The once and future Performance Space

Ian Maxwell

Any event marking a significant anniversary is bound to yield a degree of nostalgia, back-slapping and self-congratulation, particularly when old colleagues gather and are given the benefit of an audience, microphone and 20 minutes. Especially when the achievement being celebrated is so remarkable: twenty one years of Performance Space; an occasion all the more significant as Performance Space contemplates its long anticipated move to new accommodation at the Eveleigh Carriageworks. Any attempt to take up critical cudgels about such an event might be seen as, at best, churlish.

We gathered—perhaps 60 people—at the Museum of Sydney for a symposium titled ‘Performance Space: Politics & Culture’. The tone was set early. Invited to “address 3 key [Performance Space] moments” John Baylis, tongue firmly in cheek, proposed an entire narrative culminating in the Sydney Front, a group he co-founded, created and performed with throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. The account resonated deeply with those gathered, for many of whom the Sydney Front’s work was deeply affecting, powerful and formative. For this constituency, Baylis’ master-narrative of Performance Space and contemporary performance was reassuring and affirming.

But as the gathering contemplated Performance Space’s place in the cultural landscape, it became apparent that the reflective nature of the event, notwithstanding gestures towards contextualisation, could not move far beyond the limits of (Baylis joked) ‘triumphalist’ narrative.

The problem was apparent when the keynote speaker, Anthony Steel, anchored the Performance Space project in an idea about autonomous art. Steele recalled that, “When I arrived in Adelaide in 1972 I had a personal mission to bring contemporary work to the festival there—indeed I was called ‘a proselytising modernist’.” Railing against post-Coombesian Australian anti-intellectualism, Steele spoke of arts organisations’ struggles to establish and sustain themselves as a ‘front’ in ‘the culture wars’. With proselytising modernism come assumptions about political purpose, the terms of which became more and more tangled as the day proceeded. Within such a framework, Performance Space’s struggle for a place and resources easily conflates with a generalised commitment to the new (form, media, audience, contemporary-ness), the post(modern, colonial), the queer, the alternative—categories themselves subsumed under the broad rubric of avant-gardism as politics. Autonomous art and political struggle become annealed. Any otherness, opposition, post-ness, or novelty, any alternative practice, becomes a progressive politics.

Later, Ross Gibson and Marian Pastor Roces argued that these terms are outmoded, embedded in nineteenth century sensibilities. Such terms are, they thought, complicit with that to which they claim an opposition, an observation which helped to clarify the day’s confusions about the relationships between, and the relative statuses of, ‘cultural practice’, ‘art’ and ‘politics.’

These confusions were exacerbated by a failure to address Performance Space as a sociological phenomenon. While speakers rehearsed arts policy/funding, rued the new anti-intellectualism, reflected on ‘the culture wars’, the rise to hegemony of neo-liberal market ideology, such contexts were only raised insofar as they related to Performance Space, and that cluster of artists, intellectuals and audiences (these categories, of course, overlapping) identifying themselves as the ‘we’ of Performance Space. Performance Space as itself, a social field, potentially subject to sociological analysis was not discussed.

Such an analysis would understand Performance Space as a project with its own species of cultural capital, investments and constructions of value and meaning: those sustaining ideas Pierre Bourdieu called illusio. The denial of this Realpolitik, sociological dimension takes the form, precisely, of claims to transcendental aspirations: (pure) art, an assumption of an undefined progressive politics, and so on, in the context of which Performance Space as a social phenomenon is rendered as transparent cipher, an unproblematised, invisible given.

That this is a problem became apparent in the middle session, ‘Emergent Space-Bridges to the Future.’ First, Keith Gallasch proposed a metaphorical reframing of the Performance Space project, drawn from a dog-eared text on emergence theory: slime mold, a microorganism able to meld, in times of environmental crisis, into a pseudo-macroorganism, drawing strength from temporary homogeneity, before, upon the emergence of more favourable conditions, breaking into individual spores, propagating far and wide. Mutable, self-effacing, unglamorous, resistant to all manner of predator or turn of environmental event, the metaphor drew nods of recognition and understanding: clearly for this audience there was something both phenomenologically resonant and ideologically appealing in the anti-aesthetic of slime. Extending the metaphor, Gallasch invited us to consider the cultural landscape as an ecology, replete with micro-climates, foodchains, symbiosis and, I suppose, competition.

The metaphor is at once compelling and repulsive, offering spaces, evoking ideas of diversity and inter-dependence, satisfyingly organic, and gesturing to a progressive (green) politics. At the same time, it readily lends itself to pseudo-Darwinian ideas about fitness, and to a determinism devoid of agency. Everything becomes a natural process, echoing Baylis’ earlier ideas about the inevitability of the Sydney Front’s emergence. For what it is worth, Gallasch’s account of his own engagement with Performance Space took the form of an elective affinity: Performance Space drew him and his company, Open City, almost alchemically: “we were looking for such a place.” Again, the narrative, although accommodating some agency (Open City did, after all, go looking) creates an inevitability, a sense of things finding their right balance.

And of course, the ecological metaphor brings with it ideas about conservation, sustainability, balance: a natural order of things. Sarah Miller, speaking next, invoked a ‘we-ness’ charged with “holding onto” those things that Performance Space achieved, made possible, stood for. Then Nick Tsoutas, again invoking a ‘we’ charged with the responsibility for carrying the flame, lamented the invisibility of ‘the next generation’ of performance workers: “I can’t see them”, he cried, scanning the audience. Finally, Mike Mullins exhorted ‘us’ all to “slow down”: to resist the pressure to create “the new”: to instead take time out to reflect, to thicken our engagement with ideas, practice and so on. His entreaty was a categorical imperative, again with a nebulous, inclusive ‘we’ positioned as the subject: we must all slow down.

