Tuesday, 27 August 2013

You’ll stop seeing me as your dancing monkey

I spoke with Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the Artistic Directors of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, ahead of their Melbourne International Arts Festival season of Life and Times: Episodes 1-4. An epic 10-hour performance that narrates the life story of Kristin Worrall, one of the company members, Life and Times will eventually have 10 episodes with a combined running time of 24 hours.

The company’s earlier work No Dice, presented at the Sydney Festival in 2009, was an astonishingly inventive four-hour musing on storytelling constructed from recorded phone conversations.

Read the rest of my interview, published in the print and online editions of RealTime #116, here http://realtimearts.net/article/116/11257

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Trouble With Asian Men

The Trouble with Asian Men 
Created by Sudha Bhuchar, Kristine Landon-Smith and Louise Wallinger.
Produced by Tamasha
Parramasala, Australia Festival of South Asian Arts
Parramatta Town Hall, 7th November 2012

"What is the trouble with Asian men?" performer Amit Sharma asks the audience as he enters the stage. A deafening silence ensues. Despite the title of this performance from British company Tamasha being The Trouble With Asian Men, I doubt that any of us in the audience that night had quite anticipated that we might be cast in the role of focus group. The show's title did not include a question mark, after all. After a moment of quiet contemplation I decided that I don't personally have any particular 'troubles' with Asian men specifically, nor any particular expertise with which to approach the question. As an informant or focus group participant, I'd be pretty useless. Thankfully, after a while some other audience members began to chime in. Asian men were "too prominent" and "too conservative". Another audience member wanted clarification as to what Sharma meant by 'Asian men', noting that in Australia, the term 'Asian' is usually used to describe ‘oriental Asians’ rather than the British use of the term which seems to describe only subcontinental Asians – such as Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. It was a distinction that Sharma did not engage with, ending the preliminary thematic conversation at that point. Perhaps this question was one that the frame of the performance was either unable or uninterested in dealing with. Indeed the voices of southeast and north Asians seemed entirely absent from this work, despite the presence of several Australian interview subjects within the mix of the performance. Whilst the focus of the Parramasala Festival is on 'south Asian arts', this seeming blindness to the existence of specific and quite different local meanings of the term 'Asian' did this work no favours, getting the audience conversation immediately off on the wrong foot.

Sharma's introduction continued with a description of the technique used in the performance, that of audio recordings of interviews being delivered to the performers via headphones. The motivation for this is to facilitate a more faithful verbatim theatre, one that preserves every pause, stumble and idiosyncrasy of the vocal utterance, and bring the audience closer to the truth of the interview subject. This technique is very familiar to Sydney audiences, primarily through a trilogy of extraordinary headphone verbatim theatre projects from director Rosalyn Oades over the past seven years (Fast Cars and Tractor Engines, Stories of Love and Hate, and I'm Your Man). Interview-based verbatim theatre has had a lot of exposure in Australia over the past decade, and the more interesting Australian artists working in this area, including Oades, Tamara Saulwick, and the choreographer Kate Champion, have blended recorded interviews on diverse themes with striking stage imagery and strongly physical performances. For these artists, the recorded (and carefully edited) interview is only ever one channel of meaning within the stage aesthetic. The apparent absolute veracity of the recorded interview is placed into new physical contexts by its act of re-speaking within the theatrical frame. These artists have been very conscious that they are creating theatre, and deliberately use their interview source materials to ask questions about the limits of theatrical representation. They do this often by drawing attention to the disjunction between original voice of the interview and the body of the actor transmitting this to the audience. Faced with a mismatch between the 'voiceprint' and the age, gender and/or ethnicity of the actor, audiences in these works are given the opportunity to hear differently, and, perhaps paradoxically, through this change in perception audiences are often able connect more intimately with the stories contained within the performance.

