Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Review: Gilgamesh by Uncle Semolina (& friends)

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 22nd November 2007

The work begins, appropriately enough, with an introduction: "A long time ago, when the world was boring..." As if to counteract this perceived boredom, Uncle Semolina (& friends) apply mountains of energy, enthusiasm, and oodles of brightly coloured toys.

Gilgamesh, or 'G' (Richard Pyros) is, we are told by narrator Katherine Tonkin, "one part man, and one part god", a despot and a "fucking arsehole". His strength and power mean that he can do whatever he wants, and so he does, killing, raping, fighting, building, ruling, and generally being bad news for those who he claims kingship over. Unlike more recent mythological figures such as Spiderman, with G's great power come no responsibility whatsoever. The caped action figure that is designated 'G' throws cars, rapes dolls, and prances about without a care in the world.
The performance takes place in a skeletal shipping container, filled with dirt and a motley collection of childrens' toys, kind of like a sand pit for adults, but filthy, like G himself. By the end of the show, the performers are covered in dirt, the residue of a very messy set of stories. Sitting isolated in the centre of The Studio's stage space, the container feels curiously distant, and despite the warmth and energy of the performers, the black moat between audience and artists is never overcome. I can well imagine that in a more intimate environment this would have been a very different experience, but in this context it was very difficult to become absorbed by the onstage antics. My experience of this work was that of watching others get carried away in playing a game that I could never quite be a part of.

G's oppressed people finally have their longstanding pleas for deliverance answered by one of a seemingly neverending pantheon of gods who appear and disappear throughout the tale. A wild man is made of mud and raised by animals, and after some distractions, does battle with G. Enkidu or 'E' (Mark Tregonning) fights G in one of the more entertaining sequences of the show, all mock and roll wrestling complete with fake falls, staged punches, and body slam leaps from imagined ropes. G and E seem unable to defeat each other, so instead they become best mates. Their combined mayhem knows no bounds, and they gleefully destroy forests, kill giants, disrespect gods and goddesses, and ultimately slay the bull of heaven. For this ultimate act of trespass, E is struck down by the gods, leaving G distraught, but still destructive. As neither of the protagonists were particularly nice guys, it's difficult to sympathise overly with his loss.

The most disappointing thing about this highly energetic production is that none of this messiness ends up adding up to very much, so when the novelty of parade of toys, game playing, and impromptu hip-hop routines wears thin, as it does about half way through what feels like a very long eighty minutes or so, there's nothing much else to replace this. There's the occasional promise of something more, such as G's obsessive philosophical turn during his quest for immortality when shocked into a state nearing the contemplative by the death of his one-time rival and now best buddy E, and various miscellaneous characters who appear, deliver potentially important pronouncements such as "To name is to know. To know is to own", and then vanish. At these moments, it appears as if there might be a more sustained reflection upon the nature of writing itself, a notion that the Gilgamesh stories might lend themselves to, given their staus as one of the earliest existent pieces of written language. But anything beyond promise remains elusive in this attempt at re-telling these messy surviving fragments of story. It looks great and is fun for a long time, but ultimately in my view there's little to reccomend this work beyond pleasures of play.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Video Notes 1: Shirtology by Jerome Bel

Taking a lead from Christine Evans, I'm going to post in installments my notes on a series of performance documentations I watched in the Live Art Development Agency's study room whilst in London recently. Not quite reviews, these notes are largely my own labour of thinking through these works, an interest triggered by the recent performance The Show Must Go On for MIAF.

Recorded July 1999, Montpellier Danse Festival. Dancer Frederic Seguette. Direction and choreography Jerome Bel.

Part 1: Shirtologie: the subject as interpellated by clothing, external forces operating upon the human. The action is simple: a single male dancer stands onstage, head bowed. He wears a large number of T shirts, layered found objects whose bulk sits unevenly upon his body. One by one, he removes the shirts, pausing each time to enact in response to the message or instruction contained upon the shirt. Steadily, the dancer completes his task, to be acted upon by the detritus of fashion.

The dancer is constantly framed as the the logo,the number. 5, Michigan final 4. Back or front, the performer orientation is dictated by the decoration of the shirt.Counting down 3, 2 facing upstage. A turn in the last shirt 'One T shirt for the life'. The dancer still head down, barechested. Bare flesh is seemingly insufficent to produce action, the human apparently enough in itself to take on the status of a signifier, at least not in this context. As if recognising this fact he puts a shirt back on, a diagram of a rib cage, a simulacra taking the place of the real. The camera fades to black.

Part 2: Camera resumes with the dancer weighed down by a new collection of shirts. NEXT, NEW STYLE, GIRL, BEST GIRL, ELLE - the shirts seem to mock the body of the male dancer. Continuing, he must now read all of the words scattered across the shirt's surface - SUMMER, SUN, WATER, MUSIC, FUN. His dry delivery suggests that this activity is very far from fun, but he is compelled to continue. The next shirt contains a musical score, and the dancer must sing along, a ridiculous demonstration of reading ability. Next he must imitate the poses on the shirts - a girl in a bikini, arms raised on one leg. He awkwardly executes the pose. The next shirt has two figures, and he is moved to quickly remove that shirt. The next shirt, with four figures, is even more impossible.

The next reads: DANCE OR DIE. And so he does, with great energy in a confined space, singing the score from the previous shirt. Dance complete, he moves to the next shirt: REPLAY. He does. The next shirt: SHUT UP AND DANCE. He dances again, but without the song. STAY COOL. He stands and waits. The section ends, and the lights fade to black.

Part 3: With glorious redundency, the first shirt this time informs us that this is THE TOP. He removes this to reveal a blank shirt, which produces no action. Blank again. still no action. A third blank shirt, expressive potential flattened out by monochrome. More blankness, but a darker shade this time. Still no action. More monchrome. It's becoming a study in faded blue/grey, now getting steadily lighter, now getting darker again. On about the tenth shirt, it greys out. Finally: THE UNITED COLOURS OF BENNETTON. All united in blankness. The camera fades to black and the credits begin.

Borrowing time

Like Matthew over at Esoteric Rabbit, October was a rich month of performance spectating for me, but poor in time to respond to it. I've managed to go some way to addressing this during my brief sojourn in Bristol last month, posting some thoughts about my MIAF trip, but there are a great many works that I haven't had the mental space to address yet, largely a strong set of new works from Sydney artists. These include The Fondue Set's Evening Magic 2, Deborah Pollard's exquisite and evocative Blue Print, de Quincey Co's The Stirring, and some touring work I've seen since returning home, including Uncle Semolina and Friend's Gilgamesh and CICT's Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The brand new issue of RealTime is out, and the responses from Pauline Manley (Evening Magic 2), Bryoni Trezise (Blue Print) and Jodie McNeilly (The Stirring) are a strong reminder that I need to try harder to keep up.

