands trilogy—is in danger of becoming extinct due to a lack of interest from contemporary broadcasters and funding bodies. In some ways, Reindeer in My Saami Heart sits in this lineage, but there is also an important difference. For filmmakers such as O’Rourke, it was always clear what their personal stake in their subject was—and by extension, why the subject should matter to other Australians. O’Rourke’s South Pacific films, for example, were about the horrendous impact of European colonialism and its ongoing legacies in the region—events in which Australia was and is deeply implicated. In contrast, Reindeer in My Saami Heart misses several opportunities to explore what Saami experiences might mean to us back here in Australia.

Merewether places herself in the documentary, explaining in voiceover how she first encountered the photographs that brought her to Sweden, but we never get a sense of why these images initially attracted her and how they perhaps relate to repressed feelings about Australia’s assimilationist history. The similarities in the Saami and Aboriginal stories also illustrate the varied ways in which Europe has imposed a certain way of life upon people across the planet, placing our own colonial history in a wider context.

Merewether is to be commended for producing a rich and engaging work that took 12 long years of periodic shooting to make. Her comments about television’s lack of interest in contemporary stand-alone documentaries, however, are substantiated by her struggle to find a local broadcaster.

Do Australians still have the desire—and the stomach—as they did in the outward looking 1970s-90s, to be confronted with documentaries that challenge our sense of our place in the world? Or are we happy with celebrity host-driven travel programs that simply skim over the surface, reducing the world’s complexity to questions of culinary difference?”

Another Country, director Molly Reynolds, writers Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil, Molly Reynolds, producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Molly Reynolds; Vertigo Productions; 2015; Melbourne International Film Festival, 30 July–16 August 2015; Reindeer in My Saami Heart; writer, director, producer Janet Merewether; Screen Culture, Australia, 2015; http://reindeerinmysaamiheart.com

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 20

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

Arabian Nights Trilogy

Arabian Nights Trilogy

“We have just witnessed a major event in the history of cinema,” declared a friend as we emerged from an epic six-hour viewing of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (Mil e uma Noites) parts one, two and three. These kinds of on-the-spot hyperbolic judgements are always risky—anyone recall Pauline Kael’s declaration that Last Tango in Paris would be argued about “for as long as there are movies”? Yet my friend’s comment does say something about the impact Gomes’ trilogy had on many viewers at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year, conveying the sense that we had, at the very least, witnessed something special.

Arabian Nights pulls off the difficult feat of feeling timeless and yet definitively of its time. It is a work people will likely watch decades hence to glean what it was like to live through 2014–15 in a Europe enduring the harshest economic conditions since the Second World War, in a world facing a deeply uncertain future.

So what is Arabian Nights actually like? Comprising three feature-length films, each one highly episodic, it’s a work difficult to sum up in a few lines. It begins with a documentary that mixes observations about austerity-era striking Portuguese ship builders, a plague of introduced wasps and the director’s reflections on the impossibility of the task he has set himself. “You can’t make a militant film which forgets its militancy and soon escapes from reality,” he muses, before the film does exactly that, in a hilarious dramatised tale of a meeting between bland EU bureaucrats and Portugal’s leaders.

The bureaucrats demand ever greater austerity. The Portuguese say they have nothing left to cut. Eventually they all adjourn for a horse ride, on which they encounter a wizard who brandishes a cream capable of invigorating their long-dormant sex organs. Liberated from impotency and frustration, the group forget about their harsh measures and re-enter negotiations with a breathless new lease on life. Ambitious as Arabian Nights is, it is never without humour—later in the first feature, we see a cock put on trial for disturbing his neighbours with constant crowing.

Documentary and drama are interwoven throughout the trilogy, which loosely takes the structure of One Thousand and One Nights, in which a young woman, Scheherazade, weaves tales on a nightly basis for her bloodthirsty husband, King Shahryar, in order to stave off her own execution. As this premise suggests, for all the humour in these films there is an underlying anger and bitterness about the absurdity of Europe’s situation, as the continent lurches from one crisis to another with recurrent band-aid solutions.

Part two continues the stylistic mix, opening with the story of an aging but sexually rapacious outlaw living in the hills, quietly defiant of society’s mores. The next episode concerns a trial in an outdoor amphitheatre, in which life’s basic absurdity undermines any attempt to apply rational justice. Part two ends with a long Bressonian story of quiet desperation in high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Part three opens with Scheherazade attempting to escape her storytelling obligations, indulging in song, dance and a playful non-affair with a beautiful but stupid man on a sun-drenched, rocky island. From high fantasy we slip into a seemingly endless documentary about bird trappers. The subculture constitutes an intriguing community of men who train chaffinches to sing in order to engage in deadly serious competitions at a waste-ground beside a busy airport.

Arabian Nights Trilogy

Arabian Nights Trilogy

Gomes gently leads us to believe the trappers’ story will culminate in one last, big picture statement about Europe’s situation, particularly during a diversionary tale about a Chinese girl having an affair with a policeman caught up in the ship builders’ strike introduced in the first feature. But the girl’s story soon expires, and we return once again to the utterly prosaic lives of the bird-trappers. Gomes defies expectations to the end.

There may be no sweeping conclusion here, but the implication is that life goes on, despite austerity, despite neo-liberal delusions, despite the apparent end of an age of prosperity. Europe, Gomes suggests, was never really contained in the high sounding rhetoric of Brussels and its self-serving bureaucratic machine. Europe exists, and has always existed, in the small-scale cultures that fall beneath the official radar, in local customs that play out in disused spaces, in ways of life that soldier on despite everything and in everyday stories that resist easy readings.

Much like the trappers’ passion for the songs they coax from their birds, Gomes has forged a film full of life, joyfulness and passion from the ruins of Portugal’s devastating experience of austerity. Across six hours of screen time, he weaves a rich tapestry that is part ancient epic, part Márquez-style magic realism, part Bulgakov-like absurdist satire, part Chris Marker-esque self-reflection and part… Miguel Gomes. And much else besides. Above all, the trilogy is a defiant harking back to a post-war era in which Europe led the world in producing challenging, provocative cinema.

Arabian Nights demands time and, at times, patience. A major event in the history of cinema? That’s a judgement best left to the future. Without doubt, though, Arabian Nights is a trio of films for our era, and a reconfirmation of the big screen’s enduring artistic importance.

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One; Volume 2, The Desolate One; Volume 3, The Enchanted One; director Miguel Gomes, writers Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo, Telmo Churro; Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland; 2015; Melbourne International Film Festival, 30 July–16 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 21

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

RUTH, photo Heidrun Löhr

RUTH, photo Heidrun Löhr

Created by brothers Antony and Julian Hamilton, RUTH, the first work in Campbelltown Arts Centre’s I Can Hear Dancing season is a journey into a baffling timber structure in which light and sound pull us forwards from room to room. Moving deeper into the structure, we also move deeper into the heart of an intimate relationship where power is asserted, surrendered and shared between two otherworldly individuals.

The world beyond the brightly lit Art Centre foyer is cool and dark, and smells of freshly cut timber. A long, wooden grid forms the back wall of a dimly lit laneway in which something is already happening: a linen-clad figure, clean hair combed back from her face, is setting out small black witches’ hats on the floor. She works with mesmeric focus in step with the music, electronic-harmonic sound spiking in volume each time she places a hat. I watch her for some time before the masked figure at the far end of the lane registers in my peripheral vision.

My stomach drops. How did it get there, this dark shape, coasting low to the ground as if it had always been here? Ragged dark hair, a rigid mask covering a face—the skin red from the neck up into the scalp—and red-rimmed eyes, transparent-blue. It glides along the corridor, back to the floor, collecting witches’ hats in the sweep of its outstretched arms until it meets the hat-placer.

We follow the pair deeper into the fragrant structure, the less-than-twenty of us grouping in clumps and trickles. There’s a crate the size of a shipping container into which light falls fast from different angles, throwing gold stripes across walls and onto our sweatered chests. There are rooms we cannot enter, through whose frame-like windows we can only peer. Deep inside is a room with a back end like a cut diamond, low ceilings sloping to meet the floor. A ladder feeds up through an opening in the roof—a ladder into the sky.

But long before we arrive in this blonde-coloured heart of darkness (or love), a particular relationship between the two beings has started to emerge: the unmasked one appears to be in control. She conducts tests, seeing what happens if she throws her masked mate different stimuli or sets him different challenges. Tasks intensify and evaporate at her will—game on, game over.

The masked one is obliging, often disoriented, evoking the vulnerability of a blinkered horse. The unmasked one, too, feels non- or super-human at times: it’s in the way her body pivots around her eyes: swiftly and precisely, unfolding, scuttling, levitating—but without ever disengaging from her object of study.

He is given over to her, but not all the time, and this is what is interesting—intermittently all of this power play slips from view and we see two people working together to explore the physics of their clothed bodies in relation to each other and to the floor. They hinge over each other, interlock in inventive ways, pull each other in swooping arcs across the floorboards. There’s a buoyancy in the movement. Also, sometimes, a pronounced sexual tension, sometimes tender release. The shifting soundscape reinforces all of this, often approximating the muscular tone, rhythm or emotional nuance of the dance—now churning steady like a train beneath the performance, now splashing out in high and dissonant clangs, now humming like a beehive in the top of a tree.

RUTH, photo Heidrun Löhr

RUTH, photo Heidrun Löhr

We emerge from a painful intensity in the relationship—the strange, somewhat sadistic games have become almost too much—to find ourselves alone with the bare-faced one. Relief. Alone like this, something opens in her and we glimpse her vulnerability, equal in measure to that of her mate. She pulls angles through space, a slender piece of wood balanced across both hands, meeting piano chords with surety.

Piano blooms into staggering synth harmony and I recognise our location: we are back at the beginning, in the laneway. Her friend emerges tall from the dark, arms raised in a terrible V over his head. She moves towards him, now lower, now softer, and I imagine her saying, ‘This is obviously all because I love you.’

They curl and unfurl in a long and lonely landscape. Low light pulls shadows out of black hats, boulders in a plain. And from a folded up place on the floor the masked one rises, carrying his now exhausted companion on his back. He casts a last glance over his shoulder—furtive?—before bearing her, sleeping, into the timber structure.

I Can Hear Dancing: RUTH, choreography Antony Hamilton, sound design Julian Hamilton, performers Melanie Lane, James Andrews, design Justin Green, lighting Benjamin Cisterne; Campbelltown Arts Centre, 24 July-26 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 22

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

Brendon O’Connor, Tony Yap, Dionysus Molecule, photo Windu Kuntoro

Brendon O’Connor, Tony Yap, Dionysus Molecule, photo Windu Kuntoro

Dionysus Molecule is an enactive, immersive, ritual work. While aesthetically informed by Tony Yap’s distinctive mixture of Malay shamanism and Butoh, its rituals also hail from contemporary performance. Yap’s early experience with theatre maker Renato Cuocolo locates his aesthetic firmly in the camp of those who want performance to be striking or powerful, rather than representational or conceptual. The figure of Artaud oversees this Dionysian realm.

We are ushered into a rectangular room, presided over by a witness (Robert Meldrum) seated on a high chair. Its pitted walls are alive with lines of light, mobile projections that form rivulets of light. The room is become flesh. It throbs darkly. Intoning TS Eliot, Meldrum refers to the endeavour and its associated risks: the liveness of performance, even ritual performance, is always and inherently open to failure.

How then to judge its success? This is not a work that demands contemplation, a view from afar. Insofar as it envelops the spectator in its action, it aims to provoke an intensity of experience. Yap articulates the power of shamanism for a Western theatrical audience largely ignorant of its traditions and distant from its cultural origins. Yet, we are very close to its invocation. We see the sweat dripping profusely from Yap’s bare torso, try to decode his opaque look, his faraway gaze. His visions are not our own but we piggyback on their intensity.

This is a ritual evocation, a duet between two men: Yap and Brendan O’Connor. If not about their masculinity, it stages a series of relations between men. They are the atoms of this complex molecule, intertwined but also quite different in terms of their embodiment. Yap is thoroughly inside his own experience, his eyeballs almost turned inwards. His cries make raw sounds, his skin is exposed and wet. O’Connor is more contained, though equally focused, his movement more animal, perhaps totemistic. Yap is possessed, overtaken by the dance. There is a sense in which he opens himself up to that which finds expression through him. I did not feel this with O’Connor, whose shape making seems to draw on a different kind of (kin)aesthetic. While the two performers sometimes interact, they tend to perform alongside one another. There is no common choreography, no one choreographer, rather a joint engagement in this performative venture.

The collaborators of Dionysus Molecule are all skilled in their own right. The world they have created transforms the everyday into a theatre of the night, a sensorium of time passing. The challenge (and risk) of the work lies in its intertwining of distinct traditions and styles. The mark of its success could be measured through the impact of its impulses and intensities. Would Dionysus have been pleased? I like to think so.

Dionysus Molecule, performers Brendan O’Connor, Tony Yap, visual media artist, sound collaboration Khaled Sabsabi, creative collaborator, performer Rob Meldrum, musician, sound artist Tim Humphrey, Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, 26-30 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 23

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




Contrasting concepts of dance were portrayed in Double Bill, with recorded spoken text, instrumental music, electronics and video framing one work and movement generating sound in the other, if in an intriguing relationship with it.


Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision, which premiered in the 2015 Adelaide Fringe Festival, is a collaborative work for four dancers—Mieke Kriegesvelt, Tyson Olsen, Ellen Worley and Greta Wyatt, who jointly developed the choreography—and composer Dan Thorpe. This intense 30-minute work is a setting of the texts of Adelaide poet Rhys Nixon. Thorpe developed the score with the Maple String Quartet and pre-recorded himself reading Nixon’s bleak portrayal of life. The carefully orchestrated sound, with Thorpe performing on guitar and electronics, provides a densely woven backdrop to the voiceover, the dance and an accompanying video to create complex and absorbing dance theatre.

The performance commences with the four dancers standing entranced in front of a TV on a trolley. They then burst into frantic movement as if they’re puppets controlled by unseen forces. Apart from the TV trolley and a couch, the stage is bare. The video, also by Thorpe, appears later, showing a shopper slowly navigating a supermarket, followed by a scene in which the solitary figure walks aimlessly in the street. The video combines superimposed and blurred imagery as if to show how TV programs and reality can coalesce into an incoherent composite.

The choreography is well paced and executed, dramatising the text and responding to the sound. In one stark sequence, two dancers curled up on the TV trolley’s shelves begin to writhe within and around the trolley and develop an erotic duet, like seductive serpents emerging from the TV itself. Another dancer walks across stage doubled over with her head in a rubbish bin that she pushes along the floor. This is expressive and dramatic, dance and text portraying a range of emotional and psychological states—the boredom, anger, aimlessness, isolation and loss of perspective induced by addictive TV-watching and the desire for escape from an unresponsive world. In the final passage, the dancers gaze at a glowing white TV screen in the darkness, like doomed moths hypnotised by light. Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision is fine work, powerful and probing.




In her If/Then, composer, musician and sound engineer Iran Sanadzadeh has revived the work of Australian dancer Philippa Cullen, who, in the early 1970s, began experimenting with theremins to produce sound through dance movement, and later developed a pressure-sensitive dance floor to trigger sound. Some of the equipment left behind by Cullen, who died tragically at age 25 in 1975, is housed at the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium and, for her Honours project in Sonic Arts at the University, Sanadzadeh is exploring Cullen’s ideas, devising her own movement-sensitive floor panels using updated electronics.

If/Then is an improvised work for four (or so) performers, including the composer herself, who sit, lie or stand on the movement-sensitive panels, their presence and action triggering shifts in pitch in a theremin-like drone that runs throughout the performance. With contemporary technology, a wider range of sounds beyond those of the theremin could presumably be generated, but Sanadzadeh has reproduced the sonic character of Cullen’s early equipment.

The performers resemble a group of friends relaxing casually while sipping drinks. Their movement mimics natural human interaction—the effect is like watching theatre minus the dialogue. The eerie theremin sound becomes even spookier—slight movements might abruptly trigger dramatic shifts in pitch, while more extended movements might or might not cause any major change in the sound. We thus witness a play that seems emotionally detached from the sound.

Although little seems to happen in If/Then, the theatrical concept is subtle and engaging. More energetic movement might induce a greater range of sound, but the movement remains restrained. While Cullen intended the dancers to make music, the performers in If/Then seem not so much to be playing an instrument with movement as allowing themselves to be observed electronically by the equipment and to trigger responses in the electronics to see what happens. In the meantime, watching people doing nothing reminds us that supposedly casual human interaction is actually a social contrivance.

Philippa Cullen in performance, Ewing Gallery, 1974

Philippa Cullen in performance, Ewing Gallery, 1974

There are other aleatoric elements in Sanadzadeh’s script. Evidently there is flexibility about who performs and how many join in, and during the performance, she signals to the mixer off-stage (Thorpe) to make changes to the mix, which, she told me afterwards, he might or might not obey. I attended both evenings—the second rendition of If/Then lasted somewhat longer than the first, suggesting flexible duration, and it turned out rather differently.

Sanadzadeh’s If/Then is thus about exploring a range of possible actions with indeterminate outcomes, suggesting the influence of John Cage. And as well as demonstrating and extending Cullen’s original idea of reversing the relationship between movement and sound, Sanadzadeh’s concept also inevitably speaks of the new era of electronic surveillance and prosthetic technology.

Double Bill, Personwhowatchestoomuchtelevision, If/Then; Tenth and Gibson, Bowden, Adelaide, 10, 11 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 24

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

Sarah Aiken, Set

Sarah Aiken, Set

Sarah Aiken, Set

The performance venue, stately, two storeyed Victorian with columned entrance, could have been a Masonic Hall in the past. Entering the darkened theatre to see Set, Sarah Aiken’s new work, evokes a sense of secret initiation ceremony. In the murky light, an enormous fabric cut-out hand inches out of the performance space. Aiken then appears in the centre of the room, crouched. With careful manipulation, her body slowly spins clockwise while in a sideways sitting position, the precision akin to a mechanical timepiece.