The Trouble With Asian Men is primarily interested in direct reportage, and on its own terms it is very charming. The staging is very minimal, resembling a public reading or work-in-progress performance. Three actors – Tamasha performers Amit Sharma and Niall Ray with rotating guest local performers (on this night the guest was John Shrimpton) – sit onstage with their headphones and re-voice their interview subjects, accompanied only by a limited range of gestural actions. Compared to local examples of the genre, The Trouble with Asian Men is a pretty bare bones presentation. The three performers portray over a dozen different voices, each addressing the linked questions of what is the trouble with, and what's troubling Asian men. The answers are quietly entertaining, skipping lightly across cultural stereotypes, delving into questions of love, romance, and arranged marriages, family expectations, and the preservation of language whilst assimilating or being long-assimilated into a new home. Much of the humour of the work comes from relationship tales – from a lack of interest in dating fellow Asians, to tales of smothering mothers and awkward interactions with mothers-in-law. The close bond between mothers and their sons produces the show's most uncomfortable revelation, with one man making a Freudian slip by referring to his mother as his "wife" midway through describing his life being cared for by his mother after a marriage breakdown. There's a candour and freshness about all of these stories, and they do offer a window into the hopes and dreams of ordinary people in Britain and Australia. But ultimately, The Trouble With Asian Men offers few penetrating insights. It's a well-constructed, gently pleasant excursion, but it is neither especially memorable, theatrically innovative, nor socially transformative. For an audience unfamiliar with this theatrical technique, The Trouble With Asian Men is an accessible, mildly entertaining, and not overly challenging entry point, but the conversations it triggers will most likely be of short duration.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The gaze stripping bare: violence and vision in version 1.0’s THIS KIND OF RUCKUS

A recent large-scale work from Sydney performance group version 1.0 is THIS KIND OF RUCKUS, an alcohol-fuelled and techno-beat driven reflection upon sexual violence in contemporary Australia. A key feature within THIS KIND OF RUCKUS is the frequent violent deployment of the gaze by both genders. Frequently in the performance, the gaze becomes rendered as an exercise in dominance. Within RUCKUS the gaze is uncomfortable, uncalled for, unwelcome, and often highly inappropriate. A man sits and stares a women’s crotch repeatedly, and is closely watched in turn by a video camera. A policeman looks at two women sitting in a car for too long, trying to decide whether or not to exercise his authority. A man looks across a dance floor and finds a target for seduction. Two women look at individual audience members and decide which ones they might most like to have sex with. If, as philosopher Cathryn Vasseleu suggests, that “to regard someone is to have regard for them” (Vasseleu 1998:88), then what might be some of the implications of the violent vision within version 1.0’s THIS KIND OF RUCKUS?


In a program note, I described THIS KIND OF RUCKUS as: “a performance about power, control and violence in intimate relationships. The work explores sexual violence in a range of spheres – from the realm of the domestic, to the judicial system, to the media and popular cultural attitudes, to the recent spate of sexual assault scandals in the sporting arena.”

The work premiered at Performance Space in Sydney in September 2009, and has had subsequently been performed in Adelaide and Lismore, with a season at the Arts Centre in Melbourne in August 2010. THIS KIND OF RUCKUS is in many ways a departure from past work by version 1.0. As a performance group, version 1.0 has built its reputation on a series of deconstructive documentary performance projects, projects that draw upon a wide range of public documents to make performances about significant public scandals. These documents have included Senate Committee proceedings, Royal Commission transcripts, and media reportage and commentary upon, the actions of public figures, most often politicians, public servants, and senior figures within major corporations. The topics of these works have ranged from the so-called ‘children overboard’ affair, to the selling of the war on Iraq, to the ‘wheat-for-weapons’ scandal that engulfed monopoly wheat exporter AWB Ltd.

It would be fair to say that version 1.0 has always been interested in making performance works about the operations of power, especially in those moments in which power has been distorted, misapplied, and/or abused. However the targets of these investigations have always been directly the political system and its players. Whilst this work was also highly concerned with power and its operation, in THIS KIND OF RUCKUS version 1.0 grappled with very different subject matter and source materials than on our previous body of work – a shift from overtly political documents oriented around parliamentary figures, to a range of media snapshots around issues of sexual violence in a variety of contexts, blended with material generated by the members of the devising company. Marking this shift in approach to gathering performance materials, co-dramaturg Yana Taylor observed in her program note for the show:

“We started to generate material from our own connections that took the place of others’ accounts verbatim or reportage. Memories of ambiguous situations we were involved with and occurrences witnessed, often glimpsed fleetingly between neighbours and friends that left their mark reminded how close any of us might be. The inside-show media lens swung back on us at the same time. To use an analogy, its like we were water sampling the present state of this gender ecology. It feels some days like a tipping point in this ecology might have been reached as the public airing continues.”

So, in THIS KIND OF RUCKUS, the investigation is not of a single political scandal. Instead, the performance is concerned with the cultural scandal of the continued presence of sexual violence within a wide range of domains in contemporary Australia. Rather than one inciting incident for performance, there are instead a series of different encounters and micro-narratives that aimed to open a public conversation around the subject area.