Perhaps as an incentive to achieve this, I've been commissioned by RealTime to write about two interesting and very different shows, Powerhouse Youth Theatre's City Quest, and PACT Theatre's Lotophagi, each of which close Sunday 9th December. My thoughts on both works will be posted in early February.

And to keep up the New Year's resolution to do more and be better, I've got tickets to a range of Sydney Festival performances including Urban Theatre Project's The Last Highway, and The National Theatre of Scotland's Aalst and Blackwatch. Expect responses to those, and hopefully some of the rich dance program as well, by the end of January. While I do confess being not carried away with the Sydney Festival 2008 at its launch, I can admit that my enthusiasm is building.

As previously promised, over the next few ballet performances (we have a lot of stand by time in Nutcracker), I'll start posting my responses to video documentation of three Jerome Bel works viewed while in London last month. Perhaps, if inspiration hits, I'll write about the conference I was attending at Royal Holloway, and maybe even the National Theatre's Warhorse as well. For the visual art-minded amongst you, I thoroughly recommend a trip up to the Australian Centre for Photography to see the stunning exhibition Girl Parade, curated by Bec Dean. Too much in that exhibition to do justice to here, but suffice to say that you'll kick yourself for missing it. UPDATE: read the Sydney Morning Herald review of Girl Parade here.

In other news, after six months of waiting for the last examiner's report, the notes are in and the PhD is passed. Still a month or so of admin, acid-free paper printing, binding etc before doctor-hood officially begins, but I'm pleased to have finally reached the end of that five year tunnel.

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, 26 November 2007

A certain sadness

After many years of trawling through the very many excellent parliamentary reporting and archival websites for performance and research materials for my work with version 1.0, it produced a certain sadness to see the following message appear this morning on www.pm.gov.au:

"An election for the House of Representatives was held on 24 November 2007 at which the Coalition Government led by the Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard MP, was defeated.

A new Government led by the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Kevin Rudd MP, is expected to be sworn in by the Governor-General in the near future. In the interim, media content is available on Mr Rudd's website. Any comments or messages to Mr Rudd can also be made via Mr Rudd's website.

Mr Howard will remain the caretaker Prime Minister until the new Ministry is sworn in. Until this time any comments or messages to Mr Howard can be made through the following form - Contact the Hon John Howard MP.

Archived material from the former Prime Minister's website is available on the National Library of Australia Pandora archive."

Whatever will version 1.0 use for primary source material now? Alas, the now former Prime Minister was not the inventor of the political scandal, and we'll be closely monitoring the newly-forming, Teflon-coated Rudd government, as well as taking stock of the last decade, and addressing ongoing matters of concern that don't disappear with a change of government (for instance, private security firms operating in Iraq to enforce democracy without the necessity of that troublesome rule-of-law thing, the culture of the Department of Immigration in Australia, especially in relation to wrongful detention and deportation of Australian residents and citizens). So still much more to do. And the odd hint of a smile poking out beneath this certain sadness - under the circumstances, to lose a favoured website isn't really such a bad thing after all. And next year when version 1.0 celebrates a decade of theatre practice, expect to see our remix of John Howard's concession speech. Some things must truly be treasured...

Image: David Williams as Prime Minister John Howard in version 1.0's Deeply offensive and utterly untrue. Photo by Heidrun Lohr.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

David is... (ten days of Facebook)

David is gainfully employed in a position of responsibility, but undoubtedly he will soon go mad with power. 12:36pm David is contemplating the narrow range of emotional expression that Facebook status updates allow. He is also contemplating his poor command of grammar and syntax. 3:17pm David is contemplating the narrow emotional range of expression that Facebook status updates allow. 12:56pm David is thinking that all these status updates would be an interesting art project. But no doubt someone has already been there. 6:21am David is picking up pieces and carrying on, as he must. There's work to do and limited time for regrets at his own stupidities. 6:49am David is in Sydney, awake far too early and glumly contemplating his status. 5:51am David is at home in Sydney communing with his cat and sorting his mail. 10:49pm David is in Hong Kong in a Cathay Pacific queue. He is 9 hours from home and glad of it... 10:57am David is in Hong Kong awaiting transport to the luxury hotel in which he will collapse overnight before completing his journey home... 8:58pm David is in Bristol preparing to head back to the airport to begin the long trek home via Hong Kong. But there will be a luxury hotel involved... 8:15pm David is in Bristol somewhat cold and footsore, watching Arnolfini from the outside and trying to channel a decade or two of art while sipping coffee and stealing wifi. 2:12am David is in Bristol about to set out on a walking adventure on a chilly grey day. He thinks he is crazy, and the schizophrenic part of him agrees. 9:31pm David is in Bristol bemused by Bristolian feminist scholars viewing America's Next Top Model. 10:48am David is in Bristol in someone else's office feeling much warmer and mildly productive. 2:35am David is in Bristol freezing his proverbial off. 9:07pm David is in Bristol with post-brunch status anxiety. 11:56pm David is waiting in a bus station to be taken to Bristol. Its OK, but he would like teleporters to exist to make things like this unnecessary. 9:44pm David is in London. 7:54pm

Friday, 16 November 2007

Response: Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo

Tate Modern, London, November 9, 2007

shib·bo·leth n
1. a word or phrase frequently used, or a belief strongly held, by members of a group that is usually regarded by outsiders as meaningless, unimportant, or misguided
2. a saying that is widely used or a belief that is widely held, especially one that interferes with somebody’s ability to speak or think about things without preconception
(courtesy of Microsoft’s Encarta dictionary)

“It’s not art,” authoritively declares a small schoolboy to his gathered colleagues. “It’s not art.” Damning critical judgment delivered, the boy and his mates proceed to follow the not-artwork to its endpoint at the far side of the massive Turbine Hall, carefully negotiating the jagged edges of the chasm and jostling their way through the ever-expanding crowds who gather, staring, talking loudly and taking photos. It may not be art, but it is certainly a crowd-puller. Everyone in London it seems wants to see the crack that reportedly cost thirty thousand pounds.