A mechanism on the floor releases four long cardboard tubes that roll towards Aiken who lies still. Gracefully, feeling in near dark, the dancer takes the cardboard tubes, balancing them, spinning them slowly like cogs over her while still supine. At first toying with them, she then slides them over her limbs, so they become extensions of her body. The effect exaggerates the movements of her limbs—legs and arms wide, the tubes crossing over her body smoothly. Here the body is both manipulated and manipulating. It’s a tightly orchestrated game; is she controlled by the weight and size of her newly acquired alien limbs or is she wielding the power?

With mid-air splits, the seemingly innocuous cardboard tubes underscore the flexibility and velvetiness of the dancer’s movement. Aiken manages to ‘own’ the foreign parts, subjugating them and preventing them from upsetting her balance. She then takes the tubes and uses the liminal spaces of the theatre to continue the game of balance and control. In the dimly lit space, the tubes explore skirting boards, Aiken propping up a hip, a shoulder, her forehead on the tubes, the tubes resting on a wall, finding the most literal kind of connection to the space. Her body becomes a sculptural object as she holds these positions, resting on four impossible points. This part of the performance was beautifully wrought, an exercise in simplicity and innovation.

Sarah Aiken, Set

Sarah Aiken, Set

Sarah Aiken, Set

The performance then becomes rather more ambitious and less well defined. Aiken tips props out of tubes as another fabric hand slides off a ceiling rail to form a background for projection. As the objects are revealed by being lit from above, video game-like sounds play. Cute. There’s an elephant toy, a large faux diamond, a handful of seashells, a running shoe…These are reflected in the hand but as oversized versions. While the artist explores the space, her image is projected among these large objects in real time so she looks Lilliputian, disappearing at one point behind a sneaker.

The closing spectacle entertains but there’s a sense of disjuncture with the initial scenes. Taking up the tube arms once again in near darkness, Aiken ‘initiates’ an audience member who slides her arms into the tubes and joins in the dancing on stage. Three other dancers also join in, each gathering in an audience member. To much laughter Nick Cave’s “Into my arms” plays as dancers and ‘initiated’ join in a large circle where the tubes are formed into triangles and pyramids, adding a touch of symbolic weight to this dance ritual.

Dancehouse, Set, concept, performance, choreography, Sarah Aiken: set/object design Daniel Arnott, creative collaborator, sound design performance, AV set design, lighting Amelia Lever-Davidson, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 22-26 July

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 25

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

Jenni Sanderson, Janine Sutter, Antonietta Vanzella, Maria Vlastuin, Last Light, Tracks Dance

Jenni Sanderson, Janine Sutter, Antonietta Vanzella, Maria Vlastuin, Last Light, Tracks Dance

Jenni Sanderson, Janine Sutter, Antonietta Vanzella, Maria Vlastuin, Last Light, Tracks Dance

2015 introduced a new Artistic Director with a strong history in Asian and Australian Indigenous performing arts to Darwin Festival. Andrew Ross’ first festival program provided a taste of what may become the festival’s signature style. His close relationship with Indonesia saw several artists from our near neighbour featured alongside new Australian works and collaborative commissions. Northern Territory artists also took centre stage as the festival looks to strengthen its connections with the local community. The following works exemplify these strands of the program.

Cry Jailolo

In Cry Jailolo, choreographer Eko Supriyanto marries a sparse design with driving rhythms and the passion of a group of young men to evoke the beauty of the ocean’s natural patterns—taking us “underwater and into the lives of the local (Maluku Island) population [as] an expression of hope and optimism” (festival program guide).

With the stage free of adornment, underwater light is conjured as the dancers move in and out of direct beams—sometimes as though in a ray of sunlight, then plunging into shadowy, blue-green dimness. At times the vibrant red of a costume provides a flash of colour lifted from the palette of a tropical reef.

The movement is constant, ceasing only at two climactic moments in the work, once when everything stops—silence, stillness, the body of dancers staring—and later when all the dancers fall to the ground. This relentless drive of rhythm and movement was for some in the audience monotonous, while the impact on the dancers’ bodies for others was mesmerising.

Cultural tradition is never far away with the choreography referencing local dance. The music too picks up on the mystical and exotic, a reminder of the ancient and spiritual.

Cry Jailolo is a poignant reminder of the precariousness of a community dependent upon the natural environment for survival. “The tropical paradise of Jailolo in eastern Indonesia’s North Maluku islands is a tourist brochure dream—white sand, clear water and some of the world’s best diving. But life is changing for tourists and locals as the region is ravaged by environmental degradation” (program).

Cry Jailolo was created by Eko Supriyanto in collaboration with his dancers over a two-year period. The work is a direct response to the changes in the local environment and a vehicle to share the Jailolo community’s plight with the world. The commitment of this company of proud men to tell their story was highly deserving of the standing ovation that erupted as at its conclusion.

Kelly Beneforti, Leanne Eltagonde, Last Light, Tracks Dance

Kelly Beneforti, Leanne Eltagonde, Last Light, Tracks Dance

Kelly Beneforti, Leanne Eltagonde, Last Light, Tracks Dance

Tracks Dance, Last Light

Darwin-based Tracks is known for work that speaks of people and place. Last Light is no exception. The dancers are young and old, of varying ability and from different backgrounds. Myilly Point, the harbour and the setting sun are all iconic of Darwin. As a result this contemplative work is less about artistic prowess and more about community and location. So much so that many in the audience were drawn to snapping photos on their phones, evoking the feel of a tourist attraction.

Last Light is focused upon “a quintessential Darwin experience—the ending of the day, outside watching the sun go down” (Directors’ program note), with the sun actually providing most of the light for the performance. Calming classical music plays in the headset I am handed as I arrive. As we draw closer to the show’s start a voice in the headset gently counts down to the setting of the sun and I have time to enjoy the view. As it fades, lights in the palms of dancers flicker and shine and the final setting is lit simply by strands of fairy lights woven into hoops like neon branches of cherry blossom.

Last Light is guided by nature, starting slightly later each night so it will time with the sunset and adjusting the staging to align with the sun’s path. Birds duck and weave above the performers; the sound of busy bee eaters catching their prey in the cool of dusk is echoed by the overlay of birdcalls on the music track. With Last Light Tracks has created a work celebrating the theatre of nature, creating space for the audience to pause and reflect.




Ubiet with Topology, Food of Love

Food of Love was programmed as part of Between Two Oceans, a series of intimate concerts in Brown’s Mart Theatre. Draped in black and red with a traditional Indonesian ikat scarf across her shoulder, singer and ethnomusicologist Ubiet, accompanied by the composer Dian HP on piano, traversed the landscape of love in Komposisi Delapan Cinta (Eight Loves composition). Her voice seeming a little restrained, Ubiet sang in Bahasa, pausing between songs to introduce the music. Local musicians and members of the Brisbane contemporary music ensemble Topology were honoured in being invited to participate but the arrangements felt underdone, adding little to voice and piano.

In preparation for this concert, Australian composer and Director of Topology, Robert Davidson travelled to Yogyakarta to collaborate with Ubiet. The result was the final two pieces based on the works of West Australian poet Randolph Stow. Here scores are loosely influenced by traditional Javanese gamelan music, and inspired by a trip to the ancient Javanese temple of Borobudur.

As the musicians played Davidson’s compositions I realised this was what I had been hoping for. The music came to life and Ubiet unleashed the full flexibility of her voice, effortlessly negotiating a chant steeped in tradition. The instrumental arrangements were intricate, breathing colour and light into the music. This felt like a true melding of expertise, shared interests and musical prowess—rich, deep and diverse. In the program note, Director Andrew Ross writes, “It is my hope that Robert and Ubiet will continue to collaborate.” I hope so too.

Darwin Festival, Ekosdance Company, Cry Jailolo, choreographer Eko Supriyanto, Darwin Entertainment Centre, 7-8 Aug; Tracks Dance, Last Light, concept, direction David McMicken, Tim Newth, Myilly Point Park, Darwin 7-10, 13-18 Aug; The Food of Love, performers Ubiet, Dian HP, Topology, Veronique Serret, Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin, 9 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 26

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

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Black, white, queer and Indigenous-queer, minimalist and outrageously maximalist productions afforded Nicola Fearn an impressive view of Australian Theatre varietals in the 2015 Darwin Festival with companies sourced from Brisbane (Dead Puppet Society collaborating with new music ensemble Topology) and Melbourne (Red Stitch, Malthouse and Little Ones Theatre).

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Brisbane-based Dead Puppet Society developed Argus with South Africa’s Handspring Theatre to premiere at the Brisbane Powerhouse in 2013. It came to the Darwin Festival this year as a well run-in production. Argus is a small-scale puppet show without puppets. The company’s previous production, The Harbinger, played the 2014 Darwin Festival and featured a giant puppet called Old Man. With Argus, the other extreme is explored with a tiny puppet comprising the hands of four puppeteers. He has no physical form and can dissolve and reform instantly as the team of puppeteers moves like clockwork. The hero embarks on an adventure to find a lost friend. Household objects such as water bottles, plant pots, torches and kitchen utensils combine with hands to form the characters on the journey, playing on a giant rotating wheel that provides various landscapes.

If sometimes concretised adult brains failed to understand the new environments the hero found himself in then the explanations from a loudly-spoken five year old in the front row provided insight. The still plastic minds of the young audiences have no trouble understanding and go willingly on the journey. Argus does not play down to its young audience although the constant squawks from the puppeteers voicing the puppet are reminiscent of children’s TV and could be re-thought.

John Babbage’s score, performed by Topology, is a sophisticated accompaniment with four multi-instrumentalists playing varying musical genres on double bass, guitar, violin, piano and saxophone.

Direction is careful and precise with attention paid to creating arcs of emotional highs and lows and swiftly changing scenes. Lighting designer Jason Glenwright creates a moody world with musicians lit in pools of blue and well-defined lighting on the play-board. It is a solid and inventive production but ultimately just misses out on creating a true sense of wonderment.

Malthouse Theatre, Blak Cabaret

Blak Cabaret marries flamboyant drag comedy with poignant and sensitive protest songs about pain, loss and anger. It’s an unusual juxtaposition of forms that is sometimes unwieldy and jolting but the strength of each ultimately pulls the audience in.

Kamahi Djordan King plays towering black Queen Constantina Bush who arrives with hip-hopping servant Nikki to declare Australia terra nullius and proceeds to invert 200 years of white/black history. Queen Constantina is grandly costumed to reflect each era as she talks about the White Protection scheme, the basics card, White Australian of the Year and apologises to the stolen white generation; “We’ve said sorry so now get over it.” You laugh despite yourself. She is rude, crude and politically savvy.

It’s not a new idea to flip black and white worlds and histories—the 1986 satirical film Babakiueria did the same as did the BIG hART stage production Hipbone Sticking Out in 2014. But it works; it’s funny, sticking pins into white Australia as well as being powerfully moving in its exposition of Aboriginal experience.

Interspersed music adds emotional weight and resonance as each of the four musicians on stage are icons of the Aboriginal music world. Bart Willoughby formed No Fixed Address in 1978 and has been performing and teaching worldwide ever since. He played the well-known ‘Stupid System’ and ‘We Have Survived’. Kutcha Edwards (Black Arm band) sings in the Mutti Mutti language and reminds us that the languages being sung on stage are only three of 400 Indigenous languages. Emma Donovan owns the stage as she sings, as does Deline Briscoe. This is musical royalty that counterpoints modern-day Aboriginal experience with Queen Constantina Bush’s delicious satirising of Australia’s recent racial history.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Dead Centre/Sea Wall

Dead Centre and Sea Wall, staged by Melbourne’s Red Stitch, are companion monologues written by two playwrights from different continents, both of whom are award winning and at the top of their game. While Dangerous Liaisons glories in excess in the Playhouse next door, these monologues in the Studio provide the antithesis; beautifully stripped back storytelling relying on the word and the actor.

In Australian writer Tom Holloway’s Dead Centre we meet Helen (Rosie Lockhart), at first a chatty, smiling woman telling us how she found herself in Australia after watching a Fosters advert on the telly. She has a gently self-mocking manner which is gradually peppered with devastating revelations. Holloway holds back on explaining the reasons for Helen’s journey and breakdown so the audience is immersed, waiting for clues as if it’s a thriller. You can hear a pin drop as Helen talks about fleeing to the Red Centre and how the solace she sought from a strange landscape instead dismembers her. Lockhart’s flawless performance is supported by minimalist projections and soundscape that echo the sense of mystery and foreboding.

UK playwright Tom Stephens’ Sea Wall divulges more of the story, this time from Alex (Ben Prendergast), the husband Helen has abandoned. Again warmth and chatty ease hooks us in as Alex describes his perfect life and loving family, including the slightly eccentric military father-in-law who ends up broken at the foot of Dover’s white cliffs looking for God. Domestic bliss moves into the realm of horror as Alex’s story, combined with projections of a slow-moving, swelling sea, remind us that a perfect life can be annihilated in an instant. We fall in love with the vulnerable Alex as Prendergast deftly and intricately weaves his characterisation. These two monologues—the writing, the acting and the restrained direction from Julian Meyrick with powerfully affecting projections and soundscape—are superb.

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Dead Puppet Society, Argus

Little Ones Theatre, Dangerous Liaisons

Following Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ controversial novel of 1782, Christopher Hampton’s 1988 stage adaptation and the cult teen film Cruel Intentions (1998), Melbourne’s Little Ones Theatre takes on this classic story of sex, betrayal and debauchery, bringing to it their signature queer, erotically charged, high camp style.

Eugyeene Teh’s design of sumptuous golden drapes hanging in Rococo folds, gold-painted floor and furniture and lavishly pink-costumed actors in white face and rouge sets the tone immediately—excess and gay abandon in equal measures. It’s performed in a grand profusion of styles thrown together with heightened, almost puppet-like movement, oddly false English accents, Chaka Khan played on a harpsichord and deliberately crude vignettes with semi-naked actors in sexually provocative moves and poses. Choreographed by Kurt Phelan, the actors glide about the stage striking heightened poses as they deliver text in the manner of pantomime.

The cast is mostly female—the one male looks strangely out of place with his hairy-faced genuine maleness. Underpinning the playful excess is a strong text that examines gender imbalance, morals (or lack of them) and deceit, the wit and satire of the original text complemented by the opulence and gender-bending nudity of the production.

The first act is long and the emotional superficiality of the pantomime style palls despite the interspersed mad and manic moments of burlesque. The second act allows the actors to drop into a more realistic emotional state and so engages with the text and audience on a deeper level.

This Dangerous Liaisons is fun, a gloriously costumed and lit extravaganza by a company that is happy to slap around its willing audience.

2015 Darwin Festival: Dead Puppet Society, Argus, director, designer David Morton, Studio,Fri 7-8 August; Malthouse, Blak Cabaret, concept, creative producer Jason Tamiru, text Nakkiah Lui, The Lighthouse, 11-14 Aug; Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Dead Centre/Sea Wall, writers Tom Holloway, Simon Stephens, director Julian Meyrick, Studio, 22, 23 Aug; Little Ones Theatre, Dangerous Liaisons, writer Christopher Hampton, writer Stephen Nicolazzo, Playhouse, Darwin Entertainment Centre, 14, 15 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 27

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

Rokia Traoré, Desdemona

Rokia Traoré, Desdemona

Rokia Traoré, Desdemona

It’s been more than 10 years now since Peter Sellars first locked horns with Toni Morrison over the merits of Othello. To the American director, Shakespeare’s tragedy was best forgotten, having far outlived its usefulness, if indeed it ever had any. To Morrison, Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, the play was as suffused with Shakespeare’s singular insight and humanity as any of his mature works. The disagreement resolved into an informal accord: Sellars would create a new staging of Othello while Morrison would open a performative dialogue with Shakespeare’s play that would interrogate those aspects—the muting of the non-white and female characters and the perceived racist/orientalist overtones—that have long troubled the play’s critics.

In 2009, Sellars’ Othello opened at New York City’s Public Theatre with John Ortiz as the title character, Jessica Chastain as Desdemona and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. With its futuristic aesthetic, long running time of four hours and self-conscious references to Obama, the production’s critical reception ranged, for the most part, from indifferent to hostile. In contrast, Desdemona—scripted by Morrison and directed by Sellars—was warmly received on its premiere in May 2011 at the Akzent Theatre in Vienna. It subsequently toured to London, New York, Berkeley and other cities, and is being presented at this year’s Melbourne and Sydney Festivals.

I spoke with Sellars on the phone from Los Angeles, his hometown, where he was in rehearsals for FLEXN, a new dance work featuring Flex, a form pioneered by young African Americans in Brooklyn, and part of this year’s Brisbane Festival program. When I called, he told me he was in a good mood and I decided not to potentially jeopardise this by telling him I was calling from Adelaide where, infamously, his artistic directorship of the 2001 Festival of Arts ended prematurely in controversy. I began, instead, by asking him to return to that initial conversation he had with Morrison about Othello.

“I’ve always disliked that play,” he began forthrightly, “because clearly Shakespeare didn’t have any black friends! The previous play Shakespeare wrote was Hamlet and, boy, do you know what that character’s thinking. He has soliloquy after soliloquy. Othello, by contrast, is with white people the whole play and is alone for 10 lines where he gets to say something that maybe he himself is thinking and not performing for others around him. So, that absence of a kind of inner space, an inner life is one of the first things I noticed. The other thing that was on my mind is, where is Africa in relation to Shakespeare’s England, and in relation to us now? And this has been a long discussion my whole life. And Toni challenged me. She said: “Are you kidding? That is simply one of the greatest plays ever written.”

Morrison, Sellars explained to me, connected her high regard for the play to her love of language and her fascination with how Othello’s adversaries use language to manipulate, deceive and, ultimately, destroy. Sellars, with all the zeal of a recent convert, put it to me this way: “They use language to convince you to betray everything that you love. That is, in the play Othello, they don’t kill what you love—they get you to kill what you love.”

