room for change

jonathan marshall: putting on an act, pica, perth

David Guhl, Sete Tele, Get Downers

David Guhl, Sete Tele, Get Downers

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CURATOR IS AMPLY DEMONSTRATED BY RECENT EXHIBITIONS LIKE FREMANTLE ARTS CENTRE’S BON SCOTT PROJECT OR PICA’S OLD SKOOL SHOW. IN EACH CASE THE CURATORS TAKE OTHERWISE UNDISTINGUISHED WORKS, ORGANISING THEM INTO SOMETHING MORE THAN THE SUM OF THEIR PARTS TO FUNCTION AS A COLLECTIVE, MULTIFACETED EXPERIENCE. UNFORTUNATELY, PERTH SEEMS INDIFFERENT TO THE VALUE OF SUCH CRITICAL FRAMINGS. STATE FUNDING APPEARS TO FAVOUR THE SPLASHY, GENERALISED LIKES OF THE CITY OF PERTH AND BANKWEST PRIZES.

I was hoping that PICA’s shaggy dog of an annual mini-festival of live art, Putting On An Act, would return with some kind of shape. Alas, 2008 was possibly even less coherent than 2006. While under-rehearsed student premieres from local universities and colleges were thankfully less evident, they were replaced by non-professional community groups like the Scarborough yoga school. Although established as a home for that amorphous scion of performance art and the happening, “live art”, Putting On An Act doubles as a community outreach program—a role for which it is neither designed nor suited. Consequently, all audiences, irrespective of taste, are subjected to material they loathe. Supporters contend this enlarges spectator horizons. Yet these same supporters complain of enduring some ‘horrible’ piece or feigning a seizure as a reasonable excuse to depart. The utopian ideal behind the formula is failing and its continued employment is an embarrassment.

There is no shortage of alternative models. Andrew Ryan and John Kaye recently established Perth’s shambolic Kabaret Dada. Generically focussed around music- or sound-based live art, these loud, insane mixed bills work remarkably well. At a minimum, Putting On An Act’s devisors should centre each evening around genres, offering audiences a sympathetic guide and the chance that a genuine conversation might arise. The current formula recalls the cacophonous asocial behaviour at the Tower of Babel, everyone shouting internal monologues while ignoring the discourse around them.

Given the lack of vision, it is unsurprising that much of Putting On An Act was amateurish or of little interest beyond friends and family (who make up much of the audience). This is unfortunate for works which rise above parochialism to comment on the forms they deploy. Clyde McGill for example, performed a fine miniature, entering a largely darkened stage, his head obscured in a black hood, placing four rusted, spring-loaded animal traps in pools of light. His idiosyncratic method of setting them, using plastic pull-ties, produced an engaging symphony of close miked crackles, squeaks and metallic echoes in this simple but suggestive piece. Cat Hope has been performing serious bass guitar noise for years, most recently with improvisatory quartet Abe Sada. Here she collaborated with Chris Cobilis as The Plateau Of Screaming Popes. The pair played a monstrous sounding collection of frets and guitars lying on tables, with Cobilis adding computer processing. As the title suggests, the aim is to generate something fairly static yet with detail and movement scratched across the surface of an intense sensorial subwoofer ocean. The Plateau’s reprise at the Perth leg of Liquid Architecture was even more impressive, with Cobilis experimenting by dragging his table backwards and forwards, causing a chaotic, gargantuan waxing and waning of noise.

The real masterwork of Putting On An Act was the collaboration of dance-makers Sete Tele and Rachel Ogle with the Get Downers company. They have been working together for some months to the point where this group of performers with Down syndrome now plays at a professional level with a recognisable range of dramaturgical approaches and choreographed material. Taking their lead from dance theatre (notably Pina Bausch), the performers offer a series of solo portraits. What is striking about these is that each is highly individualised, designed to reveal the dancer’s tastes. One dancer continuously executes cartwheels with a fabulous nuancing of degrees of bravery before each tumble and an idiosyncratic, jarring straight-legged approach that becomes attractively brutal as repeated.

At the same time it is evident that the performers are also sketching crafted fictions of themselves. This produces an instability around these actions as ‘authentic’ and phantasmatic depictions of selfhood. Two of the female performers play with different degrees of seductiveness—in one case melded with a consciously affectionate naivety, performing to the strains of a mumbled German rendition of Falling In Love Again—while a male dancer mixes elements of Michael Jackson’s lightness and aggressive yet tongue-in-cheek hip-hop. Tele himself was injured, his arm in a sling, yet his solo remained a lesson in how limits can generate beauty. His floppy, slinking, one-handed game with limbs spoke wonderfully to the work as whole, before he joined his colleagues in a closing free-for-all. One hopes Putting On An Act 2009 will be programmed so that such gems shine rather than sinking amidst amorphous dross.

Putting On An Act 2008, PICA, Perth, July 22–26

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 18

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

1 October 2008
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