Essentially Doris Salcedo’s un-sculptural Shibboleth is exactly that, a monumental artificial crack in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, like an earthquake-induced chasm with no rubble or other wreckage. It is simply a large crack in the floor, mute, passive, but also somehow ominous. The crack begins at one end and travels across the full length of the floor, several minor branches sprouting off as it travels, before finally disappearing beneath the glass wall at the other end. It utterly dominates the space, and I found it impossible to look anywhere else. The sheer scale of the work is mesmerising, its aesthetic and pragmatic daring intoxicating. And the buzzing crowds gathered around it seem genuinely excited, animatedly debating its desired effects, what it might mean, its cost, and of course its contested status as an artwork.

In terms of effects, it has one most significant and obvious, namely that it divides the vast, largely empty space into two, and to cross the hall, one must physically step over it. To step on this crack one might indeed break one’s back, which perhaps explains all of the warning signs spaced across the piece at irregular intervals, reminding patrons to step carefully. Several days before I attended this work, I read in one of the London newspapers that a woman had fallen over it and injured herself. While the crack is an interesting challenge for occupational health and safety, it is hard to imagine how this unnamed woman failed to see and avoid such obvious and impressive void space.

It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary artwork that better raises the spectre of Georges Bataille’s informe (formless). Shibboleth does uncomfortable things to aesthetic form, raising questions about the possibilities of response. How can such a monumental fracture be understood? Taxonomically? How is it like and unlike other artworks? What is its genre? Does it fit neatly into a hierarchy or history of contemporary art? Might it be understood in engineering terms, contained by the security of measurement? What is the average depth of the crack? What distance does it travel? Does the number of minor branches have any significance? What is the average width of the crack? What effect might this have upon the structural integrity of the building as a whole? Should the work be seen as an attack upon the literal architectural foundations of this art museum, and by inference all of the artworks contained within? Standing inside the Tate Modern in the face of this enormous gash in the concrete floor, are we standing on shaky aesthetic foundations as well? If, as the schoolboy declared, this is not art, does it have the effect of questioning the status of every other piece of art in the building? Might this be art as unmaking?

Rather than fixating upon its formal undoings, it is probably more productive to consider Shibboleth’s highly public staging of division and border crossing. In his catalogue notes, Martin Herbert notes that:

“Walking down Salcedo’s incised line … might well prompt a broader consideration of power’s divisive operations as encoded in the brutal narratives of colonialism, their unhappy aftermaths in postcolonial nations, and in the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres.”

Shibboleth does indeed lend itself to this reading, but its effects are more engaging than such a focus on its darker implications might imply. Despite its clearly disturbing undertones, Shibboleth invites participation from its viewers, and is open to the production of joy and wonder. At the very least, it requires active engagement of its viewer – they must decide when and where to cross over the crack, and carefully enact this crossing, wary of injury. Large numbers of children (there were several school groups in attendance on this particular morning) enthusiastically leap over and over it, heedless of the potential danger. Audience members debate the work while placing themselves, consciously or not, on opposite sides of the crack, positioning themselves literally and figuratively. Most amusingly, a group of Tate Modern staff (judging by their photo ID tags) were conducting a meeting seated on opposite sides of the chasm. Despite the potential proxemic readings of this setting, they seemed quite cordial.

In fact, everyone seemed very friendly in the face of an artwork that could be seen as highly unsettling. Even to those like the schoolboy, who loudly proclaim a denial of its status as art, Shibboleth is pretty damned impressive, and is a triumph for the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series and its curator Achim Borchardt-Hume.

One question persists for me though as I walk back out in the cold windy streets of London: is this only a temporary exhibit? On 6 April 2008, the listed date for the exhibition ending, will the concreters will come in and paper over the cracks, erasing the fracture and restoring architectural order? After experiencing this work in situ, the potential future absence of Shibboleth seems even more unsettling than its current presence. See it while you can.

Photos taken by David Williams, the morning of November 9, 2007

UPDATE: Following a link off the fascinating artist blog A Confrontation with Falling, I've had the pleasure of reading Adrian Searle's response to Shibboleth in the Guardian. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Review: The Show Must Go On by Jerome Bel

The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 17 October 2007.

The DJ (Gilles Gentner) unobtrusively steps out in front of the stage, a large pile of CDs in his hands. Watching him quietly settle in, I become keenly aware of the material weight of the digitised music he carries. Despite 'the show' not yet being 'on', this intensely ordinary pile of CDs carried out in front of the audience makes it clear that music is not simply something that exists independent of a material object, but rather is contained within concrete objects haunted by use. Songs come from this pile of plastic, and we use such songs to order and make sense of our everyday lives, as ordinary and extraordinary as that might be.

This might seem an overly contemplative entry into reading a performance built around deconstructive dancing to pop songs, yet Jerome Bel's framing of his work encourages this. The framing mechanisms are utterly transparent and often ridiculously arbitrary, yet they remain compelling, hilarious, and engrossing. They elegantly defamiliarise the landscape of popular culture, making tangible the complex entanglements between these songs and personal desire, memory, biography, and identity formation. One might speculate, as I'm sure the excellent dance scholar Andre Lepecki does in his book Exhausting Dance (as-yet unread by me, but ordered in an Amazon spree), that Jerome Bel's choreography is concerned with the intimate linkages between global capitalism and subjectivity. It's clear for instance that in his work Bel is concerned with how each of us perform ourselves to ourselves and also to others, how we present ourselves and are presented by forces out of our power, how we stage our identities in the contexts and spaces allowed to us by consumer capitalism, and the ways in which bodies stubbornly resist being erased even as they are forcefully written over. It's clear from a quick glance at his repertoire, with works such as Shirtology, Jerome Bel, and The Last Performance, that a key recurring concern is the formation and transmission of identity. (I was fortunate enough this week to be able to visit the study room at the Live Art Development Agency in London and view documentation of each of these works, and will hopefully post some thoughts soon)