Morrison had been present at many of the rehearsals for Othello, but it wasn’t until Sellars’ work on the production was complete that the pair’s continuing discourse began to crystallise into a second, even more lateral response to the play as conventionally imagined. Sellars explained: “I said to Toni, I think there still needs to be an answer to, and a dialogue with, Shakespeare. In the 21st century, we have a different set of relations and a different set of possibilities.” Both Morrison and Sellars came to feel that [their production of] Desdemona should take as its starting point the black characters and historical and personal narratives that, in effect, amount to an absent referent in Shakespeare’s play.

“We found this amazing sentence,” Sellars told me, “that comes just before Desdemona sings the famous Willow Song. She says to Amelia: ‘I can’t get this really sad music out of my head. It’s the song my mother’s maid, Barbary, sang when she died of a broken heart.’ And so, in one line of Shakespeare, you get three things: you get that violence doesn’t just rely on strangulation but that you can die of a broken heart; that her mother had a maid, that Desdemona’s parents didn’t really raise her, they were out fundraising every night for her father’s senatorial career; and you get that the maid was named Barbary.”




Barbary, as Sellars explains, was code for Africa in England at the beginning of the 17th century. “So,” he continued, “for Shakespeare in 1604 to use the name Barbary is to say to everyone, there is another African character in the play of Othello. And, of course, we learn from Othello right at the beginning of Act I that he and Desdemona fell in love when he started telling her stories. When we realise in Act IV that this brilliant, courageous white girl who picked this black guy as soon as he walked in the room was actually raised by a black woman on African songs and African stories, you get that when Othello told her these stories she knew them—and of course they fell in love. And so there’s this giant missing African link in this play. And so, with Toni, we said, let’s set about filling in this missing link.”

The key to this process was Sellars’ invitation to Malian musician Roki Traoré to play the part of Barbary and to create the songs that Desdemona heard when she was growing up. In contrast to received notions of what constitutes African music, Traoré’s songs, played live on stage with the aid of vocalists Fatim Kouyaté and Marie Dembelé and musicians Mamah Diabaté and Toumani Kouyaté, are not percussive and rhythmical but lyrical and meditative—“the equivalent of late Beethoven sonatas,” Sellars effused. In this conception, he believes, Shakespeare’s Africa—a strange, abstract image—is reinstated as a living dimension populated with “real human beings and real history. So you have, parallel to Toni’s writing, a genuinely African mode of storytelling [Traoré is trained in the griot oral tradition] that suddenly opens up completely new perspectives and a new emotional domain. And Africa is no longer ventriloquised—it is speaking and singing in its own voice. And meanwhile,” he continued, “I invited Toni to make the missing links between Barbary and Desdemona [played by Tina Benko]. And, of course, leave it to Toni to come back and say, ‘what’s missing from history is the women’s version of everything.’ So Toni has you meet all of the women in Shakespeare’s Othello in a world where they no longer have to be afraid, they no longer have to hide.”

Among Morrison’s innovations were, first, writing the single, passion-filled night Desdemona and Othello share that, in Shakespeare’s play, we only ever hear about and, second, rekindling their relationship in an afterworld following their deaths. “One of the most surprising things about the evening,” Sellars told me, “is watching Desdemona get things wrong, over and over again. And so it’s interesting because it’s not just an expected feminist reading. Toni is willing to show the limitations of Desdemona’s self-regarding, liberal white enlightenment. As she puts it, rather shockingly at one point, Desdemona’s trying to get credit for marrying a black man and Amelia says, ‘but he murdered you, right?’” At this, Sellars gave a wicked, wholehearted laugh. “So Toni really does change it up and she challenges the established narratives on all sides. And that’s part of her genius—that she takes you into the place that great art takes you, where there are no simple certainties and everything is presented with these inner dynamics, just surprising you over and over again.”

Desdemona, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Southbank Theatre, 16-19 Oct; Sydney Festival, Roslyn Packer Theatre, 23-25 Oct

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 28

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

Shari Sebbens, Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell, The Bleeding Tree, Griffin Theatre

Shari Sebbens, Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell, The Bleeding Tree, Griffin Theatre

Shari Sebbens, Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell, The Bleeding Tree, Griffin Theatre

Although Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree and Andrew Upton’s The Present (after Chekhov’s Platonov) each has something important to say about families, relationships and violence (of various kinds), their gripping productions also excited questions about design, language, context and consistency of vision at a time when a multitude of influences weigh on theatre, often resulting in a cut-and-paste aesthetic, a legacy of undigested postmodernism. The works shared a tremendous sense of immediacy, of engaging with the flux of the moment, the turbulent confluence of past and future.

The Bleeding Tree

Renee Mulder’s design for director Lee Lewis’ premiere of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree yields one of those sets which is sculpturally interesting in itself, even before it’s animated by actors. From upstage in The Stables a series of slanted wedges fans out, dipping sharply to the floor in an evocation of the vertiginous ridges of an abstracted, unaccommodating landscape. But the harsh impression is softened by the surface with its floral patterning of a kind found on the frocks and wallpaper of bygone generations, now faded and inexpressive. The same backward glance is ‘heard’ pre-show in Doris Day singing, “Everybody loves a lover” until interrupted by a shattering blast, its long reverberation felt throughout a sustained total blackout plunging us into a traumatised present.

As the dark lifts, a mother and two daughters living out the aftershock of having killed their violent husband and father ride waves of disbelief, victorious delight, defiant re-enactment, guilt and fear of being caught. Their emotional and moral uneasiness is heightened by having to navigate the steep landscape, temporarily alleviated by standing or sitting in tableaux-like clusters as episodes unfold. These sharply focus our attention on the play’s stream of urgent, short-breathed utterances—a casual stichomythia, a form found in Ancient Greek and Roman drama entailing the alternating delivery between characters of single lines, often of similar length and rhyming or half-rhyming. Cerini uses the device to great effect, his language rooted in the idiomatic English of uneducated speakers who are nonetheless capable of insight and the poetry the form encourages. It also allows for different kinds of telling with quick alternations between first person responses (singular or plural: “Shakes still taking us, every little bit comes up choking us”), collective narration (the present tense account of the killing) and third person observations (the girls watch a sympathetic neighbour, Mr Jones, pretend that he can’t see the dead man’s foot: “He just kicked it.” “Looks back around face gone changed.” “A snarl and a sneer as clear as the day”). In the same vein, the words of visiting neighbours and a postman-cum-policeman are spoken by the women while the lugging and hanging of the body, not mimed, is intensely felt in voices and bodies.

The storytelling framework resonates with thriller, fairy tale, fable, folksong, liturgy (“The father lord our master.” “His pecked at cadaver.” “Blessed be thy name.” ”You dead useless lump, dead as the dead hereafter.”) and gothic goulishness (“Say all ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but holy hell never mentioned no rats but. Oh that’s a delicious bloody prize for the beatings and the show. Eaten from the inside out a marvellous bloody show”). The play’s storyline too, though moment by moment suspensefully unpredictable, resolves to a satisfying fable-like conclusion.

While saying much about domestic violence and about communities that tolerate it as long as ‘it’s not their business,’ The Bleeding Tree envisages a small rural community which comes onside with sympathy, apple pie and money—if only when the perpetrator has been killed—but also with the most unexpected advice for the women, at once comic, vicious and idiosyncratically moral. While hardly a model of law abidance it nonetheless poetically celebrates both the possibility of community unanimity against domestic violence and the resilience of its survivors, here in a mix of vengefulness and a sense of regeneration from the mother: ”Boil up his bones. Gonna make stock from his bones. I’m gonna make me a rose garden, the best he never seen….That dead hole in his head can stare back at me in every blossom…”

Paula Arundell as the mother and Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds are a perfect ensemble, totally mastering and subtly voicing Cerini’s challenging ‘score,’ realising its poetry, black humour and emotional depths. Lee Lewis’ direction underpins these with semi-tableaux staging on Mulder’s admirable set and with a momentum that matches the panicky, tense stichomythia but also allows for moments of interiority for the mother, when the rhythm slows.

The sisters observe their mother addressing her dead husband: “Gone mad as can be.” “Nah I reckon just having a well-earned dreaming reverie.” The Bleeding Tree is a wonderfully haunting dream play of the very darkest feel-good variety.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present

The Present

Alice Babidge’s set design for The Present (Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov, directed by John Crowley) is of a characterless modern dacha without traditional open timber-work, architectural decoration or garden in flower, just a few blades of grass. Nor do set or lighting suggest summer heat. It’s as if beauty and warmth have been expunged. This is the Russia of the 1990s, the era of ‘wild west capitalism’— prior to the current state capitalism—when fortunes were made as government industries were sold off to the new private sector (often opportunistic old guard communists) or simply appropriated by means unfair and foul. Given that the property has been inherited by Anna (Cate Blanchett), whose late husband was an old communist general, and that she’s likely to lose it, it’s odd that the design doesn’t evoke a sense of belonging and history; rather the house, inside and out, looks like the kind that might reflect the taste of the new oligarchs. There are other oddities: the pronounced upper class Anglo accents of the powerful men courting Anna and the deployment of songs by the Clash and Joy Division. In my younger years, productions of Chekhov often suggested nothing less than dysfunctional English afternoon tea parties. Not so here, but still British enough to irritate. The Present gives us post-Perestroika Russia—a collapsing Soviet empire nicely matching the crumbling Tsarist state that is the world of Chekhov’s plays—but with the most casual consistency.

Fortunately, Upton’s adaptation, the performances and John Crowley’s direction add up to an engrossing Chekhovian experience with all, and more, of the anticipated ennui, sexual tensions, frustrated ambitions, thwarted idealism, wry humour and potential for violence. Upton’s language, adroitly witty, bitter, blunt and thoughtful by rapid turns, is idiomatic (“He fucked you too? A trifecta!”) largely without being specifically Australian. There are marvels of distillation and restructuring, most strikingly the series of encounters in late night mist between the drunken Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh) after a disastrous birthday party for Ana’s 40th. The victims of his womanising and disloyalties manifest like punishing ghosts, but Mikhail persists in enacting cruelties and delivering the kind of idealistic advice he is unable to apply to himself. An emotionally demanding sequence has the naïve Sergei (Chris Ryan), enraged by the seduction of his wife, confront Mikhail but then exit and re-enter, like a rejected dog, desperate for the intimacy he is losing, bewildered and longing for touch: “You have killed me.” Mikhail is unaccommodating.

This scene is one of many that justifies the titling of the play. It’s obvious that dwelling on the past and being anxious about the future (or feeling that there is none worth envisaging) are central to the frustrations of the present in Chekhov. Here, it has a heightened specificity in Mikhail, a man who utterly believes whatever he is doing or saying in the moment. His celebration of his friendships, his admission that his marriage is the great anchor of his life, the conviction with which he urges others to action and the brutal frankness of his cruelties are all utterly believable—but in the present only. Richard Roxburgh, realises each of these moments with utter conviction—charming, seductive, ruthless and, above all, helplessly living in the moment. But frequently there are telling signs of uncertainty, in false starts and hesitancies with which Roxburgh colours Mikhail.

Cate Blanchett brings a different kind of spontaneity to the role of Ana, in love with Mikhail but recognising, despite its relentless push and pull, the impossibility of acting on it. Trapped between the old guard and the new and appalled at “what we have become” she unleashes her pent up anger at the guests gathered around the birthday meal, firing a shotgun and threatening to blow up the building with Semtex. It fails. “Made in Russia!” she wails, but she’s put the batteries in back to front. The build to violence has Ana calculatedly watching the others, slowly reaching into the top of her dress, pulling out her bra and waving it to gain the attention she next seeks with gun and bomb. The action is superbly comic and chillingly suspenseful—Ana’s wicked sense of humour, deep pain and raw anger felt simultaneously, with all the complexity that Blanchett so often realises on stage.

There are other fine performances (including Chris Ryan’s Sergei, Susan Prior’s Sasha—Mikhail’s suffering but finally defiant wife—and Jacqueline Mackenzie’s Sophia—the maddening doctor whose love proves fatal for Mikhail). There have been many adaptations of Platonov and there’ll be more given the free hand its sprawling and often unfocused five hours (cut to three here) offer directors and writers the opportunity to each make their own Chekhov. Andrew Upton now has a very fine one of his own. Next stop, Ivanov at Belvoir. Another early Chekhov ever ripe for adaptation.

Griffin Theatre Company, The Bleeding Tree, writer Angus Cerini, director Lee Lewis, Stables Theatre, 31 July-5 Sept; Sydney Theatre Company, the Present, writer Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, Sydney Theatre, 4 Aug-19 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 30

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

A String Section

A String Section

A String Section

Describing a performance as ‘hypnotic’ usually opens up a space of ambiguity that isn’t necessarily helpful to anyone, and not just because one person’s ‘hypnotic’ is another’s ‘boring as hell.’ The descriptor covers a range of experiences that can be dissimilar in intent and effect—the dazzling bewitchment of a purely sensory spectacle that fully engages perception is not the same as the work that lulls a viewer into an inward-looking meditative state, and different again is the repetitive or durational work that inspires each observer to meander off down mental avenues all their own. Two recent Melbourne performances illustrate the point, each with mesmeric effects but quite unlike one another in that respect.

Reckless Sleepers with Nat Cursio Co, A String Section

A String Section is a very curious work by Leen Dewilde of Belgium/UK company Reckless Sleepers and has enjoyed a number of one-off performances around the world, typically in collaboration with a local outfit. In Melbourne this came in the form of Nat Cursio Co, with both Cursio and Dewilde appearing in the production alongside other Australian dancers. It’s not quite dance per se, though the point is arguable, but it quickly becomes very apparent why physical performers are required for the piece.

The five dancers–all women—are seated on wooden chairs. Each is dressed in an elegant black dress and high heels and wears lipstick. Their attitude is one of gracious patience as the audience settles itself. In short, they look like a string section. The one thing out of place is the bows they have brought with them—generously-sized carpentry saws. The instruments they’ll be playing are the legs of the chairs themselves.

Dewilde’s concept is as simple as it is clever: from what is essentially a visual pun flowers a work whose danger I struggle to compare with much else. The women perch on their chairs in increasingly contorted poses as they hack away at the legs supporting them. When a chair leg becomes another inch shorter, the entire frame tips in a new direction, and all the while the visible threat of the saw blade is flying around among the performers’ limbs. As with a classical string section, of course, all faces remain largely expressionless besides the odd demure smile, and the blankness of affect is in stark contrast to the peril of the sharp edge dragging across a wooden limb a few hair-breadths away from a real, exposed calf.

Not much is really happening and it is entirely enthralling. The danger is somewhat heightened as legs grow shorter, seat angles more precarious and footholds (in heels!) ever less sure, but this isn’t the kind of escalating peril of circus. It’s more about the immediacy of live art, in this case observing each performer adapting their attack moment to moment as the thing supporting them disintegrates into sawdust, and attempting to maintain a particular composure almost absurd in the face of the action it accompanies, and which quickly becomes visibly tiring.

To describe this work as hypnotic isn’t enough—the state it induces is one of intense engagement with its presentness, in both a temporal and spatial sense. It is the feeling of a breath held for 50 minutes, all in the audience leaning forward, alert to every movement. It was only afterwards that I even began to consider the humorous associations behind the work—its deployment of classical music iconography—because the performance itself didn’t invite the distance required to mentally wander in those directions.

I saw the second one hit

I saw the second one hit

I saw the second one hit

St Martin’s, I Saw the Second One Hit

St Martin’s I Saw the Second One Hit depends on such associations but is more surprising for it, given how its several central themes might lend themselves to more direct and mimetic exploration. It’s performed by two teenage twins who grew up in the wake of 9/11 and mines the experiences of people who have never known a world not affected by that event, but whose own understanding of it is obfuscated by adults who try to shield them from the full impact (the very fact that many young people have never heard of the World Trade Centre attacks is astonishing enough).

But director Clare Watson here takes a deeply lyrical approach to all of this. From the description I’ve provided, you wouldn’t expect the work to contain a good 10 minutes or so of callisthenics, some awkward wrestling and a lengthy discussion of the Higgs boson. There are literal references to the theatre of security that has emerged in the wake of 9/11—of the moment George W Bush was informed of the news, of water bottles confiscated at airports, of the Sydney siege and planned Anzac Day attacks—but most of the production urges audiences to find their own meaning in what is presented.

It’s worth taking up the challenge. The piece’s most rewarding sequence is in fact the long callisthenics routine, especially when glimmering metallic clubs are introduced and the girls twirl them so rapidly that they appear like the spinning cogs of some ethereal mechanism. The very martial discipline demanded of callisthenics hints at youth in military training, of individual expression filed down to a series of identical movements, but at the same time an unconscious glance from one performer towards her sister, or the slight tremble of a smile or hastily caught breath are reminders of their very humanness.

Centring the work around a pair of identical twins is a brilliant conceit. Obvious allusions to the Twin Towers aside, it allows their relationship to mirror that of Australia and the US, and to Watson’s credit she allows the many resonances here to play out subtly, largely leaving the deeper implications to the audience. Through word and gesture the twins evoke a powerful sense of both mutual dependence and a desire to each distinguish their own identity. They fight and they finish each other’s thoughts. They’re fascinated by the story of Romulus and Remus—another allusion that provokes parallels to the fall of the Towers and the twins’ own rivalries—but words are used sparingly here.

The subdued lighting, reflective flooring and sparkling tinsel backdrop do a lot to set the mesmerising tone, and the undramatic performances only add to this, but this mounting to a sustained hypnotic effect is not that of A String Section. It’s one that has the mind working at all angles, drawing lines between concepts and teasing out possible significances. The danger here is not physical but conceptual—any particular audience member just might not get it. That’s usually a risk worth taking.

