Newcastle: cars drive cultural pace

Kerrie Schaeffer in the back seat at L!vesites

Motor Home

Motor Home

Motor Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 42

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

1 December 2005