The audience assembled, the show begins. The auditorium lights go down, and the DJ opens the tray of his CD player, carefully placing the first CD from the pile inside. Tonight. The song plays out its full length in darkness. As the audience get noticably restless, the DJ removes one disc and inserts the next. Let the sunshine in from the musical Hair begins, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the lights come up onstage. This song too ends, and the same ritual of changing discs is repeated. At this point the man in front of me pulls out a book and begins to read. Another man walk out. The next song begins to play in front of a bare stage. Its feeling as though we the audience might be the victims of a cruel performative joke, being pressed to see how much (non) representational punishment we can take. It's been ten minutes, and the stage is still empty, bare of action, let alone drama. If we are, as Hans Thies Lehmann suggests, in a moment of 'postdramatic theatre', then this feels like a step beyond, a post-theatrical theatre. We pay to sit in an auditorium to soak up high culture, and are forced to bear the glaring absence of such culture. We look at the stage, once seen as a mirror up to nature, and see nothing reflected at all. I begin to speculate that this blankness might be a damning critique of the contemporary condition, but this seems excessively bleak. I can't really accept that this is all there is left to contemporary performance. Despite myself, I remain cautiously optimistic about the continuing value and utility of performance in the contemporary world. Performance might not be able to change the world, but it doesn't seem enough that the show merely 'go on' in such a continuing state of blankness. In this increasingly aggressive presentation of blankness, I feel the show interpellating me as a traditional audience member, with all the pejorative implications of this subject position. Much to my surprise I find that there is some truth in this. Against the blankness I find that my own aesthetic prejudices are uncomfortable but unavoidable. I find that I am bored, and am ridiculously anxious that such a state was so easy to produce. I thought that I was a better audience member than this.

Suddenly, so suddenly in fact that they appear as if by magic, eighteen dancers appear on the stage. Somehow I missed them stepping on, and after ten minutes of emptiness, their appearance onstage is a shock to perception. Against the brightly lit matte blackness of the formerly empty stage, the mass of dancers appear as a riot of colour and decoration, individuated by costuming (a motley collection of streetwear), and strikingly different looking body types. Arranged in a line across the stage, they simply wait, looking back at us as we look to them expectantly. The track ends, and we all wait for the DJ to make the next selection. The man in front of me puts away his book.

The next song begins, and still the massed dancers wait patiently. Then the chorus begins: Let's dance! And they do so with wild infectious enthusiasm, each by themselves as if for themselves, alone of the dancefloor of social life, yet displayed upon the stage before us. The songs continue to unfold, and the dancers obey the instructions of the lyrics: I want to move it (each repeats one movement for the duration), Ballerina girl (the men leave and the women each attempt balletic moves), All by myself (the company exits, and the DJ steps up to dance alone), La Vie En Rose (the stage lights turn pink), Into your arms (the dancers embrace each other), Imagine (the stage lights fade to black), The sound of silence (still in darkness, the sound fades out as well), Macarena (the dancers all do the Macarena), Killing me softly (the dancers whisper the lyrics as they fall into a heap of bodies while looking at the DJ). By turns witty, hilarious, fresh, exasperating and boring. Its a wild and thrilling ride, endlessly surprising despite appearing to be utterly predictable. Dance reduced to its representational degree zero, to the status of mere perfunctory task, is revealed to have much still to say about the state of being human.

Finally at the bottom of the original pile of CDs, the song we knew was coming: Queen's classic The Show Must Go On. The company bows, and we fulfill our audience function and applaud. They return and repeat the bow. And repeat it again, heedless of the diminishing applause. It seems that this bow is not for us, but yet another external compulsion acting upon the dancers, keeping them in thrall, and forcing them to entertain. The show must go on, and it does so relentlessly, the company rendered into bowing machines, compelled to repeat the end of the performance again and again until the instructions of the song cease. They enter only to enter again, denied the solace of good theatrical form. The applause has pretty much been exhausted, but some of us stubbornly remain to continue playing the other half of the theatrical game, as if proving our stamina, or claiming our centrality in the work of representation. As if to say: we know that you know that we know that what you are doing isn't really for us but rather an authorial demand, but we still assert our place in this. You deconstruct our consumption, but we still consume even so, and we even enjoy this. As if to say: the show goes on for us too, and we're still there with you.

At last the music fades for the final time. By this stage, much of the audience has departed, but it is clear that for some of us at least, that this show will continue to go on and on, playing out endlessly in the theatre of memory.

Image taken from Melbourne Festival website. Credits: Photo: Musacchio/Lanniell

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Review: Medeia by Dood Paard

Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 16 October 2007

“They’re looking at us,” states an elderly theatre goer to his companion. “Who?” she replies. “The players.” This established, they both return to watching the watching players, waiting for action.

This audience conversation neatly framed the performers in Dood Paard’s quietly compelling re-visioning of Greek tragedy in Medeia. Those who present the tragedy for us, when both they and we are ready to begin, are only the players, only the workers on the scene. Rather than the grand tragic protagonists, full of sound and fury, they present only the chorus, the bit-players, the background commentators who come on to make sense of all the onstage doings that they can only bear witness to. When the protagonists Medea and Jason do appear, as they must in order for the tragedy to progress toward its inevitable and horrific conclusion, they appear as shadows of themselves, filtered through the chorus’ memory, whispered quotations rather than righteous declamations.

The performers stage the problem of tragic action in the contemporary moment; while tragedy certainly has not disappeared from the world, the available representational registers to account for its occurrence certainly have. What can be done in the face of such horror as infanticide, especially when it cannot be prevented? What can be done when the catastrophic ending so thoroughly haunts every beginning? “All the tears I cry today, I will cry again tomorrow,” the chorus lament, stuck in a cycle of eternal, ineffectual remembrance. They are “only the chorus – I cannot do. I can only speak. If you have something to say, you should say it.” And so they who have us to say, and are compelled to report it endlessly to no effect, continue to speak even though after so many repetitions their speaking has become quiet and surprisingly gentle. Their sound and fury has evaporated, and their reduced telling is all the more poignant and provocative for that.

The staging of the piece is remarkably simple – the three performers stand in a line, evenly spaced, and directly address the audience. They stand amidst a skeletal stage set up, a series of paper backdrops neatly folded in piles on the floor, with strings hanging down from a wooden grid in the roof. It strongly resembles a life-size marionette set up, with the movements of players always about to be controlled by an unseen offstage hand. The performers hoist up the first backdrop, stand in front of it to deliver the first section, tear down the backdrop, move downstage and repeat the process. Mirroring the tragic dramaturgy, the performance moves inevitably downstage, leaving the wreckage of past performances behind it as it does so.

Rooted to the spot, the players speak in a self-deprecating, gently ironic, and carefully orchestrated hesitancy that seemed reminiscent of the apparently-offhand mode adopted by Forced Entertainment performers, especially in work like Dirty Work (1998) and Speak Bitterness (1995). Dood Paard adopt this mode of performance for very different reasons however; like Forced Entertainment, they are deconstructing the ‘stuff’ of theatre, its representational conventions and material practices. However Dood Paard are far more specific in their investigation, directly interrogating the practice of staging Greek tragedy in a post-post modern world.