Reckless Sleepers with Nat Cursio Co/Malthouse Theatre, A String Section, concept, choreography by Leen Dewilde, director Mole Wetherell, Malthouse, July 18; St Martins/Malthouse Theatre, I Saw the Second One Hit, concept, direction Clare Watson, performers Juliette Hemphil, Madeleine Hemphil, Malthouse, Melbourne, Sept 3-12

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 31

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

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

TAO Dance Theatre, 6 7, Tanz im August

The 27th edition of Tanz im August, the second year under the artistic direction of Finn Virve Sutinen, started with an announcement of a significant budget increase to its main presenter, performance house Hebbel am Ufer. Good news for Berlin’s independent performance community, often left at the doors of the venerable theatre houses. HAU (as it is usually abbreviated) is the biggest, most respected and most internationally connected performance space for independent performance in Berlin, if not in Germany.

Likewise, Tanz im August this year placed particular emphasis on new works by emerging Berlin-based artists. The other main lines of inquiry were the intersection of performing and visual arts, and dance in Asia—and it is a pleasure to report that the festival was particularly strong on the last theme.

Tao Ye’s TAO Dance Theatre

Asian dance in Europe is often programmed blandly: blockbuster shows in oriental flavours taken out of their contemporary context. Nothing like that with Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s TAO Dance Theatre, whose double bill 6 & 7 was one of the most interesting dance works I have seen in a long time. Contemporary and modern dance have not had much success in China, where local traditions predominate, and Tao Ye’s career has been built directly on international, rather than local, stages. Ye trained in classical Chinese and ethnic dances at Chong-qing Dance School and started his career at the Shanghai Army Song & Dance Ensemble, before founding his own company at the age of 22.

6 and 7 are abstract pieces in a longer series, with the titles referencing the number of dancers they involve. Perhaps because he has developed outside of a ‘scene,’ Ye’s work is unlike anything I have ever seen, and his concerns, although minimalist, are hard to adequately describe. Both 6 and 7 are primarily exercises in minimal, repetitive, synchronous movement, located mostly in the upper body, with very little lifting of feet. The movement is so asexual and un-figurative that it leaves almost no reference points for description: there is skirt-pulling, twisting shoulders, bending, rocking, tilting heads. The choreographies retain an anonymity: there is no thematic description, no profiling of individual dancers; focus is shifted away from faces or individual bodies towards group movement and individual body parts.

Ye’s interest, however, is neither in referencing quotidian gestures nor in the inner, spiritual experience of dance. Rather, it appears to be sculptural. The interest is in composition, massing, the rhythm of shifting weight, tension between body and negative space. The hypnotic rhythm and abstract, anonymous movement vocabulary combine to give the impression of an avant garde minimalist take on the aesthetic of mass games—those athletic displays that opened sports events and other public manifestations across the socialist world.

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, Pause and Loss, 1976

Rosemary Butcher, SCAN

A retrospective of the work of Rosemary Butcher offered an insight into a choreographer who brought an American postmodern aesthetic into British dance. Butcher’s SCAN has four bodies, two male and two female, moving inside a tight grid of light. The choreography is that of constant, low-level pressure applied to bodies in intervals just short enough that the bodies cannot fully recover to regain equilibrium. Like the incessant rub of a megalopolis, a bureaucracy or systemic violence, the bodies are stretched, lifted, pushed down, contorted; they lie down and rise, walk on their hands, forward, backwards.

The grid of light slices through, like an MRI, producing a striking visual effect of dismemberment. Butcher herself has admitted that in another life she may have preferred being a visual artist, and the strong focus on the visual experience in SCAN threatens to overwhelm the choreographic. The work loses energy in the final part, which features a film projected onto the square performance space. While the film zooms in on body parts of dancers in rehearsal, the audience is left rising on their tippy toes, frustrated, trying to see the film over each other’s shoulders.

Isabel Lewis, Occasion III

It was, finally, a great privilege to attend one of Isabel Lewis’ events titled Occasions. Organised in various cities since 2013, most recently at the Frieze Art Fair in London and Kunsthalle Basel, Occasions are gently structured events at the intersection of performance, philosophy salon and party. In a carpeted performance space, with scattered seating, lush plants, masterful canapés and unlimited drinks, Lewis takes on the combined role of dancer, DJ, lecturer, party host, story-teller and interlocutor. For her, the format is an attempt to reconcile her various practices as performer, choreographer, theorist and DJ, and much of the event is a discussion of the artificial separation of mind and body and practices that bring them back in balance.

I did not intend to stay the entire four hours of the Occasion, and it surprised me how addictively lulling it was. Lewis starts with a complex musing on happiness and its Greek equivalent eudaimonia, which translates fully as “life lived in accordance with virtue.” Challenging us to name the great virtues in Christianity, Lewis brings the body into discussion, relating her Berlin clubbing experiences with the more spiritually aligning practice of gardening. Often, she breaks the monologue to have conversations with audience members, the length of the event allowing these not to be tokenistic participation but dialogues of genuine exploration. At other times, Lewis plays music, or dances, or encourages us to dance, or drags around a little scent machine, describing the components of the scents she has assembled (the most droll being, undoubtedly, the scent of the notoriously excessive Berlin club Berghain, which for Lewis is emblematic of a physical experience that locks out the mind).

We are allowed to walk in and out of the performance space, Occasion happening just as much among the smokers on the steps of the building outside. As the evening unfolds and de-formalises, friendships are forged, people lie down among the plants, make out, converse. The caterers lie down too. At one point, Lewis dances among us, coming excessively close between our resting bodies while a small child follows her through the space, imitating her sensual dancing with both joy and confusion. The spirit of the event, restful and sensuous, resembles a kiki—a relaxed social gathering, often after clubbing, developed in African-American and Latino gay subcultures—a reference I cannot imagine was lost on Lewis.

Contemporary American choreography-without-choreography, like the work of Isabel Lewis or Miguel Gutierrez (Deep Aerobics, RT 128), functions well at dance festivals like these because it provides a generous space to contemplate the meaning of the event. It is easy to get lost among the performing bodies. Occasion III grounded not only its audience, but the entire Tanz im August.

Tanz im August: TAO Dance Theatre, 6 & 7, choreography Tao Ye, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, 26-27 Aug; SCAN, choreography Rosemary Butcher, HAU1, 2-3 Sept; Occasion III, host Isabel Lewis, HAU1, 4 Sept; Tanz im August, Hebbel am Ufer and other locations, Berlin, 13 Aug-4 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 32-33

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

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

There’s a long history in which adult imaginations conjure fictional teenage societies defined by competition and conflict. From Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games, these are worlds in which larger structural tensions and hierarchies are displaced onto young individuals, who are themselves nonetheless rendered categorically distinct from the adult world (there’s no place for coming-of-age narratives in these fictions). It’s a relief to hear that Adena Jacobs’ second foray into teenage experience avoids this cliché.

Her first was 2013’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, a near-silent work of careful and particular gestures that fed on the restrained energy of youth forced into a state of self-discipline. Her latest is The Bacchae, entirely performed by 12 female performers aged 13 to 18 and eight musicians also in their teens.

“In both works we’ve tried to avoid the idea of a group of girls turning on each other,” says Jacobs, “partly because in my experience that’s not actually true. It’s a cliche. It’s much more interesting to see these figures wrestling with invisible forces, higher forces or unseen presences.”

The director says that both works are concerned with the ways that groups structure themselves and the “rituals they enact for invisible purposes.” Inspiration for The Bacchae directly emerged from the experience of creating Bodily Education. “That work was really restrained. It was about innocence and it was about our gaze upon these young girls. In rehearsal when we were dealing with this very detailed, delicate choreography we’d stop rehearsing and suddenly the room would burst into some kind of chaotic frenzy.”

Jacobs and co-creator Aaron Orzechs knew that this very energy would lend itself to an unpacking of Euripides’ play. Via a long improvisational process with the ensemble, the two have engaged with both the core themes and poetics of the original while remaining alert to how the cast’s “vision of order and chaos, patriarchal law and female subversion is entirely different.”

The drama of Euripides’ play centres on the violent god Dionysus and the authoritarian king Pentheus, with the women in its landscape fundamentally falling into two camps—the devoted followers of the former and the mad women on the mountain, who are unseen but reported upon. Jacobs’ reimagining distributes character across the ensemble while maintaining the problematic dynamics of the source.

“If we think about Pentheus as the first voyeur in theatre history and about that critical moment in the play where he dresses in his mother’s clothes and goes to the mountain to spy on the women, the provocation of that idea [in relation to] teenage girls feels fascinating and kind of dangerous” she says. “The idea of playing out the dualisms of the hunter and the hunted, god and mortal, man and woman through teenage girls felt incredibly challenging.”

One of the resonant notes the teens pinpointed early in development was the sexualisation and subsequent punishment of women. “I thought a version of this play where they are forced to be looked at in an erotic way but then are shamed for it was really interesting. That for me is one of the more striking and sad things that they’ve said. These girls have grown up in a world of iPhones and technologies which mean that they are plugged into a system that they can’t escape from, and they’re incredibly self-aware of it. They know that that’s the world they live in.”

This work, however, is far from a didactic treatise on gender politics. Text has been stripped back to a minimum and much of the work is music-led. “It plays out more like a hallucination or dreamscape…kind of like a post-traumatic memory of the myth via visual imagery.”

Euripides’ play was long considered one of the more confronting in the Greek canon, its bloodiness affording it some controversy (though equally making it one of the more popular texts in the modern age). Jacobs says that this darker edge needn’t be blunted when working with teenagers. “One of the main lessons that came out of Bodily Education is trusting that a group of young people can deal with any content as long as there’s a frame around it. As long as they’ve got agency, as long as they’re bringing themselves to it, the palette is very wide.”

Allowing them that agency, and providing a space in which the young creators may forge their own response to the text rather than accepting one imposed upon them, has been key to the work’s unfolding. “It does feel like they’ve got a world unto themselves,” says Jacobs. “They’re in it together, which I think is really great. Both times I’ve worked with St Martins I’ve been really interested in allowing [young performers] to build their own rules and allowing them to trick and surprise us.”

Melbourne International Art Festival: The Bacchae, St Martins and Fraught Outfit, Theatre Works, 8-24 Oct

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 34

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

Actors ‘take a bow’ for the playwright by holding scripts aloft

Actors ‘take a bow’ for the playwright by holding scripts aloft

Actors ‘take a bow’ for the playwright by holding scripts aloft

The 8th National Play Festival, held this year for the first time in Adelaide, showcased six new Australian plays in full readings and four by emerging South Australian playwrights in excerpts. Two distinct themes emerged over the festival’s four days of readings, industry forums and artist talks: diversity, both on and off the page, and the dual nature of Adelaide’s arts ecology: on the one hand, porous, vibrant and nationally-focused, and on the other, provincial and underdeveloped, too often focused on the past, namely the transformative premiership of arts advocate Don Dunstan, than on the future. As expected, Joanna Murray-Smith’s keynote address, “A Lover’s War,” touched on Senator Brandis’ evisceration of the Australia Council’s budget, albeit with less sturm und drang than might have been hoped.

The phrase that shadowed the festival, to be taken up in an email exchange I had with Playwriting Australia Artistic Director Tim Roseman and others following it, was “the long game,” the title given to a panel discussion featuring local theatre-makers and critics about the vitality of South Australia’s creative microclimate. The fact that the discussion became mired in the state’s history—Dunstan again, like the Ghost of Christmas Past haunting the Festival Centre whose establishment he oversaw—was an indication of just how much more of the game remains to be played while we continue to pore over old scorecards, and while, crucially, the absence of a second-tier company in Adelaide capable of developing and programming work year-round remains. I was, however, buoyed by critic Murray Bramwell’s list, too long to reproduce here, of the number of new works by South Australian artists produced in this state in the last two years. I took the list as a sign that the deficiencies in South Australia’s arts funding and infrastructure are not matched by a lack of drive in our creatives.

Connecting to a national conversation, and following on from passionate, and occasionally heated, conversations at previous Australian Theatre Forums around the cultural homogeneity of our plays and playwrights, the launch of a Diversity Pledge by the Equity Diversity Committee at the festival was broadly welcomed. In part, the Pledge reads: “We all have a role to play in creating stories that reflect the diversity of the world in which we live. To that end, and in addition to striving for more diversity in my writing, I pledge to include a statement, where appropriate, alongside the character descriptions in my work to encourage diverse casting.”

I put it to Roseman that, while laudable, the Pledge risks picking the low-hanging fruit only, as playwrights, though they generally retain the right to veto casting decisions, may still not feel that they can confidently tell diversely populated stories in the knowledge that producers will cast their plays appropriately or demonstrate cultural sensitivity where required. “It’s a long game,” Roseman responded. “At Playwriting Australia we’re talking about a 20-year program to change the shape of the Australian theatre landscape. More needs to be done at every level of the theatre world: drama schools need to be targeting talented actors from every possible background; theatres need to be developing work by writers from a far wider range of experiences and putting those plays on for the public to watch; agents need to be promoting their clients for a much bigger range of projects; and artistic directors need to actively hunt for new stories to tell and new perspectives for their telling.”

These stories and perspectives were reassuringly evident across the festival’s main program. Most significantly, an all-female cast and crew conducted the reading of Asian-Australian playwright Michelle Lee’s Rice, which wove an encounter between a second generation Indian and first generation Chinese person into an impressively sinuous essay on globalisation and the politics of class. The presentation of Albert Belz’s delightful Astroman, which turned out to be the festival’s undisputed crowd-pleaser, featured a large cast of Indigenous performers in the telling of Belz’s story about the coming of age of Jiembra Djalu, a computer games whiz-kid in 1980s rural Victoria. Although something about the tenor of the play struck me as cinematic rather than theatrical, it was impossible to resist the energy it was able to generate even in the sharply attenuated form of a script reading.

Of the remaining plays in the main program—Ben Ellis’ epic portrayal of the rise and fall of a Murdoch-like dynasty, Keith; Phillip Kavanagh’s almost symphonic meditation on information overload, Deluge; Maxine Mellor’s dark road drama The Silver Alps and Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpotts’ gleefully paranoiac monodrama about identity and show business, Lake Disappointment—none gave me much reason to doubt Roseman’s claim that new Australian work that conforms to a traditional dramaturgy is in rude health. He told me, “The days of the writer delivering 74 pages to a theatre and then rocking up for the first day of rehearsals are decreasing. But nearly every piece of work you see on a stage will have been inspired by work a playwright did at some point, whether it’s a new play by Andrew Bovell or a radical re-imagining of Sophocles or Aphra Behn. Playwrights are, I think, eager to be involved in new ways of making work and sharing their ideas and imaginations in other ways of creating theatre. Some work will be writer-led, other times it will be led by a different part of the engine. The vital thing to remember is that writers bring expertise to all of these forms.”

Along with Homegrown, the part of the program that showcased excerpts of new works by emerging South Australian playwrights Elena Carapetis, Sophia Simmons, Emily Steel and myself, these plays—in their generosity, inquisitiveness and, yes, diversity—were a reminder of what is at stake in the current political environment. Its relationship to the arts, under Senator Brandis, has increasingly come to be defined, in sharp contrast, by miserliness and inapprehension. I bristled to hear yet more justifications for what artists do in Murray-Smith’s address, but we’ve all been forced onto the back foot by Brandis’ cuts. In the absence of any powerful cri de coeur from the big theatre companies—for which Murray-Smith rightly lambasted them—solidarity and stoicism must fill the void. There was plenty of both on display at the festival but, in the end, art must speak for itself. And so, in these fine plays, it did.

Playwriting Australia, The National Play Festival 2015, Adelaide Festival Centre, 22-25 July.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 35

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

A Drone Opera

A Drone Opera

A Drone Opera

Every drone has a human operator. Even self-directed drones on autopilot rely on the human behind the software to give them purpose. Someone is always calling the shots. And it’s this necessary human element which is at issue in A Drone Opera, an exciting high-tech, high-art spectacle created by director Matthew Sleeth and composer Susan Frykberg.

We begin in darkness and in silence. Then there are voices: a resonant, chant-like music for soprano, countertenor and baritone. The singers remain hidden among the shadows. The atmosphere is almost like that in a church. Then, fiat lux, a cluster of blue laser light radiating from the back of the stage suddenly fills the large pavilion. And with that, the voices are joined by the unsettling and insistent buzz of a quadcopter drone.

The machine tends to obscure the human; but there’s no mistaking which comes first. This is an opera about our relationship with technology, and from the beginning menace is the keynote in the dramatisation of the relationship.

As we enter the performance space, we are ushered into great cages made of black mesh. These are for our safety, of course, to protect us from rotor related mischance, and yet, inevitably, we feel shut in. Drones armed with night-vision digital video cameras scrutinise us from every angle, transmitting a glitchy black-and-white feed directly onto a large screen at the back of the stage. We are made witness to our own captivity.

There is no narrative as such, but disquieting effects feature in almost every scene and mark a kind of progress. There are allusions to hubris and calamity. “Surely the sky is open,” sings soprano Judith Dodsworth as smoke hisses around her legs. The echo is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Father and son make a set of wings to carry them to safety. One is saved by the technology; the other, who flies too near to the sun, perishes by it.

At the same time, the technology does stir our curiosity, even our desire. The drones have all been custom made by Sleeth and his collaborators. These flash new toys are quick and nimble and have plenty of personality. The operators, even while they’re edging around the stage, keeping to the dark corners, all look as if they’re having a ball. So, yes, we feel the menace but also the allure. And maybe the great achievement of A Drone Opera is to hold these two feelings together, without contradiction, without letting one dominate, everything suspended in ritual and play.

Here, Frykberg’s vocal compositions are crucial. The drones themselves, as you would expect, feature as musical instruments, each with its own pitch, loudness and timbre. And we’re invited to hear their music not as a simple tone held beneath other elements of the score, but as an ostinato motif. In one scene, two drones dance a brisk aerial duet while the singers off-stage shape soft but rhythmical figures. Is this a passacaglia, perhaps? Is the ostinato of the drones a bass lament, a supercharged complaint, played so fast that we don’t consciously register its tragic aspect, as if desolation were sped up to a point where it could not be heard or felt. There is that sense of something sacred at work, cowled and shrouded by speed, hidden but present.