Witnessing and recounting
As well as the nature of the subject matter and blend of textual materials being substantially different to past work by version 1.0, the aesthetics of the work and the performance strategies employed are also radically different. The performance is structured in a highly formal way, with space and time being clearly organised and divided. The performance is staged in two acts without interval, with a prologue, an interlude and an epilogue. These acts are delineated by the opening and closing of a tab curtain, a curtain which completely closes off the audiences’ vision of the playing space. In front of the curtain is a very shallow space, only about 1.5 meters in depth, in which the performers work very close to the audience. Behind the curtain, in Act 1 there is a 8m wide and 6m deep floor made from woven bubble wrap, with a wall of bubble wrap placed behind this. The height of this wall in productions to date has ranged from 2m to 3.5m. Atop the bubble wrap wall are two large projection screens. Either side of the wall are tables covered with orange sports drinks, and the outside edge of the floor is marked out with hazard tape. When the curtain reopens for Act 2, all of the bubble wrap has been removed, revealing a vast black playing space upstage of the screens. A mirror image of the downstage hazard tape marking is also placed upstage, making a central ‘playing area’ that is 8m wide and 12m deep. In Act 2, the drinks on the tables are replaced with cans of beer.

From the outset, it is clear that the performance is highly interested in what the audience sees, how they are able to see it, what falls within their field of vision, what they may have overlooked, and what may be hidden from them. Or what they can be convinced that they did in fact see, but which never actually occurred. And driving this concern with seeing is the desire to force audiences to question how they make sense of what they see, and actively engage with the complexities surrounding issues of gender violence. The action behind the curtain over the two acts plays out in a series of repeated cycles, and the stage action does not necessarily occur in a linear fashion. The opening image as the curtain opens is repeated four times over the course of the performance, and in each reoccurrence, some detail has changed, or the action may be able to be explained in a different way. Certain elements that recur across the two acts are visible in new ways; what was only half-glimpsed behind the bubble wrap in Act 2 occurs in full view, for instance.

In each section of the performance, looking is a key concern. The piece opens in front of the curtain, with a line of performers holding red pom pons waiting as if awaiting the start of a cheerleading routine. On a count of three, the performers turn and sit down, and performer Kym Vercoe begins to tell a story. Her story recounts a journey home late one Sydney summer night, with Vercoe and her friend driving home after a night of dancing. On the relatively short drive home, the two women encounter two roadside scenes of violence in women appear as victims, scenes that the two women in the car feel compelled to intervene into. And yet in each of these scenes, all is not exactly as it appears. The first incident revolves around a clump of men around a woman slumped on the footpath, and two car loads of women stop and come to her assistance. Whilst the heightened aggression of the men made it appear that the woman had been assaulted or was in imminent danger of further attack, the subsequent unfolding of the story after the police arrived was that one of the men, the woman’s boyfriend, had been trying to prevent the very drunken woman from driving home, and this drunken altercation had led to her being thrown to the ground. The role of the other men was unclear. Upon continuing their homeward drive, Vercoe and her companion see another agitated woman attempting to flee whilst two men were approaching her. Upon attempting the assist the woman, our narrators are almost immediately stopped by police, who violently arrest the woman, who is revealed to be an ice addict who has been breaking into cars. The police chastise Vercoe and her friend for misreading the situation, and in their view, acting stupidly because they failed to see the true circumstances, despite the evidence of their eyes.

Vercoe reaches the end of her narrated encounter with police with another look, in this case that of the police officer who whilst claiming to be making sure that the two woman arrive home safely, feels it necessary to demonstrate his potential power to detain. “Its just that I can smell alcohol on your breath,” he says. As the two woman in the car defend themselves – “I’ve had a couple of beers, but they were hours ago now, so I’m OK to drive I reckon” – another performer, Jane Phegan, interrupts her. Looking directly at the audience, Phegan states: “Imagine fucking 12 of these guys in a row.” In this sequence, Phegan is referring indirectly to a real incident involving an Australian rugby league on tour in New Zealand, in which a local woman who thought that she was having sex with one member of the team, but was brought to a room to which the entire team were present. Phegan’s thought experiment involving the actual members of the present audience, speaking apparently as herself shifts the focus from this potentially part-remembered past event to the live transaction of looking and looking back. Here too, gender issues recur, with performer Arky Michael’s rhetorical dismissal of Phegan’s capacity to act on her proposition on the basis that she “hasn’t got the balls.”