There’s always a sense in Medeia of struggling to speak, to find the right words to adequately describe what cannot be described, but must nonetheless be reported. Strikingly, Dood Paard attempt this while also drawing attention to the paucity of linguistic expressivity in contemporary culture – re-membering tragedy by resorting to pop lyrics. On the violence always bubbling beneath Medea’s love for Jason: “Love hurts. Love is a battlefield. Love is the most violent emotion. Love is the most emotional emotion.”

In between each of these downstage progressions, one of the performers pulls out a carousel slide projector and begins rapidly to show the images. The slides’ progression continues unstoppably, relentlessly, far beyond any apparent need or requirement. The slides just keep on coming, too fast to settle upon, too fast to make sense of, a blur of the surplus images of the ordinary life lived. First the slide presentation is engaging, even amusing. The next time, it’s irritating. The third time, it’s unsettling. The images are a chaotic jumble of traveller’s happy snaps, banal in the extreme, intimate yet anonymous. Stretched out over such duration however, the very ordinariness of these images becomes aggressive, unwanted, threatening. Like the figure of Medea to the woman of Corinth perhaps – possessing a too-forceful desire for love without end, desperately wanting a happily ever after that actually lasts forever. An eternal, frighteningly monolithic love; eternal and pure like the modern art famously preferred by Michael Fried – uncorrupted by the stench of time, avoiding the condition of theatre. A monument to love that can never crumble, captured in a perfect moment. Like the frozen happy memories of the slides, but in life.

Medea wants what both Jason and the pop song lyrics that filter their way into the performance text promised – love, tenderness, happiness and devotion, forever and ever. She wanted it so badly that she betrayed her own people, murdered her brother, and fled her homeland to get it. She expects forever to be forever. “Get over it”, Jason declares, “life goes on.” But in Medea’s eyes, no matter how many Obla-dees that pepper the dialogue, life does not simply ‘go on’ after her abandonment. At least not the lives of those that Jason loves, each of whom Medea brings to an end. “All the tears we weep today we will weep again tomorrow,” the chorus/players state matter-of-factly once again. They’ve wept excessively already. Simply going on from here is struggle enough. Tragedy here is the inescapable everyday, quietly harrowing.

Image taken from the Melbourne Festival website. Credits: Photo: Sanne Peper, Cast members L to R: Manja Topper and Oscar van Woensel

Monday, 29 October 2007

Review: Death is certain

Eva Meyer-Keller, Death is certain, as part of Retroflex, Performance Space @ CarriageWorks, 13 October

"What I am doing is very small" declares Eva Meyer-Keller quietly as we gather in the intimate but un-theatrical surrounds of CarriageWorks' exhibition space, Bay 19, "so it's best if you stand." Duty done, she turns immediately to her work, approaching the first of two large tables in the centre of the space. This table is covered in a neatly laid out collection of tools, implements and odd miscellaneous items; a strange cross between a hobbyist's workshop, a kitchen, and a torture chamber. A coiled electrical cable with copper wiring exposed. A gas cylinder. Several boxes of matches. An impressive collection of knives, arranged in ascending size. Toothpicks. A bottle of brandy. Hairspray. Cigarette lighters, cigarettes, and an ashtray. A hair dryer. Plastic cups. Cling wrap. Dental floss. And in front of all this, a large number of strawberries. Waiting. Loaded with potentiality. Meyer-Keller dons a black apron, places her handbag under the table, slips on a pair of latex gloves, and goes to work.

Delicately removing a strawberry from the collection, she efficiently removes the leaves before tying dental floss around the helpless strawberry. She takes her construction to the second table, currently bare and covered in a white cloth. Also waiting. The strawberry is placed on the table, the dental floss secured to the table with sticky tape, and as she moves back to her work table, she flicks the strawberry off the table. Caught in its dental floss noose, its fall is abruptly arrested, its non-existent spine snapped. Death for this strawberry was certain, even if the manner of this death was almost an afterthought.

Meyer-Keller calmly continues her murderous work - there's a lot of strawberries to get through after all, and she can't keep us all night. The implied and actual violence delivered so calmly and politely is quite striking. Death is certain, and therefore its execution can simply be another job that must be done within the given time frame. A strawberry run through with a toothpick. Another run over by a toy truck. Another is crushed in a door jam with a sickening silence. Another burned at a miniature stake. Drawn and quartered. Skinned alive. Melted with a iron.

The deaths get more and more elaborate - asphyxiation by carbon monoxide is enacted using a plastic cup, cling wrap, a lit cigarette, and a straw. A death by drowning created by floating the hapless strawberry in a paper boat floating in a bucket of water, then creating a tempest with a hair dryer. Fate has nothing pleasant in store for these innocent pieces of fruit.

The flesh of these strawberries takes on a surprisingly human quality as we watch them seem to bleed, leaving red stains all over the hitherto stark white tablecloth. Meyer-Keller efficiently wraps another fruity victim in a napkin, lays it gently on the table, and presses firmly down until the napkin turns red. The absurdity of this deathly art turns viscerally horrifying in an instant. When she begins to slowly and skilfully skin a strawberry with a scalpel blade, the ethical question of what it means to watch this simulated suffering becomes uncomfortably present. If, as Steve Baker suggests, the presence of the suffering or wronged animal in contemporary art makes "the question of the human abrasively visible", then its also difficult to avoid the question of human suffering when faced with these fruity stand-ins. With the simplest of means and the most precise and clinical of performances, Meyer-Keller has created a deeply moving and frighteningly funny meditation on human violence. With an artful blend of pleasure and horror, she conjures a damning ongoing history of human cruelty, demanding that we who watch urgently address the question: can we ever become more than monsters?

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Retroflex - blink and you'll miss it!

Just a quick note to encourage Sydney readers to go and see Retroflex, a dance triple bill opening tonight at Performance Space @ Carriage Works, details here. It features Death is certain, an acclaimed piece from German dancer Eva Meyer-Keller, in Australia as part of Jerome Bel's The Show Must Go On in the Melbourne Festival next week (and I for one will be there with bells on, if you pardon the pun). From reports, Meyer-Keller subjects strawberries (in Europe it was cherries, but they're out of season here it seems) to the cruel and degrading treatment dished out in the name of the war on terror, torturing fruit to death following the precise descriptions of torturers and interrogators acting in the name of freedom in the dark and not-so-dark corners of the world. Also on the bill are Melbourne-based dancer Siobhan Murphy and new work by my favourite local 'submerging artist' Julie-Anne Long.
It opens tonight, and there's 3 shows only. Blink, miss, and be disappointed. I'll be there on Saturday, and will post an appropriately compromised report.