In another scene, in almost total darkness, the audience is slowly eyed off by a small drone with a searchlight. Is this the darkness of martial dystopia? We’re in our cages, after all—we might be huddled or cowering—and the drone is so close that we can feel the air pushed down from the propellers. But is this surveillance necessarily sinister? It could be a rescue drone looking for survivors in the rubble of some natural disaster. In the end, the drone becomes something even more innocuous: a robotic spotlight, picking out a lone singer on the stage, in the process creating a haunting and perceptibly human image.

Still, the context is inevitably war. The drone is military by its nature. Even an apparently harmless plaything built by a civilian hobbyist is only temporarily demilitarised. There’s always the potential to reassert its first function. This back and forth, this rapid negotiation between military and non-military connections, bewilders and delights and disturbs. The show exploits our weakness for fun gadgets and spectacular imagery but pushes us to admit that this weakness feeds back into—what?—a new telemilitary-industrial complex?

Robin Fox’s laser light designs are astonishing; they carve the space with detonations of red, blue and green, so psychedelic you gasp. He manufactures sculptures out of light, conjuring fantastical shapes from the haze of smoke, so that the gloom and grey are shot through with pure colour.

But lasers, like drones, are a crossover technology. They emerged from the labs of a defence contractor in the early 1960s; and today no stadium rock show can do without them. Yet recent footage of Boeing’s new portable laser cannon shooting drones out of the sky in New Mexico makes it clear that our distinction between war and play is mostly illusory—at least where technology is concerned.

Perhaps the most arresting coup de théâtre of this consistently startling show puts us—performers and audience in one heap—inside a vast cone of red light, with an obvious signification. War is always a thing of blood, however remote the control, and here we are right inside the killing vein. The three vocalists stare out into the audience as they sing words taken from a defence department training video: instructions for the acquisition of a possible new target.

All art today rides with the spectre of what Paul Virilio calls the state of total war. Matthew Sleeth is just making this context explicit, with a lot of dramatic magic and machinery, some of it luminous, some of it black. But he might have insisted a bit more clearly that art keep its human connection with the world. Perhaps that is what’s missing from the finale, where the drones and drones alone command the stage, hovering and swooping and blowing scraps of paper across the cold Meat Market cobblestones, suggesting visions of extinction and waste.

Perhaps the sombre feeling of absence is deliberate. But without the human element there is the risk that this drone opera, with its church music atmospherics, its sense of occluded and sacred rituals, looks just a bit techno-fundamentalist. So there is something ambivalent about A Drone Opera, as if the artists themselves, in telling the story of how we’ve fallen for the ghost in the killing machine, might themselves have been seduced.

Still, this is an opera, of all things, that shows us what we are: in the sights or behind the remote control. But in either case we’re at the interface between technology and art, between two types of creativity: scientific invention and its aesthetic inflection.

Arts House and Experimenta Media Arts, A Drone Opera, director Matthew Sleeth, opera composer Susan Frykberg, producer, dramaturg Kate Richards, performers Judith Dodsworth, Hamish Gould, Paul Hughes, Jennifer Hector, laser set designer Robin Fox, sound designer Phil Samartzis, lighting Bosco Shaw; Meat Market, Melbourne, 1-13 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 36

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

Argonauts soloist, Forlorn Remix, BIFEM 2015

Argonauts soloist, Forlorn Remix, BIFEM 2015

Argonauts soloist, Forlorn Remix, BIFEM 2015

A brass and electronics fanfare by Thomas Reiner heralded the third Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music from atop the former mining tower in Bendigo’s central park (above). Just down the hill another fanfare by Igor Stravinsky welcomed the audience to the Ulumbarra Theatre. The festival’s opening concert was a fitting contribution to the ANZAC centenary: Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s absurd, disjointed and critical live score to one of the first ever anti-war films, Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell; 1914).

BIFEM continues to inspire audiences with some of the most exciting international ensembles and new Australian works. This year BIFEM welcomed the provocative Paris-based group Soundinitiative, as well as the Finnish ensemble Defunensemble. As always, BIFEM’s warhorses, the Argonaut Ensemble, casually pulled off performances of contemporary masterworks and new commissions. The Amplified Elephants, Inventi Ensemble and a host of solo performers provided exquisite music from each mid-morning to early the next. The festival is thriving along with the regional city’s cultural scene. As well as with the usual haunts of the Old Fire Station and the Capital Theatre, this year’s festival inhabited the new Ulumbarra Theatre, which is stunningly built into and over the old Bendigo gaol.

Soundinitiative, The Exhausted

Soundinitiative presented the world première of Austrian composer Bernhard Lang’s The Exhausted, a piece of musical theatre based entirely upon Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Samuel Beckett. At a time when composers often make tenuous connections between their music and the texts upon which they are based, it was thrilling to follow Lang’s complete immersion in Deleuze’s text. Not that you had to know Deleuze’s essay to enjoy the piece. Lang shifts mercurially between musical styles depending on the needs of the text. The ensemble itself is constantly engaging. From their staggered, repeated stage entrances to the piece’s concluding bedlam, the ensemble was carefully choreographed by Benjamin Vandewalle. Performance conventions were unwound and remixed before our eyes, just as Beckett would play on sequences of everyday gestures and objects. Half speaking and half singing, mezzo-soprano Fabienne Séveillac transfixed the audience while standing, sitting, walking and hanging upside down from a table.

Defunensemble, All Finnish

Defunensemble offered to perform Australian music when they cold-called festival director David Chisholm, but Chisholm thought that “a postcard from Helsinki was too good a proposition for local audiences.” Clad in sea-green and black clothing printed with intricate marine designs, there was something magical about Defunensemble’s stage presence. Flautist Hanna Kinnunen’s reverberant flute solo Ruoikkohuhuilu by Juhani Nuorvala confirmed the enchanted atmosphere. Australian new music audiences know little of Finnish music beyond Kaija Saariaho whose music is both so peculiar and yet so immediately comprehensible. Human-sized but uncomfortable, it is like a stranger’s clothing. There was something similarly person-sized and walking-paced about the pieces by Nuorvala, Ville Raasakka, Perttu Haapanen, Niilo Tarnanen and Sami Klemola. From Raasakka’s prickling attacks on harp, flute, and cello to Haapanen’s duet for creaking cello and amplified typewriter, there were never more than two or three things going on at once. Each piece was highly segmented and narrative, but they told no particular story, nor engaged in any particular formal game. They were something completely different and a complete pleasure to hear.

Argonaut Ensemble, Sur Incises

The loose association of performers known as the Argonaut Ensemble stunned the audience with a performance of Pierre Boulez’s nonet Sur Incises. A buzz of anticipation surrounded the work’s first Australian performance in 15 years [the Australian premiere was conducted by Roland Peelman at the Sydney Opera House in August 2000. Eds]. Composed for three each of piano, harp and percussion, the piece is an idiosyncratic exploration of attacks and resonances, a sort of alter-spectralism that extends the piano’s sonority around the concert hall through the harps and percussion. Conductor Eric Dudley’s gestures were precise and fluid, especially where indeterminate attacks notated in the score resulted in splatters of sound like thrown paint.

From 32 to 43, the Argonaut String Quartet’s concert 4x4x4 included four quartets by four different composers. The string quartet is the heirloom orchid of the new music world: outlandish, antiquated, but greatly admired if you happen to find one. This concert was an audience favourite, which is promising as the quartet plans to break the Argonaut tradition of only playing in Bendigo. The concert was a rare opportunity for Australian audiences to hear a quartet by Christophe Bertrand, a promising young French composer who tragically committed suicide in 2010. As Angus McPherson describes in his review (p40) of the concert, eight audience members were able to listen to perceptive audio responses by artists aged between eight and twelve from St Martins Youth Arts Centre. New Zealand composer Dylan Lardelli’s sophisticated and intensely polyphonic Mapping, an Inlay wrapped the audience in a murmur of gliding microtones.

Trial by Fire Station

The solo recitals at the Old Fire Station have become a BIFEM institution. Reeling from Soundinitiative’s performances, the audience tumbled into the tiny black box to celebrate a single performer’s unique contribution to music in Australia. This year clarinettist Aviva Endean, violist Phoebe Green and prepared-pianists Erik Griswold and James Hullick each had their hour to shine.

Endean’s performances gravitate away from her principle instrument the clarinet to encompass percussion, performance art and ritual. Endean’s late-night performance at the Old Fire Station included her participatory work No Face like Yours in which the audience wears earplugs and “plays” them, following directions given by Endean in a video. From this warm and fuzzy beginning, the concert quickly descended into darkness. Endean left the audience with Wojtek Blecharz’s Counter-Earth, a profound reminder of the civil war that continues to displace millions of people and destroy Syria’s cultural heritage.

The contemporary master of feathered silence, Pierluigi Billone, contributed long, focussed works to both Endean and Green’s recitals. Endean explored the resonant properties of two brass bowls in Mani Gonxha. Green conjured a remarkable range of wispy and grating tones from her viola in Iti Ke Mi. Billone finds new instrumental sounds in an age that has rubbed and tapped every part of one instrument to every part of another (a technique that Richard Toop describes as “instrumental promiscuity”). What I don’t understand is the length of Billone’s pieces. I awaited the epiphany after the 20th minute of bowl-scraping, but found only the same sounds that I had heard so far.

Loud and clear

Perhaps it was in reaction to this trend in whispering earnestness that several concerts ended with explosions of joyous virtuosity. Soundinitiative concluded their Made in France program with Raphaël Cendo’s self-professed “saturationist” piece Faction. Defunensemble closed their All Finnish concert with Feed by the ensemble’s guitarist Sami Klemola. His Marshall stack presaged the unrestrained energy of the piece, though his guitar textures never strayed into outright distortion. The whole piece is a dry, tight cacophony. Endean chose a different tactic, opening instead of closing her concert with the woozy squealing of Ablauf.

The fortissimo tour de force of the festival was without a doubt Alexander Schubert’s Superimpose Cycle for jazz quartet (actually for seven players), which was performed to an audience packed behind the curtain of the Capital Theatre. The ensemble raced with breakneck speed through Schubert’s multi-stylistic escapade, stopping, starting, tooting and crashing under the red light and smoke effects. Myles Mumford triggered static bursts and effects from his laptop beside the audience. The climactic, final episode featured Soundinitiative’s Winnie Huang on amplified violin. Huang thrashed her way through the ecstatic violin part, a spectacle made all the more enjoyable by the unintentional half-beat lag introduced by Mumford’s processing. Everyone agreed that this should be written into the score.

Talking (and writing) about music

There was sadly less audience interaction this year. BIFEM have persisted in their policy of not printing programs, but with several programs changes between the festival brochure and the performance those express-post letters to the waste paper basket proved necessary in the end. Last year, some performers worked around this limitation by introducing works themselves. Several concerts were also broadcast on ABC Classic FM’s New Music Up Late. New Music Up Late has since been axed and the absence of Julian Day’s mellifluous voice was duly noted.

If there was less talking during the concerts, there was certainly more afterwards with the addition of a well-attended festival club at the Schaller Studio. This year also included a Music Reviewers’ Workshop run by Keith Gallasch, Virginia Baxter and myself from RealTime/Partial Durations. We led five talented writers—Delia Bartle, Angus McPherson, Charles MacInnes, Simon Eales and Jaslyn Robertson—through the marathon process of reviewing a packed festival program, providing passers-by the spectacle of eight frazzled critics tapping away furiously in a room of the Capital Theatre.

BIFEM’s dedication to presenting some of the finest and most challenging contemporary music to Australian audiences has paid off. BIFEM’s audience continues to grow at an alarming rate. But like Mount Everest, the increase in popularity risks stranding inexperienced climbers without food and water. Next year I will bring a survival pack: sandwiches, muesli bars and water for gorging on between shows; an LED light for reading the brochure during stage changes; and a pair of gloves for those icy walks to the festival club.

BIFEM: Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Director David Chisholm, Bendigo, 4-6 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 37

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

From the initial notes of Saturday’s Inventi Ensemble concert, I was struck by the excellent quality of sound produced—the tonal integrity of the acoustic instruments was consistently the central focus and the electronic material was expertly integrated. The Stratagem Studio at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre was the ideal space for sonic and visual close-ups of the flute’s inner workings, the struggles of the Roma people near Berlin, Gauguin in Tahiti and the lives of bees. Listeners were invited into an abundant world of imagery—part projected, part imagined.

In Passages (1979) by Jean-Claude Risset, Melissa Doecke’s solo flute interacts with a quaint episodic array of late 1970s electro-acoustics. By switching between the standard flute, its head joint alone, and the piccolo, Risset uses sound to creatively outline the workings of the harmonic series in music. His pioneering research into sound synthesis is apparent as we are reminded that perception of pitch is a response to changing frequencies. The samples were unpretentious, and each event occupied its own tonal area with certainty. The music travelled through changing air streams, touched on a hard-surfaced interlude, before bouncing off more disparate tonal language which was in turn stilled by vocal light at tunnel’s end.

Urban Gypsies (2005) by Johannes Kretz for oboe, electronics and film (by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1932) documents and musically narrates the lives of a group of Roma people living on the fringe of the city. Ben Opie’s mournfully pleading oboe conjures faces and words that become more forceful as images of grass and dirt give way to concrete and traffic. Disputes play out as trams and cars vie for prominence while the cries and honks of the oboe are the heart-wrenching anguish of animals being haggled over. People’s futures and pasts are also traded as the well-heeled are offered palm readings to the sound of vinyl cracklings and the oboe’s key clicks. As dice hit a beer stained card table, a tussle ensues which a plaintive child observes, perched upon a fence. A barrel of booze is rolled towards a celebration where women let down their hair and children horse around in dress-ups. The band is at full tilt and the couplings are blurred by fiddles, trills and multiphonics. With Hitler’s rise to power just a year away, I can’t help wondering what fate awaited these poor people.

Forty years earlier, Paul Gauguin made his first journey to Tahiti where, along with some of his most famous paintings, he produced a woodcut and travelogue both with the title Noa Noa. Kaija Saariaho’s 1992 work of the same name has become a standard work for flute and electronics, borrowing material from Gauguin’s text. Stage whispers are skilfully combined with quarter-tone recitations, air sounds and multiphonics. Doecke has throughly absorbed the composer’s stance on extended techniques and they are brought to life as the natural extensions of fragrant breath and song. This piece is an excellent example of how sound alone can create a rich and beautiful world of imagery.

The final work in the program, Melody Eötvös’ House of The Beehives (2015) was commissioned by lawyer and human rights activist Julian Burnside. A sequestered life in Italo Calvino’s short story of the same title is portrayed with flute, oboe, fixed-media and video. With its many blackouts and white flashes, saturated tree-scapes, and close-ups of flowers, the film was a little too reliant on effects, while the music swayed between evoking Celtic chants and upbeat hocketing. The combination left my imagination little room to roam—would simpler footage and greater exploration of the harmonic and textural vocabulary create a more poetic end result?

Inventi Ensemble’s Urban Gypsies illuminated many opportunities for multi-disciplinary artists wishing to combine images with sound. Which should take precedence, and how do they interlace to form a clear artistic statement? Perhaps works that are semi-improvised, or composed re-imaginings of obscure or abstract stories, have a greater chance for audience receptivity. They, like readers, are willing to fill in the gaps, imagine the backstories and even glance away to see where else they might be transported.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Inventi Ensemble, Urban Gypsies, Stratagem Studio, Ulumbarra Theatre, 5 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 38

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

Argonaut Ensemble, Superimpose Cycle, 2015 BIFEM

Argonaut Ensemble, Superimpose Cycle, 2015 BIFEM

Argonaut Ensemble, Superimpose Cycle, 2015 BIFEM

“Splits between real and faked instruments; a hyperactive zapping through styles and stereotypes” is how Hamburg composer Alexander Schubert describes his 2011 Superimpose Cycle for Jazz Quartet and Electronics. This whimsical idea was energetically realised in the work’s Australian premiere by the Argonaut Ensemble, comprising a hybrid instrumentation of piano, saxophone, violin, double bass, electric guitar, drums and electronics. Both the audience and musicians were seated on the dimly lit stage of Bendigo’s Capital Theatre, immersed in a hazy space that became home to disfigured saxophone solos, hammered piano notes and wailing guitar glissandi.

Schubert creates a dense and unpredictable cross-genre sensation by mixing traditional composition elements with the impulsive spontaneity of jazz and electronics. The musicians in Superimpose Cycle were guided by in-ear click tracks—quite a contrast to typical jazz gigs where performers are often reliant on eye contact and gesture to achieve cohesiveness. Even though the individualised click tracks created the appearance of a detached ensemble, the seven musicians maintained a palpable sense of joyous unity. Saxophonist Joshua Hyde and pianist Emil Holmström thundered vigorously through demanding passages of repeated notes, with minimal signalling and absolute synchronicity.

In the second movement, “Night of the Living Dead,” Anita Hustas explored the timbral possibilities of amplified double bass by alternating quick pizzicato stabs with weighty bowed tones, her smooth glissandos juxtaposed with electronics that bubbled with tension. Drummer Phil Collins joined in with a laidback jazz rhythm before launching into the complex patterns that propelled the work.

“Infinite Jest” exploded with a frenzy of crashing electronic waves that were initially a little confronting. As the floor rumbled with shuddering pulses, this density soon enveloped the audience in a cocoon of sonic experimentalism. Roaring and gnarly chords were driven to the forefront of this wall of sound by electric guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe.

The evolving interplay between the live acoustic instruments and processed electronics was particularly intriguing. In the earlier movements, stuttering sound samples were interspersed with instrumental figures in a back-and-forth manner, like the musical equivalent of a tennis match. This divide became gradually less distinctive as the electronics instead distorted the real-time performance with reverb and effects.

Schubert wrote a series of computer processors to align with the timing sequence of the click track, so that new sound effects are implemented and withdrawn as the musicians reach certain points in the score. Heavily amplified violin featured in “Sugar, Maths and Whips” with audible bow changes of a gritty, textural quality. Violinist Winnie Huang coped exceptionally with an unintentional technology glitch as the violin’s notes echoed in the sound system after a second of delay. Electronic musician Myles Mumford was on stage to control the running of the pre-programmed processors, and he explained afterwards that the unexpected delay was due to a processor adding latency where there should have been none. Although this was a computer error, it also became a functional musical feature that unknowingly embodied Schubert’s philosophy of there being little distinction between scripted sounds and indeterminate happenings.