Perspectives: Incomplete views/ Inconsistent visions
Vercoe’s opening story raises a key concern of the political aesthetics at play within RUCKUS. In past works such as 2007’s Deeply offensive and utterly untrue, it was of upmost importance that the audience be highly aware at all times of the identity of each of the speakers, and be able to reflect upon the nature of this speaking position, in order to fully comprehend the appropriateness or otherwise of particular statements. Broadly speaking, in these works in was very important that the company ‘name and shame’ politicians and other political actors, as a primary concern of these works was accountability. Whilst RUCKUS is still deeply interested in accountability, there was an early political decision that the despite about a third of the material in the show being found texts, a number of which from a range of sexual assault scandals that occurred as the piece was being made, the only people named within the work would be the performers themselves. Kym Vercoe is clearly telling a personal story about her own experience, and there is some expectation that this is indeed a true story, an effect of course emphasised by the direct address mode of the performance. Later texts the appear in the performance are not necessarily from personal experiences of performers, but are rather found texts from a range of sources, including edited media interviews and court transcripts. But in each of these texts, the speaking position is not clearly identified, leaving open the question of who is speaking at any given moment, and therefore how much of what is said should be believed. Who should the audience trust? Which speaker might be reliable? What of the previous statements by this performer should be read in parallel with the current utterances? Is this really Kym Vercoe speaking to David Williams in the couple’s mediation at the centre of Act 1? During Arky Michael’s story of a group sex experience in a Cairns pub room in which the consent of the woman involved is very much unclear, is the ‘I’ that Michael uses to describe himself part of a group of footballers or a group of actors? And should audiences be expected to read these behaviours differently depending on the perceived identity of the speaker? In the repeated series of aggressive dancing, who are the performers playing? Character identification has always been highly unstable in version 1.0’s performance works, with performers donning and shedding roles with great alacrity, though in this work these unstable identities do raise the personal political stakes. Is it more a problem to think about myself, David Williams, as a potential abuser, as a consciously or unconsciously violent man, or to be comforted by the notion that I am only playing someone else?
In political terms, the devising artists of the company believed that in RUCKUS, to name and shame absent others would be to let the audience and the performers off the hook, to safely exclude all of the people present in the theatre building from complicity in cultures that enable and perpetuate sexual violence. To open up a space of public conversation, as RUCKUS hoped to do, means reflecting seriously not only on examples of clearly unacceptable behaviour by people ‘out there’ but also on those experiences each of us within the shared space of the theatre have had, moments in which we have crossed lines of proper behaviour, either unconsciously or consciously, as well as times when our trust has been broken or abused by others. It’s too easy to say that the problem is only ‘out there’. This lets everyone in the auditorium off the hook, and as we are all aware, problems of sexual violence are never that simple. As I’ve remarked in other discussions around this project, while we were making the show there were a range of sexual assault and domestic violence claims made against footballers. While we were performing the show, there were a series of domestic violence claims made against actors.

The curtain opens, revealing a man (David Williams) sitting looking closely at a woman (Kym Vercoe) lying prone on the floor in front of him. Or more particularly, the man is staring at the woman’s crotch as she lies on the floor in her underwear. This focused stare is captured by a live camera side-stage, with the image displayed on the large screens hung above the middle of the stage. The staging clearly makes a spectacle of what Laura Mulvey has famously described as “the male gaze” in her seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. outlined the basic tenets of feminist theory of the gaze: that men look, and women are looked at, and that those who get to do the looking find two main pleasures in it: voyeurism and fetishism. According to Mulvey, there are three “looks” which comprise the male gaze: men within the narrative looking at women, the spectator who identifies with the male gaze in the narrative, and the omnipotent gaze of the camera itself. The body of theory around the male gaze obviously needs much more attention than I have time for in this current paper, but in the opening image of Act 1 of RUCKUS both stages and exposes each element of Mulvey’s patriarchal male gaze, whilst at the same time suggesting that the presence of the audience gazing toward these voyeuristic and potentially violent male gazes complicates matters somewhat. Yes, there is a man looking at a woman, shortly thereafter joined by another man looking at another woman. Yes, these acts of looking are captured and reframed by multiple onstage cameras, the presence of which I need to explore in more detail. But the notion that the spectator identifies in an uncomplex way with the male gaze in this narrative seems far from certain.

These power dynamics and potentially abusive looks may or may not be what they seem. Effectively, THIS KIND OF RUCKUS stages the gazes of real people upon other real people, who are in turn gazed upon by other real people in the audience. But no one viewer is able the see everything, and every act of seeing is manipulated, undermined, overturned, disrupted, or plainly inadequate. If nothing else, the cascades of violent vision within RUCKUS demand that when looking at the bodies of others, each of us must look extremely carefully.

