I caught only several performances in Liquid Architecture’s Negative Volumes Sydney: Danger Magic at Firstdraft. Two of them were acutely memorable. They felt dangerous and, in different ways, magical.

The first, by Hobart artist and RealTime correspondent Andrew Harper, was a danger to Malcolm Turnbull.

Harper performs curses, this one, titled Babel, is directed at the Prime Minister. From within a circle of variously aged ghetto blasters and like machines, Harper opens a folder of cassette tapes and pops a number of them into the players, looping passages with a central footpedal and delivering to his handheld microphone screams of horror and raw anger as an American voice drones verses — many objectionable — from the King James Bible.

As Harper lumbers about the circle, inserting tapes and stabbing with a foot at the pedal, it’s as if he’s trying to manage something not quite within his control, voices and cries accumulating into an unsettling mass incantation, made all the more disturbing by the immediacy of high quality sound. During a climactic surge, Harper rapidly waves the microphone over his body, as if insulating himself from the dark forces he’s unleashed. He gradually withdraws the tapes and a rattled calm ensues. This curse is done, briskly and chillingly.

In an interview with Liquid Architecture, Harper says, “Babel (Azathoth) is a live working of found and hoarded elements (cassette recordings and outdated technology) which it is hoped will reflect the disquiet and horror of the artist/performer at the temper of the times, and send a sonic ripple back to the makers of this horror: the present government of Australia (such as it is) and the forces further afield.”

Andrew Harper, Danger Magic, Liquid Architecture, 2017, photo courtesy Liquid Architecture

Danger Music 17, composed by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, also feels dangerous — for the health of the performer and for an audience confronted with unnameable anguish.

Cellist and teacher Geoffrey Gartner in white bow tie and tails cuts an elegant figure at the top of First Draft’s narrow stairwell, as if ready to commence a classical recital. We crowd at the base, not at all prepared for what ensues. Gartner screams. It’s forceful, unremitting, body-wracking. And this is just the beginning. Silence. He gathers himself and descends several steps. He screams again, this time his arms flail, hands grabbing at his head as if to contain some pain. Silence and further descent. Even more anguished screams. As he moves towards the bottom of the stairs, he sits, head low, body folding in, the voice hollowing out, emitting new husky resonances, but no less anguished or fierce.

Gartner’s screaming is horrifying, at times deafening, always inescapable, given our proximity to him and the amplification provided by the narrow stairwell. At the same time, the structure of the work is evident as is the performer’s superb vocal control, making the performance almost musical. But, unnervingly, the screaming, flailing body constitutes a floating signifier for whatever literal agonies we watchers might attach to it — unwanted images and recollections haunt the mind. This felt dangerous.

What made the performances by Harper and Gartner particularly potent was their sheer strangeness in an informal, minimally staged setting, and a shared sense of possession, such were the demands of the daunting tasks that propelled us too into ‘magical’ realms. Dark magic.

You can see Geoffrey Gartner perform Dick Higgins’ Danger Music 17 in a classroom setting on YouTube. It’s nowhere as powerful as the Firstdraft performance but is a rare chance to experience the work, which could be performed in any number of ways from Higgins’ instructions.

Liquid Architecture, Negative Volumes Sydney: Danger Magic, Andrew Harper, Geoffrey Gartner; other artists Sarah Byrne, Emma Ramsay, Matthew P Hopkins, Mariam Arcilla, Firstdraft, Sydney, 30-31 May

Top image credit: Geoffrey Gartner, Danger Magic, Liquid Architecture, 2017, photo courtesy Liquid Architecture