To superimpose is to place one thing over another so that both items are still evident and identifiable. The Argonaut Ensemble achieved this by balancing myriad diverse sounds and textures as though they were coloured panes in a kaleidoscope. Beautiful textural patterns constantly rotated to create shifting overlaps of colour and sound in a thrilling performance of vibrant musicality.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, The Argonaut Ensemble, Superimpose Cycle, Alexander Schubert; The Capital, Bendigo, 6 Sep

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 39

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

Makino Takashi

Makino Takashi

Makino Takashi

Celebrating 15 years of the Brisbane-based organisation Room40, founder Lawrence English decided to throw the main birthday party at Carriageworks in Sydney in the form of the Open Frame Festival. Lucky for us, as opportunities to see an impressive selection of international experimental electronic artists are all too rare in this town, where the venues (and/or event producers) are too big, too small or indifferent to the work.

Instead of the raked seating usual for performance and classical concerts, Bay 20 of Carriageworks is in hybrid configuration—part casual floor-sitting or lying down (which English requests us to do), part church congregation with two banks of padded benches for worshipping before a screen. Experimental music really does work better like this—the audience more relaxed and the sound from the eight speakers embracing us more evenly than in a sharp incline.

Night 1

The spatialised speaker rig is given its most thorough workout in the opening piece commissioned from Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke, who doesn’t leave his home in Japan, has sent through his composition which is diffused (spatialised) live by English. The palette is familiar, what we’ve come to expect from the early 21st century digital version of music concrete—creaks, crackles, scrapes, pings—sounds abstracted from their source with attention to listening for layering and texture as key to the experience. What is particularly engaging in this complex composition is the sense of structure, featuring several clear chapters; a range of dynamic shifts (not simply crescendos or dramatic loud to soft changes); and the play of sounds in space. At one point it seems the entire spectrum is full, flooded with bleeps and chirps and whizzes to a point of near saturation; at another we hear the dull thud of bass, as though from a party many miles in the distance; and at another we tingle at the tiny crackle and digital whispers playing out behind us. While the sounds and textures themselves are perhaps what we are accustomed to, this piece is very much about their meticulous and affecting deployment.

Japanese audiovisual artist Makino Takashi does leave home and is present to perform his piece Space Noise. Drawing on his work with telecine in the film industry, he projects a 16mm film over the top of digital video. The audience is given cardboard glasses with one darkened lens. Known as Pulfich 3-D this creates a very subtle and fascinating shift in depth perception triggered by lateral movement. Each of the images at first seems like some kind of intense film grain with splotches in blacks, greys, reds and yellows. Sometimes they look like worms or rhizomic roots, always in motion across the screen—a kind of a digital Jackson Pollock. Nearing the end, shadows seem to lurk beneath the static and eventually an actual image emerges—glistening sunlight on crashing waves—seemingly not beneath but between the layers of static. Takashi accompanies this with a continuous chunk of scratchy static and grain, already intense at the beginning, increasing incrementally with a remarkable level of control over the duration. While the visuality of the work may initially seem to dominate, this multitextured gravel and static composition creates a perfect agglutination of sound and image.

The following act continues the analogue projection fetish in the form of four 8mm projectors wrangled by Louise Curham with Chris Abrahams on piano. Projected onto the already characterful Bay 20 wall, Curham’s mix of images drawn from found footage and hand-treated film stutter, blur and burn creating a composition that seems to be all about texture, surface and the shift from abstraction to figuration and back again. As the projectors start to whir, Abrahams plays a repeated note, synching in with the microrhythms of the machines. Soon the resonances collect and there are gentle feedback tones. Under these Abrahams starts his signature ostinatos that take on a momentum of their own, forming chordal swathes. In a first-time collaboration, these artists create a cohesive atmosphere while still pursuing individual trajectories.

New York-based William Basinski concluded the first evening of Open Frame playing a set of minimal loops with maximal resonances. To loping piano fragments he applies delays and reverb to massage out ringing tones, resonances and ghost pulses, generating an hypnotic universe. After lulling us for some 20 minutes the aura is ruptured by an angular, awkward orchestral loop launching in and out of a slow fade. It feels like an error, but I’m assured it is intentional—perhaps Basinski likes to both giveth and taketh away.

Night 2

The second evening introduces another duo commission, this one by percussionist Robbie Avenaim and composer Austin Buckett. Avenaim employs his Semi Automated Robotic Percussion System (SARPS), which uses an array of unattended drums—bass, snares and toms—played by robotic armatures. The piece begins with a single, regular beat, played on all the instruments for a long time—enough for us to really appreciate and dissect the nature of the sound, the attack, sustain, decay and release. Gradually a hum begins to build off the back of each beat—I suspect it’s feedback crafted by Buckett. Then an eruption of superfast drumming, all the machines as one, and a huge drone emerges, continuing when the instruments stop. This is a remarkable chest cavity-vibrating tone—a hot bath that when it ends yields the sensation of emerging from something truly viscous. It was one of those visceral sound moments that will stay with me for some time.

You can read my response to Lawrence English’s performance at the Unsound Festival in March in RealTime126, p11. Here it seems a little over-extended, the last 10 minutes not quite creating the intensity of the previous version, but when it gets big it’s awesome, particularly when English plays the Wilderness of Mirrors material.

The final piece is Hypnosis Display, a 70-minute film by Paul Clipson with live soundtrack by Liz Harris (aka Grouper). Clipson uses mostly black and white 16mm film creating beautiful double exposures and overlays that play with form, composition and narrative via juxtaposition and association. Images— oceans, skyscrapers, forests, road markings, eyes, keyholes—and meanings slide over each other, ending in a late night Bokeh [the aesthetic of the blur. Eds] nightmare of slow exposure light streams and flames. Beneath this is a constant industrial rumble, wrapping around the drenched and dreamy fragments of Harris’ looped voice and melancholy melodies. Played from a series of cassette tapes everything has a low-mid muffled quality and there is no direct diegetic sound, rather the scape exists on a parallel plane just implying the original sonic space. This creates an understated yet no less evocative soundscape for this haunting mediation on entropy.

Room40’s birthday bash didn’t so much go off with a bang, but rather with a contemplative but no less intense grate, grind and hum. Very well attended (where did all these experimental music fans come from?), the festival celebrated not only 15 years of Room40 but also reflected a certain maturation of this particular area of non-beat based electronic music and audiovision that we, for want of better term, call experimental. Perhaps we should start calling it textural music?

Room40 and Carriageworks, Open Frame, Carriageworks, Sydney, 30-31 July

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 41

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

members of trio Noreum Machi, Earth Cry

members of trio Noreum Machi, Earth Cry

members of trio Noreum Machi, Earth Cry

Trio Noreum Machi stages contemporary music that draws on South Korean shamanic rituals and the Sori vocal tradition as well as performative drumming including that pioneered by group SamulNori. For Noreum Machi director Kim Juhong, Earth Cry, their recent collaboration with Synergy Percussion, is both a presentation of existing Korean culture and the reflection of that tradition as interpreted in collaboration with Australian percussionists. It is this refraction, born of study and conversation, which interests both groups who are aware of the strange cultural territory they enter when staging cross-cultural projects.

Earth Cry is as much about showing the process of collaboration as about presenting fully-fledged ideas and existing pieces. Synergy director Timothy Constable explained, “There’s an ideal that polishing it is not desirable. It’s about being true to process. Let it come out, immediate and raw.”

The program’s title alludes to a celebration of the natural world—like the direction of the wind, the velocity of water and the magic in everyday objects—but also tips its hat to Australian composer and longtime Synergy supporter Peter Sculthorpe who passed away in August 2014. Opening the show was Tree Rain/After Earth Cry, arranged by Synergy and Noreum Machi to include a curious combination of the iconic rhythm Chilche (meaning seven beats) and a melody from Sculthorpe’s seminal work Earth Cry which was inspired by an Aboriginal melody from Arnhem Land. This showcased many of the instruments, musical idioms and playing styles that would reappear throughout their performance. The groups’ bold yet sensitive juxtapositions continued notably with a duet between Constable on marimba and Kim Juhong playing janggu (Korean two-skinned hourglass drum, often struck with a bamboo slapping stick on one skin and a softer-mallet on the other surface) in a stunning rendition of the Sarabande from Violin Partita 2 by JS Bach.

Most visually exciting were two performances spotlighting Noreum Machi. The first was a ‘small drum farming-festival dance’ in which Lee Howon danced with a Sogo drum. Attached to his Sangmo headdress was a short rod connected to a long white ribbon that slinked across the floor as he entered. When the drumming became more vigorous he darted his head in figure eight movements that thrust the ribbon through the air in lovely circular shapes—a bit like a fire-twirler. There were times when these neck movements appeared dangerously close to inducing concussion. Impressively the movements enhanced a sense of musical climax that built in accompanying drummers’ parts. Another fantastic climax came in a trio for janggu with flashy overhand drumming techniques—the drummers’ arms blurring in the light as they rapidly struck opposite drum-skins with the left hand.

Behind the drummers were three big screens displaying videos that Samuel James filmed in the Australian bush. James had not been a part of the two-year musical collaboration that lead to Earth Cry so his pairing of images with Korean shamanism was largely instinctive and based on his understanding that “shamanic music is meant to alter the state of mind through complex rhythms” (Sam James, shimmerpixel.blogspot.com.au). His imagery contributed to a mesmerising feel for “the natural that creeps through the constructed”—just as did the passion of the performers through their complicated percussion. Watery film behind the overhand piece featured waves that seemed to follow alternative rules of physics and complemented Korean rhythmic subdivisions unfamiliar to Western ears.

Constable said when he found Korean drumming, he thought it “would sustain my personal percussion practice for the decade. It had the key to the things I wanted to develop.” Synergy first travelled to learn from Noreum Machi in Korea in 2011 and have made many study-trips since. See Synergy’s YouTube channel for video of them experiencing shamanic rituals that last several days, usually without sleep. Constable said of Noreum Machi, “They have inquisitiveness about other styles but are shy about assuming they’d be able to play our stuff. But they already tour internationally, have studio space in Korea to host us and are willing to enter a dialogue. Tonight’s audience saw Synergy playing Korean music but really we are meeting in the middle with Noreum Machi in a space of post-traditional reverence.”

Presented by The Korean Cultural Centre in association with Synergy and TaikOz Ltd, this program was described by Constable as “our confusing little nebula of virtuosic and complex percussion music” acknowledging the ability for such fusion to come across as niche and at the same time as a form of cultural tourism. Each performer demonstrated exceptional skill and devotion to this pursuit and exuded joy in collaboration. It was a captivating show that successfully made unfamiliar instruments, rhythms and musical languages accessible, inviting further interest in Korean arts.

Noreum Machi and Synergy Percussion Earth Cry; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 20 Aug

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 42

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

Geology, installation view, detail, 2015

Geology, installation view, detail, 2015

Geology, installation view, detail, 2015

In a long overdue acknowledgement of the work of Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, the MCA has exhibited a significant retrospective of their work. Keith Gallasch recorded my observations (and a few of his own comments) about the meanings of the works and how they function as we walked through the gallery.


The first I saw of Joyce Hinterding’s work was a series of things she built—or ‘drew’ is more correct—called The Oscillators (Sound in Space, MCA, 1995). These were circuit diagrams rendered in carbon. They oscillate because they are electrically conductive, like carbon in a battery. They aren’t ‘scavengers’, which we’ll get to later. The Oscillators aren’t part of this exhibition, which is a pity. But there is a similar series of carbon drawings, which are either square spirals (Large Ulam VLF Loop [or Large Square Logarithmic VLF Loop], 2011) or dragon curves (Aura Curves or the Wunderlich Curves). In the latter the curve turns through multiple right angles and does a looping thing, big loops of different shapes, and because they’re electrically conductive and in these spiral forms, they actually ‘scavenge’ the power out of the air from all the electro-magnetic signals that are beaming through the place. Essentially they are antennae that do much the same as a TV antenna but without the filtering needed to receive a particular station.

If you touch one of the spirals, while wearing the headphones, a tone comes and goes. It won’t really change frequency because that’s to do with the actual length of the spiral. The Large Square Logarithmic VLF Loop is drawn on the wall with liquid carbon that, given the sharpness of the edge, might have been screen-printed onto it. These are the scavengers—there’s actually no power going to them. The device at the end of the wire attached to the centre of the drawing with its shield attached to the outer end of the spiral simply amplifies the sound enough for you to be able to hear it.

These two pictures are Diffusion Reactors (2013). I think what’s happening here is that the gold spiral—gold leaf printed onto the paper, the rest of the image being carbon—has been wet and ink placed on it so a current comes from it, drawn from the world and distributed. The name partly relates to Alan Turing’s work on reaction diffusion. After WWII when Turing had finished building his Bombe, his original machine for deciphering the code used by the Enigma, he moved into morphogenesis and how biological forms function. He developed the maths to build a reaction diffusion circuit. I assume Hinterding knows about this. These pictures are of that nature but they’re much more random. Reaction diffusion spreads out and each particle affects the next particle and that affects the next particle and you get this kind of slow growth out. And if it’s wet, that means the current carries across the paper.

One of these beautiful images looks like a Hokusai wave painting.

In a sense, it is the logarithmic spiral that Hokusai drew into his wave.

We also have two tables, on which are again, energy scavengers (Induction Drawings 1 and 2, 2012). Each is a very long antenna drawn in carbon, which is a conductor of electrons. The drawn lines loop back and forth. You can touch them and hear changes in the sound. They are what Hinterding calls “energy scavengers.” There’s power going to the mixer but there’s none coming up from the AC power. It’s just the audio signal coming back down and being amplified for the headphones.

In the middle of the main room, a big spiral antenna (Aeriology, 1995/2015) is a very, very long piece of insulated copper wire woven around two columns. It uses the same kind of material that insulates the copper wire in a standard transformer for use in motors and in electronics. So this is an antenna and again, the length of it determines the frequency response or the wavelength. It’s over three metres long, so with the large number of windings it has a very low frequency response. The signal is also shown on an oscilloscope. You don’t want to touch the wire because, depending on how much charge is built up, it might discharge into you.

Again, a quite beautiful work with its red aura as the light shines on the copper.

It’s really lovely, aesthetically let alone technically.

Video energies

Here are two of David Haines’ early video works. Together they are called The Seventeenth Century (2002). In one he’s taken a video image of a Sydney coastal suburban landscape and lit buildings separately by compositing white light onto them. There are actual lights but they’re the steady ones—and the aeroplane, of course, which is kind of nice to see. Everything will suddenly light up, like this whole block of flats and then suddenly close down again.

It looks very real.

That’s what Haines was trying to play with.

The image on the right hand monitor looks like a very deep ocean-bed sulphur source, although it’s actually digitally rendered smoke in water. The deep ocean smokers which they remind me of release extraordinary amounts of gold and other heavy metals. You can clearly see the considerable energy because it’s generating light.

High tension

Over here on this screen (Encounter with the Halo Field, 2009/2015) is a video of four fluorescent tubes held by two people, one in each hand, standing beneath a high-tension cable running across the Blue Mountains. If you hold a fluorescent tube near one of these things it will light up, drawing the electrons that power it from the ambient electron-laden atmosphere (the electro-magnetic field) produced by the wires, which carry something more than 120,000 volts. The title refers to the ‘halo’ around the electrical lines.

The image is very dark. Sometimes you’re seeing someone’s hand in close-up, silhouetted, but then the fluoro lights up with the twilight sky behind. It’s beautiful, but also like a take on the Star Wars lightsaber.

Earth Star, 2008

Earth Star, 2008

Earth Star, 2008

Orgone energy

In front of us now is an “orgone cannon,” (The Black Ray, Cloud Buster Number Three: Orgone Energy Cloud Engineering Device, 2011-12), which is a complete departure from the scavenging works. But it’s not, when I think about it. The energy scavenger is standard—I mean there’s good science going on there, but this is Reichian. Wilhem Reich was the radical German Freudian psychologist who was jailed in America for being far too out there. He claimed that there is orgone energy in the natural world, a kind of magnetic energy only not magnetic, but more psychic.

The Orgone Box could allegedly collect sexual energy.

Probably orgone and orgasm have a very close relationship; it’s where the ‘orgone’ comes from.

This work here is a “Cloud Buster” which creates orgone energy—by some mechanism inside it—and then blasts it out through those long tubes into the atmosphere and is said to be able to remove or move clouds and thunderstorms. That’s one of the reasons that Reich was jailed by the FDA because he wouldn’t stop making claims for devices that they considered to be completely spurious. These artists have actually operated their Cloud Busters; how effective they were I don’t know.

This wall-mounted “photograph,” Triboluminescent Godhead 1 (2010), basically looks like a thunderhead cloud, I think, but is again computer-generated. It is similar to the smoker in The Seventeenth Century and has beautiful 3D depth and colouring.

And the Cloud Buster is pointed at it across the room.

Hidden forces unleashed

In this video, House II, The Great Artesian Basin, Pennsylvania USA, 2003, you see an American house, of the kind in the wealthy eastern US. Bursting out of the doorways and the windows is a flood of water of the most extraordinary proportions, as if, says Haines, the Great Artesian Basin had erupted out of one house. It reminds me very much of the work of Bill Viola who is so interested in water and fire and energies. This is quite an extraordinary digitally constructed work. Haines is such a good computer graphics maker as in the Levitation Grounds, 2000, which we can’t see now because it’s only available on certain days, and The Blinds and the Shutters, 2001, both of which which were shown in the Anne Landa Award exhibition, 2000-2001. In the Levitation Grounds a severed tree limb floats in space in a country landscape. Then in the Blinds and the Shutters, a house has exploded, not in the sense that a building is shattered and thrown about, but in the sense that some kind of massive internal pressure build-up has picked up all the furniture and thrown it out of the building where it floats gently across the space between the house and the ‘camera.’