All text copyright David Williams, 2010

Paper delivered at the 2010 Australasian Drama Studies Association Annual Conference, ANU, July 2010

Busting up and deeply personal national traumas

AKA: the “disgusting and opportunistic farce” of version 1.0’s From a distance… (2006)

In the women’s rowing eight final at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, Australian rower Sally Robbins stopped rowing before the finish line. Immediately following the race, the team very publicly busted up, held a press conference in which they declared that they had reconciled, and then very publicly busted up again. Concurrently a highly emotive debate began in Australia about how this rowing failure might reflect upon and illuminate the national character, triggering a lengthy debate about national identity and values. In late 2005, Sydney-based performance group version 1.0, a company of which I am a member, began work on a performance about this debate, taking the so-called ‘no-row’ incident as a starting point. Very soon after commencing work on the project, version 1.0 began receiving threats of legal action and hate mail that memorably declared that the project was “a disgusting and opportunistic farce”. This paper will begin by briefly outlining the incident and the deeply emotive responses that this incident provoked, then begin to unpack the values at the core of this notion of the un-national, and then finally begin to consider what might animate version 1.0’s theatrical representation of these deeply intertwined personal and national traumas.

Part 1.
For those of you who managed to miss the incident when it occurred, here’s a brief summary of what happened. For reasons still hotly debated, rower Sally Robbins stopped rowing 600 metres before the finish line, slumping back in her seat. Upon finishing the race, the other crewmembers verbally abused Robbins, with one of her team-mates declaring that: “I just want to stress there was not a technical problem. No seat broke. There was nothing wrong with the boat. We had nine in the boat but only eight operating. That’s all I’m going to say.” Other crew members were recorded by media yelling out: “Tell the truth Sally! Don’t lie!” Robbins herself commented to Channel 7 that: “I had some pretty hard words thrown at me. I had some pretty tough things to take,” and also claimed that her teammates had threatened to throw her overboard.
The mood back home in Australia was similarly hostile. Cathy Freeman, herself no stranger to nationalistic controversy, stated that: “From a distance, to give up is almost very Un-Australian.” Ron Barassi was less subtle, stating: “You don’t quit until you’re unconscious. She wasn’t thinking about her team, and she wasn’t thinking about her country.”
The team held a press conference the following day, facilitated by AOC President John Coates, where they repeatedly insisted that they had reconciled, yet the following day team members were again venting to the media. At a welcome home function in Sydney, Robbins was slapped by one of her team-mates, and then it was reported that the rift continued when Robbins was a no-show to the wedding of Julia Wilson, the team captain. The media loved the story, and it became a strange sort of grubby soap opera. Recently, Robbins tried and failed to seek selection for the Beijing Olympics, which provided an excuse to run through the story all over again on newspaper front pages. According to one recent report, she is now considering a career in cycling.

Part 2. 
Freeman’s use of the term ‘unAustralian’ to describe this incident was far from isolated, with ‘un Australian’ appearing regularly in the commentary on all aspects of the ‘no row’ incident. Robbins was un-Australian for quitting. The rest of the team was un-Australian for turning on her. Athletes had become un-Australian for overturning apparently long-held values of sporting conduct. The commentators were un-Australian for getting stuck into someone in such a moment of weakness.
In their paper Popular understandings of ‘UnAustralian’: an investigation of the un-national (2001), sociologists Phillip Smith and Tim Phillips observe that unlike the long standing usage of the term ‘UnAmerican’, there appears to be no clear definition of notions of un-nation in an Australian context. Unlike the use of the term UnAmerican to indicate an apparent betrayal of national values and ideologies, those historical references that do appear to UnAustralian-ness have distinct racial characteristics. UnAustralian seems to equate historically with non-white, though more contemporary usages seem to cluster around concepts of values. Noting the exclusionary function of the term, in the conclusion of their paper they begin to explore the possible motivations animating this exclusionary impulse. Drawing on the work of Zygmunt Bauman they note that this naming process forms part of a response to anxieties and feelings of insecurity about rapid social change:
“Labelling an object or event ‘UnAustralian’ is a core aspect of the boundary- maintaining process: blaming ‘out-groups’ for change and the decline of ‘the old ways’ (Bauman, 1990: 48). We might expect this more aggrieved usage of the ‘UnAustralian’ to be part of a larger vocabulary of motives found mainly to be concentrated in the life-world of a ‘middle Australia’ (Brett, 1997) reacting to the perceived threat to their symbolic-moral universe.” (Smith and Phillips 2001: 337)
It is this use of the term un-Australian to control a perceived threat to a symbolic moral universe that animated the performance project From a distance....