Now, I do not, for a moment, wish to disparage these 3 speakers, all former artistic directors of Performance Space, all provocative, committed contributors to the vitality of the field. Indeed, they are among the handful of people who made the field. Nor do I want to indulge in a coarse generationalism, on the model of Mark Davis’ Gangland. (At any rate, I am of the older generation, a tenured academic and part of the establishment. And for what it is worth, I sympathise with Mullins’ imprecation for a radical slowing down. But that is not the point here.)

The point is that the ecological metaphor, the construction of a natural order of things and a supposedly inclusive ‘we’ constituting a kind of meta-agency or collective subjectivity (a slime mold), co-extensive and identified with the totality of the ecosystem (‘we are the field of contemporary performance’), yields an understanding in which difference—in this instance, the ‘next generation’—is necessarily invisible. And this creates the possibility of dismissing the aspirations of the next generation, in the name of that all-encompassing ‘we’ that must slow down.

The inclusive ‘we-ness’ extends to a collective self-recognition—of performance style, of belonging, of feeling at home-that functions to exclude, a possibility that, with one exception, was not raised throughout the day. Let me explain.

Baylis’ determinist narrative was bound up with an idea about a house style identified with Performance Space. The inability to describe the Performance Space house style in anything other than the broadest terms (ie that which inevitably emerged; that which we all recognise without having to define) misrecognises the significance of house style as a discriminator, the role of taste-makers and gatekeepers. Placing the various practices that took and take place at Performance Space within broad rubrics such as ‘contemporary performance’, making a virtue of an apparent lack of formal or generic consistency across the spectrum of that work, and producing a history and organising metaphor devoid of agency (Performance Space necessarily produced Sydney Front; we are slime mold), masks the agencies, labour and practices of inclusion and exclusion that constitute Performance Space as a social entity. Instead, the insiders—those subsumed under the ‘we—understand their practice as open, natural, and self-evidently progressive.

From the outside, things look very different. The only moment all day going anywhere near acknowledging this was Jane Goodall’s description of her first Performance Space experience. The ultimate outsider experience: driving from Newcastle (subtly evoked as a cultural other to cosmopolitan centre), wearing pink jeans and t-shirt—the ultimate outré. Of course, on arrival, everyone was wearing, in Goodall’s recollection, “110% black”. My point is not ‘what’s wrong with pink?’, but to notice the self-evidence of the pink faux pas. Goodall’s self-deprecatory mocking of her dress sense played upon the insiderness of her audience: ‘everyone’ knows that Performance Space habituées wear black. More than this, however, those who belong with Performance Space experience that belongingness in an easy, natural way that outsiders simply do not share. They may aspire to share it, but must do so not by sharing a(n ill-defined) politics, education, class, appreciation for art, but by means of a certain process of habituation that, necessarily, is informed by politics, education, class etc, but manifests as a feeling-for Performance Space-ness: precisely what Bourdieu means by his term habitus.

Revealingly, aside from Goodall’s anecdote, none of this came up in the course of the day. When something like a ‘feel for Performance Space’ did arise, it was negotiated in the quasi-mystical language of ‘feeling for place’, understood as a kind of haunting of the physical environment by use, artistic practice, evocative anecdotes and so on.

So, the ‘we’ misrecognises its own contingency, its grounding in a social milieu. Instead, it aspires to the totality of a cultural landscape. The ‘we’ starts to negotiate the future, expressing a concern for the crisis of generational succession, and a desire to ‘hold onto’ that which has been secured.

And there’s the rub. The anxiety informing Performance Space’s celebrations is that concerned with the immanent relocation to a new site: a site paid for by the NSW Ministry of the Arts, purpose-built for what appears to be, on the strength of various politicians’ testimonies reproduced in the anniversary booklet, a value-adding, productive-diversity model of arts practice. Understandably, Performance Space’s Board and management, artists, audiences, academics, old guard, new guard and so on are nervous about the implications of such patronage. The concerns are very real, and eminently practice-related: Will I be allowed to drill holes in the wall? Paper the toilets with pornography? Mess with the seating? The kinds of things with which overly sensible bureaucratic management have so much trouble. To stake a claim to holding onto past practices is, in the face of such anxieties, more than reasonable.

Yet…Speaking towards the end of the day, Marian Pastor Roces evoked the imaginary architecture of a building designed for an artform yet to be invented, a music yet to be heard. Subtly at odds with the conservationist (dare I say nostalgic?) version of the ecological metaphor, Pastor Roces invited us to consider not just what we need to hold onto, but that which we must let go. In a very real sense, Performance Space, when it moves, will end. The landscape will be fundamentally and irreversibly changed: an environmental cataclysm, perhaps, to really milk the metaphor; an errant asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs. In such times, there can be no holding on. Rather, the invisible—the as-yet unknown—will appear. In its new incarnation, Performance Space’s obligation will be to allow for those appearances—and there is a very good chance that it—we—will not recognise them. That is far more challenging than holding on, requiring a rethinking of ideas about tradition: tradition not as maintenance of a status quo, but as a continuity that lets go. Not a mere ‘re-thinking’ but, in a sense, a letting go of the assumption of the right to do the re-thinking.

Performance Space, as a tradition, as a connectedness with a past that is, genuinely, past, must be more than a re-invention; it must be an architecture for artforms yet to be invented, responsive to an as-yet unconstituted, future ‘we’. This is the truth of the ecological metaphor.

Performance Space Symposium: Politics & Culture, Museum of Sydney, November 5

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 14

© Ian Maxwell; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 December 2004

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