Electrifying nature

This batch of pictures here (The Wollemi Kirlians, 2014) are Kirlian photographs of natural objects—leaves and flowers and small pieces of detritus from the Wollemi forest which have been placed on colour photo paper and highly electrically charged. The artists have put a very high voltage, very low current electrical signal into the objects, making them glow through corona discharge. You can see the power leaking.

Solar energy

If you look at the sun directly, you really can’t see anything other than extremely bright light. In these large ‘hydrogen alpha pictures’ (Earth Star, 2008) Haines has masked the body of the sun with the lens of a hydrogen alpha telescope, taking out all the light except its circumference where you can see the solar activity or corona: the “hydrogen alpha frequency” including solar flares that knock out the GPS every now and then and damage television signals. They’re lovely images. Very nice pieces of solar portraiture, you might say.

In a side chamber, there is another Earth Star (2008-10), here a large-screen video projection of the sun presented as installation. The video is a similar hydrogen alpha portrait of the sun but as a time-lapse recording with yellow and white flares coming and going. In front of the screen are two VLF antennas on long tables. It’s the same idea as the work wound between the two columns, Aeriology.

A very long piece of insulated transformer wire is wrapped very tightly around a 15cm tube, forming an induction loop which is also self-powering. In a standard AC power transformer there are two coils, one around the other, but they don’t touch so that the 240 volts that’s coming in is inducted out of the transformer at a much lower voltage—12 volts for example—so that we can use it sensibly rather than getting killed by it if we touch it. Here there’s no connection between the two coils but there’s a field around them. Inside a transformer that field is tightly constrained. Usually a metal box is fitted around it so that it doesn’t bleed all over the room and make noise, but these coils are essentially intended to be open to whatever electromagnetic stuff is going on in the space. That hiss that you can hear is actually the output from the induction loops and the particular frequency, of course, is dependent on the length of the wire. The lower sound is probably coming into the room from other sources.

It’s amazing. The sun here looks like a big orange turning very slowly.

It’s been shot over a long period and sped up. You can see that wonderful flare at the bottom and a curved one as well—hydrogen alpha lines.

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite)

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite)

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite)

Aroma power

On a bench to the left side of this space are two refrigerators, which contain components of perfumes, Ozone I: Ionisation and Ozone II: Terrestrial. These are not finished perfumes but the actual component aromas from pine needles to strawberries. You can’t sample them, but every morning the staff here dip strips into one of the bottles and place them in beakers for you to smell.

If Hinterding is interested in what’s in the air in terms of electrical energy, Haines is taken with what’s in the air in terms of aroma.

That’s right. In terms of smells and molecules.

At another level, they’re also electrically charged.

Just to add to the complexity.

Interference and avalanche

In another adjoining room is Purple Rain (2004) which is making a loud, low frequency hum. Above are four UHF TV antennae in the ceiling receiving random TV signals—or they may even be tuned signals because there’s a bunch of TV monitors, screens to the wall—television has been banished! But in front of us on a large screen is a mountain range and on each of four peaks a snowcap. We’re seeing a massive computer-generated avalanche coming down from the central snowcap. It’s like House 2 except with snow and it’s interrupted randomly by whatever else is coming in from the television sets, which is just downright noise. A band of purple noise is the purple rain of the work’s title. The sound is just the 50 Hz hum coming in. That’s the main content of electro-magnetic spectrum in any built up environment: 50Hz hum from the power lines. The aerials are picking up the power lines.

Archived energies

Back in the main gallery is a kind of research cabinet with everything an enthusiastic teenage scientist would love to have—certainly this one would’ve. It’s got the Reich book, books on UFOs, lots of stuff on Tesla, cathode ray tubes, integrated circuits, mineral crystals and electrical things that Hinterding would have built early on. It suggests the research background that informs her work.

In a second cabinet, among various items relating to Haines’ work with aromas, are beer glasses painted inside with a carbon-based conductive substance called aquadag, used inside cathode ray tubes. The neck of the CRT—that thin bit that sticks out the back—has a set of pins and a cathode or electron generator in it that generates a stream of electrons. The aquadag is set to the positive side so that the beam of electrons heads straight out into the middle of the screen and then is conducted back through the aquadag. Each glass has been pierced with an electrode, the nipple that you can see, and wires would have run from one glass to the next to the next. There was a very large number of these in the 1991 Perspecta in the Bond Store in Walsh Bay. They are an old type of battery (Leyden Jars), storing current and using that to drive an oscillator of sorts. This was when Hinterding’s work first became evident.

Imagined world, player energy

Moving to this large cinema/gallery space, you can see on a 3D (photo)graphic of a simulated mountain range (The Noumenon Ranges, 2013), its features variously designated as Spinoza’s Abyss, The Barren Grounds, Aristotle’s Basin, The Schrodinger Field and The Walls of Indeterminism.

To the front of the space is a huge screen showing a sulphurated mountainous landscape (Geology, 2015). Our point of view of it shifts dramatically as one of the visitors plays with it by standing on one spot and moving their body. Haines has re-programed a video game engine and used something like a radar projector to sense movement so we can see the landscape aerially or on the flat. This simulated landscape is a 3D graphic projected in high definition onto the gallery wall. We feel almost in the landscape, exploring it while it shifts and whirls according the player’s movements.

The significance of Haines and Hinterding

The curation of this exhibition by Anna Davis with Kelly McDonald has been thorough and dug almost to the roots of the work. It does an excellent job of covering the range of ideas Haines and Hinterding have canvassed and the period over which they have worked. The catalogue provides an excellent photographic coverage of the works in the exhibition with important contributions by Davis and Douglas Kahn to the discussion around the ideas the artists work with.

The primary importance of Haines and Hinterding is that they’re the only people in Australia—they’re not unique to the world but they’re certainly pretty unique to Australia—who are playing with these kinds of ideas and making something aesthetic from them. They do a lot of work to confirm that their ideas are functional, so in that sense they’re experimentalists; but they’re not just experimentalists. They’ve produced an extraordinary set of objects and they play with an extraordinarily diverse set of ideas, but they do the history work. Tesla was an experimentalist and he produced astonishing and frighteningly dangerous things but he also came up with AC power.

I think what Haines and Hinterding have done is to focus our attention on things which are not immaterial but are hidden forces that we don’t normally think about. We happily use a TV antenna but most of us don’t know anything about why, what it is or how it works. They’ve drawn on all this stuff in ways that produce quite extraordinary results. They’re educating us about something but it’s not didactic.

It’s dialectical.

It’s very dialectical, let alone dielectrical!

Energies: Haines & Hinterding, curator Anna Davis; MCA, Sydney, 25 June-6 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 43-45

Big Wave Hunting, 2011

Big Wave Hunting, 2011

Big Wave Hunting, 2011

Derek Kreckler, a name that crackles like fire for an artist who has a fascination with water and often gets wet in the pursuit of his work. Wet Dream is the title of a 1978 work; in a series of slides the artist falls fully suited into the ocean. Here he lies, partially submerged within a moment of abandonment, the water streaming over and around his body. There is an element of chance here, of the accident, the flight of fancy, while at the same time the work is highly constructed and follows a predetermined process leading to its realisation. This is alluded to in its title—by definition the wet dream is about the accident and the following process of clean up. Derek Kreckler: Accident and Process, then, is the fitting title of a solo survey exhibition curated by Hannah Mathews at PICA that commemorates a career spanning five decades.

An oeuvre focused on experimental, conceptual and post-minimalist arts practice across a diversity of media, it is propelled by a perceptive vision engaged in issues across art history, the environment and Indigenous and non-indigenous politics. Kreckler reconstructs historical events, manipulates fact and fiction and pushes the ways images are read and understood. His artwork is pursued with a wry sensibility, an emphasis on performance and fearless propulsion toward ever-new waters.

Antidote (2005) is a six screen video installation that takes as its subject a waterfall shot from different perspectives, at varying scales, with the footage changing between speeds. It is a seemingly banal record of sound and vision at Quinninup Falls in Western Australia and although it demands to be experienced as larger projections than the space at PICA allows for, it nonetheless yields a remarkable sensorial impact. The paradoxically coalescing and dissonant sound and partial imagery build up to affect the viewer more like an abstract noise pattern than a record of the natural world. Then, out of nowhere comes a mysterious whispering voice, like a magical, auditory apparition, pulling the work away from abstraction into somewhere altogether stranger.

Littoral, 2014

Littoral, 2014

Littoral, 2014

In a more recent work, Littoral (2014), the ocean breathes its awesome swell into the gallery space. A black and white projection is doubled by the image falling both on strips of hand-cut Olefin paper and on the background wall. A fan oscillates behind the paper and causes the strips to be flung outwards in sequence. There is something utterly captivating about the combination of the seascape in all its beauty and the very tangible movement and lightness of the paper. The video shifts from a steady image, closer to the shoreline, to a tumbling capture of the shifting horizon, waves at close range, crashing with nauseating proximity. The word ‘littoral’ refers to the intertidal zone of the sea, where the waves break. Other than being a very literal video representation, the shimmering border of paper acts as that point of breakage and movement between the viewer and the projection. The video is never experienced on a surface that is not broken up; the shifting edge of the paper effectively makes manifest the intertidal.

Clearly, Kreckler has devoted time to careful observation and study of the ocean’s behaviour; he has engaged water playfully, immersed himself in the stuff and confronted the threat of being swept away by woolly waters. In Big Wave Hunting (2011) a series of photographs marks a time of being in proximity to the sea. Kreckler himself is pictured with a camera in hand on rocks at a risky precipice of crashing waves. In some images he stands crouched and dwarfed by the foamy spray, in others he is partially or completely obscured; others picture the muggy horizon of the coal industry from the vantage point of Austinmer in New South Wales, where Kreckler lives, as well as ocean and horizon as their sublime selves. The archetypal images of the ocean recall romanticist visions from art history and the entire project stems from a photograph by George Mortimer, also titled Big Wave Hunting (c.1903). In it Mortimer has a rope around his waist theoretically acting as a lifeline as he positions himself on precarious rocks, capturing the surf with his camera ingeniously waterproofed in a wooden box. It is a compelling image of a process that teases the potential for accident, which Kreckler expands into a larger and more layered body of work.

Accident and Process, 2012

Accident and Process, 2012

Accident and Process, 2012

How a scene is constructed and in turn understood is important to Kreckler. In a series of photographs titled Accident and Process (2012) he creates images of both found and manipulated subject matter: images that are planned and highly controlled yet still about chance and the accident. They are scenes that lead the viewer into speculative narratives. A car is pictured at the moment it has nose-dived into a footpath from a road above; a woman topples wine glasses in a gallery against a backdrop of historical paintings; and a man appears crushed by the fallen limb of a tree. The images look seamless, however digitally pieced together they are; they are artificial but do not look contrived. A seemingly irrelevant figure might be added to or removed from the scene for the sake of making a more interesting, more balanced composition, but otherwise there is nothing that breaks the continuity of subject or picture. They are about the vulnerability of the real, tied to a lineage of pre-digital photographic fakery. In the end it does not matter whether they are real or fake, the medium is simply another means for expressing ideas.

This exhibition even feels like a dot-to-dot between water/ocean themed works with the other works existing like fragments of conversation caught in passing (juicy fragments nonetheless). “Never turn your back on the sea,” said Mortimer, one of Kreckler’s inspirers, and it seems unlikely that this artist’s practice will ever turn away from this enduring subject. Overall, the exhibition offers a remarkable insight into a practice that has come into its own and rigorously and persistently recharged itself into multifarious modes of expression.

Derek Kreckler, Accident and Process, PICA, Perth, 29 Aug-18 Oct

2016-17 Tour Dates: 2016: Bunbury Regional Art Gallery, WA, March; Geraldton Regional Art Gallery WA, April; SASA Gallery, University South Australia, July; Horsham Regional Art Gallery, VIC Sept; 2017: Contemporary Art Tasmania & Plimsoll Gallery TAS, Jan; Bathurst Regional Art Gallery NSW, March; Maitland Regional Art Gallery NSW, June; Wollongong City Gallery NSW, Sept 2017

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 46-47

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

Nominate for ONE giveaway. Email us at giveaways [at] realtimearts.net with your name, postal address and phone number. Include ‘Giveaway’ and the name of the item in the subject line.

Book: Bodies of Thought: 12 Australian Choreographers

From RealTime and Wakefield Press, a groundbreaking new book for lovers of Australian contemporary dance, focused on innovative choreographers, concentrating on a work by each with an accessible interview and an insightful essay by a leading dance writer. Edited by Erin Brannigan and Virginia Baxter.

3 copies courtesy of RealTime

DVD: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison Of Belief

Building on Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney delves exhaustively into the history and machinations of one of the most successful and secretive religions of the last 60 years, from the life of its idiosyncratic founder L Ron Hubbard to its calculated deployment of Hollywood celebrities.

Effectively overlaying personal testimonies from eight former members of the Church of Scientology, with archival footage, this by turns disturbing, astonishing and darkly funny documentary is a chilling reminder of the dangers of blind faith.

Writer-director Alex Gibney, whose impressively comprehensive and musically sensitive biography of Frank Sinatra has recently screened on SBS, is the maker of We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) which is about sexual abuse of four young deaf men by clergy the American Catholic Church; Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) about the killing of an Afghan taxi driver beaten to death by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention; and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) about corporate corruption. Taxi to the Dark won the won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

5 copies courtesy of Madman Entertainment

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web

Erik Griswold performs Wallpaper Music

Erik Griswold performs Wallpaper Music

Erik Griswold performs Wallpaper Music

Combine the melodic charm of the piano with the raw elements of percussion, and you have the prepared piano. It’s a musical universe filled with metallic rattles, buzzing bell-like tones and dulled acoustics that inventive Brisbane-based composer and pianist Erik Griswold has been exploring for decades. In his 2006 long-form piano work Wallpaper Music, Griswold ‘radically retunes’ the traditional piano by inserting everyday objects such as screws, bolts and strips of rubber between the strings of the piano. This physically demanding performance of apparent perpetual motion, with hidden melodies and richly layered percussive timbres, turned Bendigo’s Old Fire Station into a hypnotic space.

In 1940, American composer John Cage was commissioned to write accompaniment for an African themed dance piece. The work’s small performance venue was impractical for a percussion ensemble, so Cage created the prepared piano as a substitute. By preparing the piano the notes lose their ‘pure’ identifiable pitch and instead take on a metallic, dull or wooden quality akin to that of percussion instruments.

Cage believed the foundations of music to be sound and silence, with the only thing common to both being duration. As a result he felt rhythm was more important than melody and harmony, making prepared piano—with its added percussive focus—the perfect medium for combining all three. Griswold explores this notion in Wallpaper Music, a continuous 60-minute piece with minimal melodic and dynamic variation that ultimately allows the audience to focus on the relationship between percussive effects and rhythmic structure.

The sheer physicality of the performance was impressive as Griswold played an unbroken flow of notes with rippling fluidity. His effortless dexterity in navigating the full range of the keyboard added a visual element to an already engaging performance. Bold forward momentum and a simultaneous sense of stillness seemed to turn in an infinite loop as Griswold, often swaying in slow circles, balanced relentless motoric figures with delicate emerging melodies. His refusal of dynamic accentuation in a work already without definable rhythmic metre created the perception of a circular, almost minimalist, development.

A glimpse inside the piano revealed a sight rarely seen: shiny screws and small squares of folded cardboard carefully wedged between strings, strips of rubber woven across an octave, and even gaffer tape stretched over some lower strings. Griswold had also locked down selected white keys in the bottom two octaves by squeezing slivers of cardboard between each key and the vertical piano front, so as to avoid sounding those pitches when he played clustered notes with his palm. In a way the work is illustrative of wallpaper, with its repetitive patterns and intense consistency. However this performance was enveloping, driven and much more vibrant than the unobtrusive two-dimensionality we commonly associate with ‘wallpaper music.’

2015 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Erik Griswold, Wallpaper Music, The Old Fire Station, Bendigo, 5 Sept

This review initially appeared on Partial Durations, the new music blog produced by Matthew Lorenzon with the support of RealTime. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. web only

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

Founding Amplified Elephants member Kathryn Sutherland demonstrates the RESONANCE table for the audience after the concert

Founding Amplified Elephants member Kathryn Sutherland demonstrates the RESONANCE table for the audience after the concert

Founding Amplified Elephants member Kathryn Sutherland demonstrates the RESONANCE table for the audience after the concert

The lights are dimmed already, giving this small but regal room in Bendigo’s Capital Theatre a warm, apricot hue. The dull glow offsets two veiled television-sized monitors placed on a ledge above the five black-clad performers. We sit around what looks like an overhead projector: a large horizontal screen with an optical lens perched on a stem above it.

These performers are the Amplified Elephants, a sound art group based in Footscray whose members live with intellectual disability. Formed in 2006 as an offshoot of the sonic art collective The Click Clack Project, they have created a diverse range of projects using experimental techniques to evoke soundscapes and make performance art from new technologies, prepared traditional instruments and found objects.

This debut of their latest work, Select Naturalis, showcases a remarkable new piece of technology developed by Jonathan Duckworth in the CiART program at RMIT. The room’s central piece of equipment is in fact a large digital touchscreen tablet: images appearing on its surface are captured by the camera lodged above, and displayed in real time on the room’s two monitors. In developing the performance, the Elephants programmed a range of acoustic and digital sounds into the tablet’s software. They trigger these sounds in performance through tactile engagement with the interface.

Guided by Artistic Director James Hullick’s gentle prompts, performers improvise short solo sets. The piece builds in the first movement with Jay Euesden’s concentrated, space-activating pokes and Teagan Connors’ broad, multi-fingered glides. In the second movement, following an extended drone, Kathryn Sutherland masterfully drives the piece to peak intensity. We hear squelching, screechy and swampy sounds; an array of tropical bird-calls; excited human hollering; and a medley of straw-sucking and blowing. With one or two measured looks, Robin McGrath invites the audience to engage on a more personal level with this act of the creation.