Photo taken from Performance Space website

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Review: Bone and Hilda

Briefly, I managed to catch the final performance of Hilda at the TAP Gallery on September 20th. It's a dark, deeply cruel, and fascinating text, featuring a fantastic bravura performance from Susie Lindeman unfortunately not matched by the disappointingly one-dimensional performance of Jake Blundell as her rival for the attentions of the ever-unseen Hilda. The production, directed by Jonathan Wald, was pretty ordinary, but the text by Marie Ndiaye is well worth further attention. That, and Lindeman's performance, were the reasons to see this work.

The following week I trotted over the Seymour Centre for Ride On Theatre's Bone, a play by John Donnelly. A return for the BITE Season (though I must confess that I missed the original season), Bone is a deeply compelling play about existential despair, a search for personal redemption, and a sense of purpose to carry on. Doesn't sound happy, does it?

Fortunately the writing is powerful, gut-wrenching at moments, and beautifully delicate at others. Each character bears some painful relation to the past, a recent trauma that underpins and overwrites their experience of the present. Each returns to descriptions of loss and leaving, producing image-worlds in which armies real and imagined run rampant, slaughtering and burning children who become animals (because they never could have children), imagined cancers devouring body cells like "ethnic cleansing", an imagined sickness whose force becomes shameful and redeeming at the same time based on the genuine sympathy it provokes, a stark contrast to the superficial empathy that this character uses to sell products that are meaningless even to him. Each of the characters is looking for connection, but they neither know how to find it or indeed what exactly it is that they are looking for. Its ordinary stuff, the trauma of everyday life, but no less powerful for that. As I overheard an audience member on the way out of the theatre: "That's where I've been."

The strength of the writing is matched by a fine ensemble of actors, most notably a moving performance from Vanessa Downing, but also fine work from Peter Barry and Ryan Haywood. Its a tough call to direct such a work as this , consisting as it does of three intercut monologues that while being thematically related and skilfully orchestrated, never produce any relationship between the characters. The theme is isolation after all, but it this could quite easily produce a unengaging disconnect between actors onstage. Director Tanya Goldberg deftly avoids this trap, eliciting strong and nuanced performances from her actors. While I have some reservations about the occasional (mis)use of mimed actions, and remain perplexed by the design feature of sculpted chicken wire dominating the space but not integrated into the staging, I thoroughly recommend this work. It closes Saturday 13 October, so there's a few more chances yet.

The Sydney swirl! Bad blogger!

Well, what a rich month or two of postings from your compromised host! September came and September went, and only the one token post. Mea culpa. Did I mention in the sidebar that keeping this up-to-date was a non-core promise? I am indeed a bad blogger, and today's post won't do nearly enough to make amends. But one must start somewhere, and today, it will be here.

Despite my silence in the blog-o-sphere (I prefer this spelling of the neologism, so don't get upset dear blog purists. Just dismiss me as eccentric), its been an active month in the performative Sydney swirl. There's far too much theatre and performance to see, even if I wasn't working fifty hours a week on the flys at the opera (currently the joys of Tannhauser and The Tales of Hoffman). Now I'm realising why I avoided doing opera seasons for all these years - there's no time to see shows! The scary part is that I remember working on this production of Tannhauser for its premiere season in 1997. Now I really know that I've worked at the Opera House too long... Still, I've managed to get out a bit and participate in the swirl, and the following post will attest. More soon - I think that the brain fog is starting to clear and I might have something to say again.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Happenings, theatrical and otherwise

Despite the words of my Sydney comrade-blogger Nick, bemoaning from beautiful Bundeena the current state of Sydney's theatre scene, it's certainly an interesting time for the arts in post-APEC town. Too much to see! Especially for my completely compromised self, freshly shattered with the triple threat of spring sinus-y flu, post-production slump, and an immediate leap into action on the fly floor of that innovative new Australian opera The Gondoliers. After a week of Gilbert and Sullivan, I'm actually pining for the Cole Inquiry transcript, all of which is now neatly stored in my newly tidied shed, along with 35 bags which once contained wheat and a flying carpet platform that weighs as much as me...

Valiantly sallying forth despite all of the above, I've had the recent pleasure of seeing Sidetrack's sumptuous, energetic and extremely funny production The Tangled Garden, Daniel Kitson's
tender, beautifully written, engrossing and occasionally infuriating C-90 at the Opera House. Coming up, I am seeing Hilda at the TAP Gallery tomorrow (closes tomorrow), Ride On Theatre's production of Bone at the Seymour Centre for BITE next Wednesday (it opens tomorrow), little death's production of Mercury Fur opening at the Stables next Thursday. And just for fun, version 1.0 have just agreed to do a performance in a car for Nighttime #4: Car Boot Show on Sunday October 7 at Carriageworks. Currently we have no idea what we're going to do, but isn't that the fun part? We know that there'll be a car involved.

Unfortunately the wild ride of Deeply offensive... (which I'll try and reflect upon in another post) has meant that I've missed some works I really wanted to see, including STC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Company B's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Griffin's The Miracle of Cookie's Table (though my housemate Sally is seeing that one tonight, and so I'll at least have it described in detail). As our season's clashed, I also missed Kate Richards and Martyn Coutts' Wayfarer at Performance Space @ Carriage Works, and I missed out on Flightpath Theatre's Pugilist Specialist at the Darlinghurst as well. Who says that nothing's happening in Sydney? Whatever one thinks of the big end of town and its Actor's Company (and personally, I don't tend to think of them much at all) the local theatrical ecology looks pretty damned robust. Maybe the flu meds are making me delirious...

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Piecing together a scandalous jigsaw

Article published on Arts Hub, Friday 24 August.