Part 3.
In late November 2005, Victoria Laurie, a journalist with the Perth desk of The Australian newspaper, discovered whilst browsing the internet that version 1.0 was planning on making a performance about the so-called ‘no row’ incident. Due to the fact that the rower at the centre of the scandal was based in Perth, Laurie thought that this was a good basis for a story. No doubt some of her interest was piqued by the unintentionally sensationalist proposed title of the work: Sally Robbins: An UnAustralian Story.
Whilst perhaps not as insensitive as the title of Dan Illic’s recent Beaconsfield: A Musical in A Flat Miner, planned as part of the 2008 Melbourne Comedy Festival, the placement of Robbins’ name next to term un-Australian proved extremely problematic, despite the originally intended title never being publicised. As part of her news story, Laurie contacted Robbins for comment. While declining to comment for the story, Robbins was reportedly unamused in the extreme, and immediately contacted her lawyers, who in turn contacted version 1.0.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who spend so much of their lives striving to achieve the authorization to represent Australia in domains such as sport are quite sensitive to the means by which their representation is subjected to further representation in other domains. Robbins was extremely unhappy with what she and her legal team believed was the show’s primary assertion that Robbins was Un-Australian, despite the fact that the show never intended on making such an assertion or implication, being more interested in the fact that others made such assertions, and further interested in exploring what this might mean for our national identity. Neither Robbins nor her legal team recognised the distinction. This is a marked contrast to the response of elected representatives in the domain of politics, the subjects of other performance work by version 1.0, who appear far less concerned about their potential representations in domains other than their own. It has been suggested by my less charitable colleagues that this is because politicians are essentially vain, though such an assertion is of course impossible to quantify.
Lawyers representing Sally Robbins began issuing threats of legal action, initially framing their concerns around the proposed title of the project. After largely amicable negotiation with Steve Lawrence, Executive Director of the Western Australian Institute of Sport, representing Robbins’ lawyers, the official title for the production stage of the project was altered to From a distance…, an acceptable compromise title. However, Robbins’ lawyers remained interested in pursuing defamation actions against the company, continually asking for a copy of the script so they could approve it. Legal advice obtained by version 1.0 indicated that Robbins’ lawyers had no rights to gain a copy of the script, which at any rate did not yet exist, and strongly advised against providing one to her legal team on the grounds that it could be used as the basis for a defamation action. These later negotiations were often extremely tense.
The title was intended to be highly ironic, and to draw attention to the rhetorical over-reaction of commentators and members of the public to the incident. It was not intended to be a comment on the Australian-ness or other wise of any individual, though this made little sense to anyone beyond the members of version 1.0 at that stage. Laurie, and other journalists after her seemed convinced that the performance must include a reenactment of the race, and must also make some contention about who might be to blame. Of course, the intended project was designed to do neither of these. As I attempted to explain in an email to Steve Lawrence:
“There’s a couple of mis-conceptions that may have arisen as a result of the recent media reportage of the proposed performance that I should address at this point. Media, as you know, does tend to mis-represent. In the performance, we do not ‘re-enact’ any part of the incident, not any part of the race, and not the incident at the welcome home event. The only ‘re-enacting’ in the performance is of the press conference, and that’s simply in terms of repeating the words that were said there. There are references to these incidents, but not re-enactments. We assume that the audience already knows what happened, and what we explore is the reaction to the incident, and what that (over)reaction might tell us about our national identity. I know that sounds abstract, but my point is that none of this is personal.” (email 16 December 2005)
As I’ve noted elsewhere in regards to re-enactment, version 1.0 has tended to focus on re-presenting the aftermath and reactions to events rather than re-enacting the events themselves – staging questionable second order reproductions rather than faithful copies. This is especially true in attempts at re-presenting events for which there was in fact no original, such as the so-called ‘children overboard’ affair of 2001, the subject of version 1.0’s 2004 work CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident).
Laurie’s article, ‘Lay Down Sally, the stage play’ (published 8 December 2005), provoked demands for interviews from media outlets nationwide. This media interest in the project also provoked hate mail directed at the project artists, an edited version of which was included in the show. The hate mail challenges the right of artistic practice to represent real events, and posits arts attempt to represent such events as an act of violence.
“I felt I should write and let you know of my disgust upon hearing of plans for the play; truly a concept that is shit-to-the-core with bad taste, bad timing, and has an overwhelming stench of useless arty-farty endeavour. These are not fictional stereotyped characters, nor is this a generalised sporting situation of triumph and tragedy that needs to be performed as an interpretive bloody dance. It is a real story that occurred in the not-so-distant past, and involved real thinking, feeling, emotional people, who are still around today, and in many cases are trying to continue with their careers. […] Would you acting-types like it if I wrote an analytical book about the time you were dining with the Premier and your beret fell off your head into your skinny latte? […] In closing, a general fictional play on the subject would be fine. Perhaps even a very similar situation, but in a different sporting field? But a specific performance of a very recent and, for many people, very tragic situation, involving people that are still trying to go about their lives, is indeed a disgusting and opportunistic farce. Shame on you.”
The email is not a response to the performance itself, but rather a response to the idea that such a work might be made at all, a response to “hearing of plans for the play.” Nonetheless, the letter effectively marshals a range of Australian cultural anxieties around artistic practice, and adds to this a fascinating illustration of the deeply personal stakes of this incident, even to uninvolved spectators. Of course, one email is undoubtedly a scant evidentiary basis for such an assertion. It was however my experience when talking about the ideas for the show in a range of social contexts, that it was extremely rare for the person that with whom I was talking to not have strong opinions about the incident.
One possible reason for this personal and visceral reaction is the incident is seen as a crisis of values – a fracture in the symbolic moral universe that Smith and Phillips discuss that requires urgent repair. As if anticipating this need for repair, around the same time as the ‘no row’ incident, former Prime Minister John Howard proposed a list of seven core national values shared by ‘ordinary Australians’. Howard stated at the time that:
“A sense of shared values is our social cement. Without it, we risk becoming a society governed by coercion, rather than consent. That is not an Australia that any of us would want to live in.”
His list of shared values were:
  1. We live in a very successful nation.
  2. We do not have much to be ashamed of.
  3. Australia is well-regarded around the world.
  4. Individuals should be given a fair go if down on their luck but, once helped, should not expect continued community support.
  5. Traditional institutions like the family are central but people with alternative views should not be persecuted.
  6. Society should be classless where a person’s worth is determined by personal character and hard work, and not religion, race or social background.
  7. People should be very tolerant, but also believe in unity when facing a common threat.

