unsettling the idea of ideas

ben brooker: the festival of unpopular culture

Steve Sheehan, A Little Horseplay

Steve Sheehan, A Little Horseplay

Steve Sheehan, A Little Horseplay


The festival is intended as a showcase of discussion, art, film and performance which has no home in the mainstream cultural milieu. This is, of course, a problematic remit at a time when the mainstream is not easily defined and when the culturally subversive is always being aggressively co-opted by outside interests. It is perhaps just as well then that the festival persistently offsets its own brief through self-deprecation and knowing indifference.

Like its tagline “We Shall See,” everything about the Festival of Unpopular Culture, down to its indecorous acronym, is coolly sardonic, squarely aimed at 20-somethings and arch ironists. The printed program itself is instructive, full of hand-drawn images and text and unfinished, jokey guest biographies. The foreword by the festival’s Creative Director Stan Mahoney simply reads: “Send help.” Whether these represent an authentic challenge to the discourses of ‘mainstream’ cultural festivals or are just self-indulgent in-jokes is difficult to say. This is, after all, a festival in its infancy—though infinitely closer in spirit to adolescence: shambolic, oppositional, coyly idealistic.

j-square and friends: unsilence the silenced

Described as a “cross-lingual writing lab,” Unsilence the Silenced saw J-Square—a loose collective of Adelaide-based new migrant and ‘outsider’ artists—take over the best part of a floor of the Adelaide College of the Arts building, the designated hub of the Festival of Unpopular Culture. It is a show that may once have been described as a happening, perhaps now, in less vivid times, as a performance event. In one part of the open, grey-walled space, projected text appears on a large screen as it is being typed while in another an artist splatters a vast canvas with paint, twigs having replaced brushes, a red clown nose seeming to mollify the painter’s vanity—another self-effacing ruse in a festival filled with them.

The soundtrack—a throbbing, mostly discordant fusion of electric bass and guitar and hip-hop-ish vocalisations—initially jarred but the enduring effect was hypnotic rather than braying. The text perhaps interested me the least, its too-literal engagement with the nature of ideas (“Without ideas, all acts are blind. Ideas and actions are twins. Without one the other is gone”) at odds with the stimulating slipperiness of meaning present elsewhere. It also served ultimately to underline a kind of niggling feeling with which I left Unsilence the Silenced, a sense that the strangeness of the event was everywhere compromised by the intrusion of the familiar, the text framed by the instantly recognisable schemes of Microsoft Word, the event itself ending disconcertingly abruptly as the building’s security staff appeared, the audience ushered out amidst uncertain courtesies from J-Square members. It was a peculiarly numbing climax to what had been an evening rich with expression and potential; perfectly unpopular.

milk theatre collective: alice + peter grow up

Alice (Ashton Malcolm) and Peter (Sebastian Freeman) are already onstage when the small audience files into the Format Collective’s claustrophobic basement theatre. The actors themselves look like an audience of two: seated, blank-faced, expectant. They are, however, swiftly corralled into action by a commanding female voiceover whose task, it seems, is to propel these indolent young people into adulthood. They are expected to dress like grownups (Alice chooses black business clothes, Peter cycling shorts and a loud shirt), go on dinner dates together, make office small talk and discuss important issues without excessive inebriation. Needless to say, the apathetic Alice and the gormless but congenial Peter do not find these enforced routes to adult success and respectability easy and it all ends in hopeless abandonment amidst a pillow fight which is partly flirtatious but mostly childlike. I wanted to give myself over to this moment, to delight in Alice and Peter’s apparent rejection of the adult world and all its suffocating social constructs but there was something a bit tentative about this conclusion and, indeed, about the show more broadly which left me unable to fully engage with it. I couldn’t quite work out who or what were the intended objects of its satire: disciplinarian instructional guides, the perceived narcissism of generations X and Y, the foibles of inner-city yuppies? Like its protagonists, Alice + Peter Grow Up is immature but full of promise: Nescha Jelk’s direction is already adroit but further dramaturgy by playwright Sarah Dunn is required if this work in progress is to come of age.

steve sheehan: a little horseplay

A Little Horseplay is also a work in progress, having enjoyed a second stage of creative development following an initial showing at the 2011 Adelaide Fringe Festival. Written, directed and mostly performed by Steve Sheehan, A Little Horseplay is a playful exploration of the ridiculous, an attempt to mine internal rather than external sources of comedy. It is a show which bears little superficial correlation to any recognisable world of the real, inhabiting instead a kind of psychic, Dadaist space in which the comedy is not derived from gags but rather dreamlike juxtapositions of the sublime and the banal: classical music and bad jokes, opera and fly-swatting, a real miniature horse and a joke shop horse-head mask. An array of elaborate and bizarre props—including a suspended cage which transforms into a dress and a kamikaze bird which provides an unexpected denouement to one of Norma Knight’s strange and lovely arias—enhances the show’s air of endless possibility.

If A Little Horseplay bears any relationship to more conventional comic forms, then it is to the charged, teasing spaces that separate jokes from their punch lines. It is a show almost wholly devoid of such lines; those which do arise are disconnected, neutralising rather than climactic; melancholic rather than mirthful. This is minimalist or, as Sheehan puts it, “ambient” comedy and it works to unsettle our relationship with what is funny, to reframe the avant-garde as farce without sacrificing its essential alienness.

The Festival of Unpopular Culture, creative director Stan Mahoney; Unsilence the Silenced, FUC Hub, Adelaide College of the Arts, Oct 13; Alice + Peter Grow Up: Format Zine Shop, Oct 8-15; A Little Horseplay, Adelaide College of the Arts, Oct 15-16

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 16

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

13 December 2011