“Your editorial suggesting the Australian Government went to war in Iraq to protect its wheat market is deeply offensive and utterly untrue” Alexander Downer, July 6, 2006

In January, the version 1.0 team began work on a performance inquiry into the so-called ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal in which monopoly wheat exporter AWB Ltd paid bribes or ‘kickbacks’ to the government of Saddam Hussein right up until Australia declared war on Iraq in March 2003. The basic facts of the scandal are pretty simple, and highly disturbing. Whilst operating under a sanctions regime whose purpose was to prevent Saddam access to hard currency to continue his weapons programs, AWB was asked in 1999 to pay a new fee for ‘trucking’, payable not only in cash but also in US dollars. Rather than risk missing out on a big sale, AWB agreed to pay a ‘trucking fee’ of US$7.2 million in cash to Iraq, knowing that this was against the spirit of the sanctions. After convincing AWB to cheat once, Iraq continued to increase the ‘trucking fee’ over the next four years, and AWB, sliding rapidly down the slippery slope, continued to pay. In all it seems $290 million was paid by AWB to the government of Saddam Hussein. Worse, AWB actively tried to conceal these payments through a string of front companies. Worse still, the Australian government had very close ties to AWB and its management, and despite 35 documented warnings that the company was engaged in corrupt behaviour, chose not to investigate, and instead aggressively defended AWB against all concerned parties. Even worse, the Australian government aggressively pushed the case for war against Iraq, and one of the justifications used was that Iraq was rorting the sanctions program. AWB was the biggest single rorter, and the Australian government their biggest defender. In 2005 the United Nations held an inquiry, and the resultant report from Paul Volker recommended further inquiry into companies such as AWB. In December 2005, the Cole Commission began hearing evidence in Sydney. Enter performance group version 1.0.

version 1.0 has made theatre from inquiries before, most notably our 2004 project CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). This time however, we weren’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the task. The transcript of the Cole Inquiry’s 76 days of public hearings totals almost 8500 pages. Add to this the 2000 or so pages of Cole’s report, and thousands upon thousands of pages of journalism and other commentary, and you have a veritable mountain of paper. Scaling this mountain, and transforming it into theatre was never going to be simple. However, the precise degree of difficulty of this task caught everyone by surprise. Making performance from documents that are defiantly non-theatrical is something that version 1.0 has become quite skilled at in recent years, but to say that this process has been challenging is a severe understatement. As I described this process in an interview in February: “sometimes I think it would easier to knock over a brick wall with my head.” I was only half joking.

The usual line from government spokespeople like Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been variations of “it’s all very complicated”. Like the best political spin, this is true and misleading at the same time. Yes, the Cole Inquiry and associated documents are mind-bogglingly complex in the mass of details they continually disgorge. But as I described at the start of this article, the issue itself is pretty straightforward. Downer’s insistence that everything about this scandal is too complicated encourages citizens not to waste their time thinking closely about this. Such strategic avoidance of thinking, and dismissal on the grounds that ordinary citizens won’t ever understand and therefore should not try, obviously serves very particular political interests, especially in this election year. Part of the urgency that drives version 1.0’s attempt to render this inquiry theatrical is to actively resist these exhortations to stop thinking, and instead to encourage citizens to closely interrogate the processes by which our democracy operates, and the ways in which our representatives, both governmental and commercial, act in our name. That is not to say however that this theatre is either didactic or reductive. To encourage people to think more closely about an issue is not to tell people how they must think. No preaching to the converted for us, thanks very much.

But despite the ideological imperative that drives Downer’s statement, it is true that the Cole Inquiry is concerned with fine details. The inquiry transcript shows a forensic investigation of shades of gray in the legally and ethically murky world of the international wheat trade. The lawyers assisting the Inquiry ask probing questions of minute and often-impenetrable detail, in no particular narrative or chronological order. These include the date of a meeting, the distribution list of an email, the exact significance of a scribble on a document. Much of it is hardly riveting stuff. Additionally, the regular response to such questioning – “I don’t recall” – advances neither dramatic nor investigative coherence. One of the key witnesses in our performative remix of the Inquiry, the CEO of AWB Andrew Lindberg, used variations of “I don’t recall” 158 times in a single day’s testimony. I know, I counted them. When Commissioner Cole handed down his report in November 2006, Lindberg was deemed to be a “witness of truth”. This is somewhat baffling to us after reading hundreds of pages of denials, evasions, and refusals to admit that anything was even wrong.

Against the Australian government’s line “it’s very complicated” and AWB’s line “I can’t recall”, version 1.0 attempt in Deeply offensive and utterly untrue to put the pieces of the kickback jigsaw together, and in the process entertain, provoke, disturb, and inform. Together with our audiences we seek to produce accountability for both corrupt behaviour and negligence. The task might be impossible, but since when has that ever been a reason not to try?
version 1.0’s Deeply offensive and utterly untrue opens on August 24 at Carriage Works, Sydney. For more information see www.versiononepointzero.com.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Vale Tanja Liedtke

It is with great sadness that I note the passing of choreographer Tanja Liedtke, who died in an accident this morning in Sydney. Further details can be found here.

More extended published pieces on Tanja's life and work can be found here, here, here, and here.

I've heard no word about the funeral as yet, but understand that the Sydney Opera House has offered to host some form of artistic memorial event to celebrate and reflect upon her life and work.

My thoughts and deepest symapthies, and those of the other version 1.0 company members, are with her family, especially her partner Sol.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Contemporary performance: signs of life

For those interested, there's a new article by yours truly published in RealTime #80 (August/September 2007), addressing the state of play for contemporary performance in tertiary education.

It's an interesting time for the performing arts in Australia. On the one hand, grants have been continually shrinking in real terms, and the political climate has been noticeably anti-arts for the last decade or so. On the other hand, for some sections of the arts, everything is rosy. "The arts have never been in a stronger position, and artists have never been happier”, declared the federal Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis, at the University of Sydney in April. “The only people who aren't happy are the commentariat, who never have to deal with the reality of arts funding".

read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Taking sail: beginning to obsess about and dream the show.

Kym Vercoe and David Williams in the workshop stage of version 1.0's 'Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue' at Wharf 2 Loud, February 2007. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Well its all go go go now... Week 3 of rehearsals is now complete, with 4 weeks to opening night. The media materials have begun to appear, and the show, well the show looks something like this:

Make sense? Trust me, as the Prime Minister so regularly states. In 3 weeks it'll all be perfectly structured. I've been obsessively reordering the materials over the last 48 hours and no doubt everyone else has as well. Of course we'll all disagree with each other's diagnoses, but that's what a devising process is for! Compromise really is our business. I've been trying to make new through-lines appear and tighten up the existing ones, at least in my head. We'll see what the rest of the group reckons on Tuesday. But its starting to feel like a show, as opposed to a big pile of impossibly dense paper...