It is the symbolic moral universe articulated in this list of values that in some way begins to make sense of the excessive reaction to the ‘no row’ incident that led to a 23-year old athlete being widely branded ‘un Australian’ for stopping in a rowing race. The performance From a distance… attempted to make sense of this national identity crisis by tracing what the nation says it isn’t. We live in a very successful nation. We do not have much to be ashamed of. There’s clearly a much more detailed discussion that needs to be undertaken around the largely negative orientation of many of these values, not to mention the significant caveats that this list contains, but unfortunately that is beyond the scope of this paper.
The hate mail contained some further useful warnings about the care required when investigating this territory:
“Sure, the event was controversial, and raised questions about what was acceptable conduct in the sporting arena. Maybe it was a reflection of some deep-rooted aspect of being Australian? Who flamin’ knows?! Perhaps these issues should be explored, but this incident should not be used as some sort of “type-example” or snapshot of the Australian psyche, because you have no understanding of the inner workings of the team, the personalities at play, the prior history, the pressure of the situation etc. To put it forward as a study of “un-Australian” behaviour (or whatever), without having full knowledge of the situation is ludicrous and, as stated above, in very bad taste…shit taste in fact.”
The impertinence of this performance project is that it uses this incident as a trigger to investigate the territory of the un-national, despite the warning contained in the hate mail. Obviously to fully articulate the ways in which any performance might achieve such an undertaking requires far greater space than is available in this paper, and indeed I would suggest that From a distance… was far from successful in its performative investigation. Despite its flaws however, this work was intended as an act of critical patriotism, and perhaps such a motive can at least partially excuse such “a disgusting an opportunistic farce”.
David Williams

Paper delivered at the ADSA Annual Conference, Edith Cowan University, Perth, July 2009

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Labours of love: Whittaker and Caesar's Starfuckers

Following in the tradition of famous artist couples such as Marina Abramovic and Ulay, performance maker Malcolm Whittaker and his partner Laura Caesar, billed as a “primary school teacher and arts and crafts enthusiast,” developed and performed the durational performance Starfuckers. Whittaker and Caesar’s suburban narrative landscapes offer a significantly more intimate if lower-key performance to Abramovic and Ulay’s break-up event, Great Wall Walk (1989).