The ensemble place and adjust hand-sized coloured blocks on the screen, which triggers trippy tie-die swirls and graphics evoking a cell nucleus and its spinning electrons. Upon tapping, the electrons shoot along lines extending mandala-like from the base of each block to synapse with the lines generated by others.

The cellular representation here, in the tablet’s graphics, thematically coheres with the piece’s other key symbols: the title, referencing Charles Darwin’s notion of natural selection; the male voiceover which challenges those readings of Darwin which promote the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ over other less reductive understandings of how humans have evolved; and the pre-recorded backing track, which forms a foundation for the semi-improvised performances. A striking example of this backing track’s effect occurs in the piece’s opening moments. Before there’s any action, we’re enveloped by a loud and low, dubbed hum from the surround sound system. It holds a tightly looped rhythm, as if an old computer program scrolling through endless options. Or, more ominously, is stuck on one option. Either way, no selection is made.

This symbolic system suggests that while genealogical science might be undeniable, we should not let it limit the infinite ways we can practice art. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that our continued evolution, including our ability to adapt to conditions like climate change, depends on acknowledging biological capacities we may already have developed, but ignored. It’s a perspective which links this performance text closely to the raison d’etre of the group performing it. If the Elephants, as bearers of intellectual disability, are the ‘elephants in the room,’ their amplification of that position represents their way forward, which is actually a way in. As the voiceover says, ‘meta-listening,’ a biological feature perhaps developed by our distant ancestors, involves just such a process of shining awareness on the functional, and the willingly unseen or unheard. Select Naturalis seeks to metaphorise that awareness and, it seems, achieve real social affect: community, inclusion, technological progress and ever-better names for things.

The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, The Amplified Elephants, Select Naturalis, Bendigo Bank Theatre, 5 Sept

This review initially appeared on the new music blog Partial Durations, a Matthew Lorenzon-RealTime project. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 39

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

‘Did he know he was going to make this piece crazy?’ A child’s voice comes through my ear-piece over the sounds of the Argonaut Quartet performing Christophe Bertrand’s Quatuor No.1. The ear-piece and radio are part of Soundtracks, an art intervention by St Martins Youth Arts Centre providing live commentary to Bertrand’s music by young artists between the ages of eight and twelve. Bassi, Satchmo and Anh are my commentators and they guide me through the quartet, much like a DVD commentary (though less intrusive).

Before the quartet commences, the children explain that they know three things about Quatuor No.1: that it was written by Christophe Bertrand, that Bertrand died by suicide at the age of 29 and that there were originally nine movements, but two have been lost. The knowledge of Bertrand’s suicide, a heavy and complex topic for such young children, obviously colours their interpretation.

The images they use to describe the music are highly evocative: the pizzicato of the first movement is the ‘pitter patter of rain’ and as it intensifies it prompts a story of being caught in an out-of-the-blue hail storm. The ending of the movement is compared to a snowball rolling downhill that seems like ‘it’s going to explode or collapse, but when it gets to the bottom it just sits there’. The fourth movement, full of droning strings and pitch slides, sounds like ‘wolves howling’ at the edge of a cold, dark forest, and the slow glissandos and microtonal shifts in the sixth movement are ‘like a baby crying’. The music of the melancholy fifth movement sounds like it ‘keeps reaching and falling down’.

Interspersed with these responses to the music, the children tell me the questions they would like to ask the composer, such as: ‘What was his first memory of a connection to music?’ as they try to put together ‘the pieces of the puzzle that would help us understand him’. In answer to the question ‘what does it mean?’ they sadly conclude, ‘we can only guess’.

There are also lighter moments. The actions of the players in the dance-like second movement resemble ‘yanking a tooth out’ and Judith Hamann’s cello technique in the third inspires a story of whisking cream to have with strawberries. Members of the quartet are compared to wound up ‘mechanical toys nodding their heads and moving their arms’. The children’s observations of the music are remarkably astute, drawn from their own experiences. Independently moving parts are compared to students packing up their bags at the end of a day at school, some are faster and some slower, some have more things to pack up, some have less.

As the drama of the music builds to its climax in the final movement, static fuzzes through my earpiece and I only catch the words ‘storm brewing’ and ‘really wild’. The end of the quartet fades away slowly, ‘like dust blown off a surface, leaving nothing’.

The concert had begun with Kimmo Kuokkala’s Kirvis, a work of bouncing bows, scratchy rustlings, ending on a pure crystalline high note.

The world premiere of New Zealander Dylan Lardelli’s Mapping, an inlay follows the Bertrand, and gradually unfolds like a landscape coming into view, recorded in precise detailed lines. The meditative sound world is made up of gentle dissonance, dull hisses, papery harmonics and warbling strings.

4x4x4 finishes with Stefano Gervasoni’s Six lettres à l’obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) or Six Letters to Obscurity (and Two Stories). The obscure letters, one for each movement, spell the name Claire (the deliberate irony is that this also means ‘clear’ in French). The story movements are inserted after the letters ‘l’ and ‘i’. The music swings from atmospheric noises to upbeat folky passages and the movement ‘r’ stands for ricecar, Gervasoni quoting Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Recercar chromatico post il Credo for organ in an arrangement where the edges are frayed with distorted timbres and shrieks.

The Bertrand quartet with art intervention from St Martins was certainly the most affecting work on the program. While the commentary distracted from full immersion in the Argonaut Quartet’s performance, it did provide a fascinating insight into the response of children to music. Wise and empathetic, the commentators coloured my own response to Bertrand’s quartet, and added layers of meaning and depth to the experience. That said, the sudden (if altered) tonality of Frescobaldi’s ricecar in the Gervasoni provoked an unexpectedly powerful frisson, coming at the end of a weekend full of exploratory music.

The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Argonaut String Quartet, 4x4x4, Bendigo Bank Theatre, 6 Sep

This review initially appeared on the new music blog Partial Durations, a Matthew Lorenzon-RealTime project. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 40

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

Fabienne Séveillac performs The Exhausted with soundinitiative

Fabienne Séveillac performs The Exhausted with soundinitiative

Fabienne Séveillac performs The Exhausted with soundinitiative

“Exhausted is so much more than tired” begins Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Samuel Beckett (“The Exhausted,” trans. Anthony Uhlmann, 1995). Tiredness assumes there is more to be done; the exhausted has consumed, expended, or used up all possibilities. Everybody has experienced the former, whereas the latter is the stuff of mathematical definitions. Beckett combines the two. One can exhaust the possible combinations of objects in a series, just as Beckett permutes series of socks, stones and physical movements in his plays and novels. “Beckett’s great contribution to logic,” Deleuze writes, “is to display that exhaustion (exhaustivity) does not occur without a certain physiological exhaustion.”

Bernhard Lang’s The Exhausted is a music theatre piece co-commissioned by the young Parisian ensemble soundinitiative for their debut at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Seated expectantly in the Capital Theatre, the audience was initially treated to only a momentary glimpse of the charismatic ensemble. The players wandered on stage, set up their instruments, and promptly exited. The next five minutes saw a constant flow of musicians entering and exiting the stage like waves lapping on the shore. The choreography by Benjamin Vandewalle made the most of the musicians’ natural and untutored movements. These were not actors and dancers striding purposefully on stage, but cellists and flautists repeating the gestural repertoire of the concert hall. The ensemble would stand, sit, slouch, or freeze with the simplicity proper to Beckett’s stage directions. The mezzo-soprano Fabienne Séveillac was no exception, though no other performer was called upon to sing vintage Deleuze upside-down beneath a table.

There is often a tenuous link between compositions and the philosophical texts upon which they are based. It is therefore wonderful to hear a composer developing his work so thoroughly from a single text. Objects on stage including a desk and a grey tape player are drawn directly from Deleuze’s essay. Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Schubert’s Nacht und Träume feature in Beckett and Deleuze, though the pieces are cleverly introduced not underneath their description in the essay, but under Deleuze’s discussion of Beckett’s play Quad: “Four possible solos all given. Six possible duos all given (two twice). Four possible trios all given twice.”

Despite drawing heavily on Deleuze’s text, Lang has resisted the temptation to interpret Deleuze’s essay literally. He seeks the same nomadic movement of thought from Deleuze’s essay that Deleuze sought in reading Beckett. With all Deleuze’s talk of combinatory mathematics, it would be tempting to write a serial piece or engage in some other form of musical permutation, especially with such direct invitations as Deleuze’s phrase “Watt is the great serial novel.” While there may have been serial moments in the piece, the work seems to build upon the composer’s earlier Deleuze-inspired pieces by looping musical fragments, especially the jazz-inflected grooves of Lang’s student years. The piece, at least on one naïve hearing, plays to the tiredness inherent in repetition while referring obliquely to exhaustion’s formal properties.

Why repetition? A combinatorial sequence repeats the same elements in different ways, but Lang’s repetition is more static. A reader of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition will recognise that repetition is only possible because of the infinitesimal difference between each iteration. This difference may provide a path past exhaustion. The audience and the performers may realise that there really are tangential possibilities hiding within each musical fragment beyond its combination with others. But repetition is also fatiguing and there is always the possibility that tiredness will win out before exhausted repetition opens a window onto the new.

The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, soundinitiative, Bernhard Lang, The Exhausted, The Capital Theatre
4 Sept

This review initially appeared on the new music blog Partial Durations, a Matthew Lorenzon-RealTime project. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. web only

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

Defunensemble perform at the Ulumbarra Theatre

Defunensemble perform at the Ulumbarra Theatre

Defunensemble perform at the Ulumbarra Theatre

A thread running through the festival weekend was the artistic and philosophical challenges facing composers and listeners when images and sound cohabit a performance. A panel at a Composer Colloquium had discussed this earlier in the day and it was a recurring theme in those quick and energised exchanges you have right after a concert, whispered between pieces, walking to the next venue or waiting for your coffee or wine.

Tonight, I had no idea what would unfold, had never heard Finland’s Defunensemble before and knew none of the composers or works. In contrast to many other performances over the weekend, this All Finnish concert made no use of projected images. But, like the single letters, words and sentences of a novel that unfurl and re-form to become lives and your own experiences, the performance was one of the most rich and visually potent I’ve attended. This was international exploratory music, and tonight Defunensemble nailed it.

Juhani Nuorvala’s Ruoikkohuhuilu (2014) begins with Hanna Kinnunen (alto flute) appearing in aquamarine colours out of a dark and gentle crest of pre-recorded sound designed by Anders Pohjola and Timo Kurkikangas (electronics). The flute outlines the open building blocks of chords as if glimpsed through cloud, before descending as a sallow Nordic counterpart. The crescents become glassy and shafts of whole tones are harvested, before drifting away again into the light. It stings a little as you get close, but like the tide Kinnunen returns from whence she came. This was a breathtaking and gentle prologue that kept itself just far enough away from becoming ambience.

In Ville Raasakka’s Erinnerung (2010), the harp (Lily-Marlene Puusepp), clarinet/bass clarinet (Mikko Raasakka), cello (Markus Hohti) and piano (Emil Holmström) join the flute and electro-acousticians. The players wore headphones for audio synchronisation which allowed them to take part in an extravagant internalised reminiscence. An entire lifetime is recalled in a quick succession of darting textures and contradictions. Beginning with a cubist burst of repeated tones, relationships begin to form only to disintegrate. Harp sides with reinforced piano, but then piano switches to join flute, so harp teams up with cello, while the breath of the bass clarinet intermingles with high piano and cello grinds to a stop. More solid structures build now, but these teeter and need recalibrating. Characters become more mature and the conversation less pushy; three is no longer a crowd. But the tensions of earlier times are not forgotten altogether with the clarinet’s air and cello’s scratch silenced by close-voiced piano repetitions. Hang on, was that an entire life or just one weekend?

The relativity and ambiguity of time are further explored in Perttu Haapanen’s Doll Garden (2013) for the same instrumentalists as in the previous work. The acoustic musicians at first represent the thoughts and gaps between the spelling out of the track, which is triggered via the flautist’s foot pedal. The individual keystrokes of a typewriter start off well, but hesitations and corrections increase as the paper gets wound backwards and ackspacebackspacebar and spa ace bar, leeeetterskeyyyyyyyyystart arts___ _xxxxxx xxxrepeating. With paper tearing loose and the platen cogs giving way, we enter a slow dance as the bell at each carriage end carries us round the room. When we open our eyes again, life’s become a high-speed connection and it’s oftentimes turbulent and too fast for our thoughts to keep up. We try to recall and recapture a time when sounds lived on vinyl and the words of a book carried a particular smell. But despite using a QWERTY keyboard to talk to a computer, it’s not the same machine. The bass clarinet and flute hang in the air and I’m wondering what the pact is between artificial intelligence and vintage technology.

For Niilo Tarnanen’s Kään (2014) the group pares back to harp, bass clarinet and piano, though with a new microphone position to pick up subtle piano transmissions. The ambient track begins with static prior to both harp and the low register of the inside of the piano producing pings of sound along the copper wire wrappings of the low strings. I’m deep inside circuits and I feel currents flowing hither and thither; the bass clarinet emits a few sinewy charges and there is a strange order to the random spreadings and impulses. Being so close to the components makes it hard to navigate, but I feel we are approaching a nerve centre of sorts. The switches and plucks and battery stings to the tongue are synapses to other worlds. Towards the end we sense a twisting of some giant undersea cable and catch a fleeting glimpse of the meniscus above.

The full ensemble returns for the final work in the program—Feed (2013) by Sami Klemola, who joins the group on guitar. He checks his signal through a massive Marshall amplifier; this cheeky response lets the audience know straightaway that we are in for a feast. Of everything I heard over the weekend, this piece was one of the few that showed how freedom and spontaneity can lend a work a burst of creative expression. An organised structure and well controlled timings allowed the players a permissiveness that sent shivers through the audience. The guitarist as ringleader teases and incites the others to join him. The rapid and chaotic improvisation of the opening gives way to a shock unison that morphs into a cluster and snaps off again. Squelching downbeats from the band accompany an extraordinary trade-off between guitar amp buzz and flute air. After five shots, the anarchistic figures begin again but even thicker and darker than before. After this subsides we arrive at the highlight of the work. On cue, the players launch into rhythmic unison three-note figures over and over with pauses between each set. To my ear these are not fixed notes but “any pitches”. In the gaps, guitar fills are the pinpricks of sound produced behind the pickup. As the three-note figures continue—together but always shifting in frequency and pitch—they turn into background to the guitar which now evolves into a full blown exploration of phased hisses, buzzes and scratchings.

As the final “free” section of Feed restarts, I ‘see’ it through a different lens. Like traffic from afar it seems an impenetrable wall of noise, but up close it is hundreds and thousands of tiny and equally valid movements and transactions. Even when sirens wail, each goes about its own business, all but trying to hold onto a delicate and fleeting farewell. So drew the 2015 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music to a close. Defunensemble’s All Finnish was a textbook example of what makes a spellbinding concert. This team gave us discernible structural signposts, pieces with cogent emotional intent, huge spectrums of sonic variation, lively and committed playing and a flawless sound design.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, Defunensemble, All Finnish, Ulumbarra Theatre, 6 Sept

This review initially appeared on the new music blog Partial Durations, a Matthew Lorenzon-RealTime project. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. web only

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

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez’s Sur Incises

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez’s Sur Incises

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez’s Sur Incises

The stage layout for Argonaut ensemble’s performance of Boulez’s Sur Incises sculpts an image of the sound world to come. Three pianos at the front of the stage are shadowed by three harps—extensions of their resonant strings. Behind, three batteries of tuned percussion give physical form to that ringing resonance that hovers above the music. The lush garden of sounds Argonaut ensemble evoke in their performance of the 1998 work reflects with purity Boulez’s orchestration and texture. The eclectic instrumentation may limit performances of the work, but the collection of timbres allows for a distinctive fluidity between instruments, with harps and vibraphones becoming extensions of the piano.

Conductor Eric Dudley and the ensemble were clearly aware of the importance of decay throughout the work, and exploited this thematically. This is epitomised in the final moment of the concert, when Dudley holds the audience in silence until well after the last note dies out. There’s an ethereal harmony heard in the resonance of three separate chords ending each pianist’s run. The ringing tones of vibraphones, crotales and steel drums hang in the air in moments between dense activity. Boulez’s orchestration disguises the attack of one instrument in the decay of others, blurring the distinction between instruments. Dense piano clusters reduce to reveal a gentle harp melody or crotales take over to continue an ascending passage as a pianist reaches the top end of his range.

Alternation between precisely timed rhythmic passages and aleatoric gestures are a defining feature of the piece. At times, the music lingers in one mindset for a while, as in the fast, strict toccata of the first movement. The musicians in this performance perfected both technical rhythms and interpreted grace notes—unmeasured notes which allow for flexibility. On the latter, the conductor signals only a starting point after which each performer decides the timing of the notes, creating a gentle falling away of sound. The smooth contour of the work was not lost in these parts, a credit to the ensemble’s ability to give expression without hesitation while maintaining coherency.

The performers were not only individually virtuosic, but worked well as an ensemble. Moulding the individuality of their playing, the three pianists often worked to create the same kind of timbre, even at times sounding as one instrument. There was also a sense of timbral continuity between different instruments, with the pianists gently caressing the keys to evoke the sound of harp glissandi or playing low rhythmic passages to imitate marimba.

The ensemble lost no expressivity in this accurate performance of a technically demanding piece. The natural cohesion between conductor and all ensemble members was felt by the audience. A well-rehearsed and knowledgeable ensemble held together a piece that relies on moments of chance indistinguishable from strictly notated passages. Argonaut’s interpretation of ‘Sur Incises’ was a highlight of the festival.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, The Argonaut Ensemble, Pierre Boulez, Sur Incises, The Capital Theatre, 5 Sept

This review initially appeared on Partial Durations, the new music blog produced by Matthew Lorenzon with the support of RealTime. Lorenzon and Keith Gallasch were commissioned to conduct a review-writing workshop as part of BIFEM 2015 for five emerging reviewers.

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 38

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