One at a time, our partners in love and art step up to a microphone and read out a story. Some are diary entries written during the making of the project, and some are personal relationship memories. Each of these stories has been printed out and inserted into a magazine—Woman’s Weekly, Who, New Idea—torn out after they have been read and put immediately through a shredder. At the other end of the room, the detritus of these pedestrian love stories with their glossy celebrity underlay is transformed into papier-mache, moulded into figurines and baked in a small oven. Wearing aprons, the performers take turns to read, share and deliver the shreddings to be glue-soaked and flour-covered, shaped, baked and finally displayed in an ever-multiplying tableau across a long red-covered table. The small studio seems overly warm, filled with the crisp smell of baking paper, and over the hours a small army of tiny figures—effigies of the performers themselves?—gradually populates the long central table, filling up the space previously occupied by language alone.

Read the rest of my article, Labours of Love, published in the sprint and online editions of RealTime #99, here.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

I'm trawling through my old notebooks, looking for my descriptions of my first meeting with Paul Dwyer to talk about what became The Bougainville Photoplay Project. What I hope to find is something of the pre-history of the work to use in a note I'm writing for the published performance text that will shortly be released through Currency Press. Whilst I've found lots of rehearsal notes from the last five years of casual, now-intense, now-languid, workings that somehow conspired to create the beauty of that work, the precise target of my search - the very first extended discussion in Ralph's Cafe at the University of Sydney early in 2005 - is proving elusive.

What I am finding, perhaps unsurprisingly, are huge amounts of memories, tiny moments peppered with my exhortations to remember particular things, things which, in the act of writing them down, I promptly forgot. I remember two comments along these lines - "writing is a technology of memory" (Edward Scheer, though he was probably quoting someone else), and "we write in order to forget" (Paul Dwyer, I think, whilst we were making CMI back in 2003).

Anyway, given the context of my searches down memory lane (if nothing else, The Bougainville Photoplay Project is a performance about remembering - I found the following citation of deep interest:

"The antithesis of the theatre of indifference is not spontaneous simplicity, but drama in which both the principle protagonists and the audience have a common interest. The historical precondition for the theatre of indifference is that everyone is consciously and helplessly dependent in most areas of their life on the opinions and decisions of others. To put it symbolically: the theatre is built on the ruins of the forum. Its precondition is the failure of democracy. The indifference is the result of the inevitable divergence of personal fantasies when isolated from any effective social action. The indifference is born of the equation between excessive mobility of private fantasy and social political stasis. In the theatre of indifference, appearances hide failure, words hide facts, and symbols hide what they refer to."

John Berger, 'The Theatre of Indifference' in The Sense of Sight (1975: 72-73)

Whilst I remain far from Berger's apparent pessimism expressed here about the political possibilities of the theatre, in my current reflection of The Bougainville Photoplay Project I've become very interested in what he might mean by the "common interest" of the protagonists and the audience. This is obviously not a post in which I'll engage in deep thinking, but at the shallow end of the analytical pool: might such a "common interest" be found in shared national histories, whether these histories might be remembered, forgotten or actively concealed? Might a "common interest" be found in the shared status of the performer(s) and audience as 'citizens', especially when the theatrical experience attempts, in a small way, to unpack some of the actively-forgotten backstory of this civic enterprise? Surely moments like these are where theatre not merely covers over the "ruins of the forum", but rather actively aims to build a civic dialogue?

At any rate, I've now hit the wall in the shallow end of the analytical pool, and should go back to the notebook trawl. See you all in the theatre soon so we can all begin remembering together.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Beauty disturbed: Ruhe, Sydney Festival

Upon entering Sydney University’s Great Hall, I am faced with a multitude of tightly packed mismatched chairs filling the space. Watched by portraits of past Chancellors, I negotiate my way amongst other audience members to find a place to sit. As the last stragglers are seated, an ordinary-looking man in front of me stands on his chair, joined by another eight men. These men of the renowned choir Collegium Vocale Gent sing, in glorious a cappella harmony, a selection of songs by Franz Schubert. The title of the performance comes from their third song, Ruhe, schoenstes Gluck der Erde (Rest/calm/silence, earth's sweetest joy).

Read the rest my response to Ruhe, published in the print and online editions of Realtime #95, here.