Anyway, feeling a little more rested, getting obsessed about the show to the extent that I dream its scenes, and feeling inspired after seeing the excellent performance piece Major Bang down at the Opera House. And Ming Zhu-Hii has been generous enough to nominate me for a Thinking Blogger Award as well! And I sent off my article for RealTime! Impossible deeds done daily (by appointment only)! Now all I need is a victory in indoor soccer tomorrow night and life will be fine indeed...

UPDATE: First Iraq defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 to win the Asian Cup, then my indoor team Locomotiv Sigma also had a glorious 4-3 victory. Very exciting!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Strangely, I am a war-related book...

I don't normally take these online quizzes, but this one looked interesting after following posts from Matthew and Alison. And lo and behold, I ended up as a war-themed book, in the middle of making a show about corporate misconduct and governmental negligence in the build up to a more contemporary war. Even stranger, this book identification was arrived at from asking only six seemingly innocuous questions, and arrives to mark me a mere month after my published paper on selling war in Performance Paradigm.
The internet truly is an endlessly fascinating place...

You're The Guns of August!

by Barbara Tuchman

Though you're interested in war, what you really want to know is what causes war. You're out to expose imperialism, militarism, and nationalism for what they really are. Nevertheless, you're always living in the past and have a hard time dealing with what's going on today. You're also far more focused on Europe than anywhere else in the world. A fitting motto for you might be "Guns do kill, but so can diplomats."

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Outside the harbour, the waters are somewhat choppier. Will the ramshackle ship sink without a trace?

Devising theatre is always a risky practice. Especially when the materials remain stubbornly and defiantly non-theatrical. Of course, in your average talk-driven version 1.0 process, this quality of risk seems perhaps less of the physical kind, and more a risk that absolutely nothing of any consequence or interest will possibly arise. The aesthetic problems seem insurmountable, and the political demands of the content seem to aggressively delimit the possibility for any free improvisation which might possibly get past or navigate through these obstacles. Staring at a mound of transcript and media materials (more a mess of materials given the current state of our rehearsal room), its hard to give shape to the desire to 'do something'. What exactly should be done? Well, if I knew that, then I'd be doing it. And the weight of responsibility to the material and to the subject matter means that any doings must indeed be exact.

So then, can we trust that the right approach will emerge serendipitously in this ocean of talk and general messing about?

The only answer possible is sometimes. Can tomorrow be part of that sometimes? I know yesterday wasn't, but I remain cautiously optimistic for the future. Time is, however, starting to feel like a problem. We need to know what the show is very very very soon.

If the ramshackle ship starts sinking, at what point should we stop bailing and start swimming to shore?

I suppose that I should be grateful that at least this time there don't seem to be any sharks circling...

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Clear skies and smooth sailing (so far)

Part of the ideas and research wall, photo by David Williams

The great ramshackle version 1.0 ship has slipped its moorings for its latest and perhaps most perilous adventure... Staggering out of our other lives, the devising company has reconvened and its struggling to the best of our ability to make a new show. Or at the moment, trying to remember the detail of what the show is about, and to reconnect with the body of research that we've produced so far.

Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, version 1.0's latest act of 'civic archeology' in the theatre, has begun rehearsals. Closely observed by a group of ten students from the Dept. of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, we have now completed two days of work, and are intensely engaged in a shared process of making sense of thousands upon thousands of pages of reportage and inquiry transcripts. So far, signs are positive, but it remains to be seen if we can move beyond the endless complexity of talk and into the realm of the staged performance. We know that we can, and we've done it before, but the leap from chair to floor isn't always easy, particularly when the question of what can exist on the floor is strongly contested from moment to moment. Ideas leap from body to body in the collective brain, a brain that rarely agrees with itself, but always has something to say, and can keep talking for hours on end.

My favourites from today: the role of video in this work is not the exposure of strategies of image manipulation, as in The Wages of Spin, but is rather to facilitate the production of delirium. The problem of being an audience in such work that places ethical demands (a minute's silence for the dead of Iraq since the invasion. Including the evil dictator) is to be forced into the position of having to demonstrate what one thinks, in public, and be held accountable for these thoughts. We might not be able to produce accountability for DFAT and AWB through a theatre performance, but we can sure try to find it in ourselves...

Big group decisions made today. Namely, the seats will be in a block on the railway end of the space. In eight hours of continual talk, relentless aesthetic, political and pragmatic debate, this constitutes meaningful progress. Leaps and bounds are scheduled for next week...

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Complete review: The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing

'The Eisteddfod' by Lally Katz/Stuck Pigs Squealing
B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, 7th and 23rd June 2007

Violence abounds in Stuck Pigs Squealing's production of Lally Katz' The Eisteddfod as well, though in this instance the violence occurs (mostly) at a far more psychological level than that occurs to bodies in Post's Gifted and Talented. The effect however, while also hilarious in its absurdity, is also ultimately very dark, like an over-sweet lozenge with a surprisingly bitter centre.

The eisteddfod of the title is the premise that underpins the claustrophobic imaginings of our protagonists, and the event itself occurs offstage, though its consequences are devastating and reverberate through the final scenes of the piece. In a tiny (and beautiful) physical space, the compressed performances of the actors play out the repressed stagings of the interior personal and narrative desires of two psychologically damaged grown children, who themselves forcefully playact to fill the time. On this stage, the characters conjure other stages, changing roles and identities to play out their desire to exist differently, a desire that they find themselves unable to implement in the 'real' world beyond play. The fact remains that they exist in this state largely for reasons of a narrative conceit, but it's no less effective or evocative for that. And so on this stage, the characters build their own worlds, worlds with their own stages, upon which they play all the players, players who are also themselves trying to play roles.

The play is introduced by the pre-recorded voice of the author herself, a perfectly pitched dramatic device. She introduces us to the characters, the brother and sister partnership of Abalone and Gerture, who existed "once upon a time". Clearly we have arrived in the land of the fairy tale and of make believe. These children have been traumatised by the death of their parents in a "tree felling accident" to the extent that they have never been able to leave the basement that was their home, because their parents, even while alive, were strict. So while they embark on fantastical journeys, they never actually leave the basement. Kind of like Hansel and Gretel, but the forest exists inside their minds, and they create the dangers and pleasures for themselves, wresting with monsters of their own creation rather than external elemental forces.

It's a clearly implausible scenario, and one with clear resonances of other deconstructions of fairy tales such as Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods (whose protagonist was also orphaned in an equally implausible "baking accident"). But the setting is laid out for us in such a charming way that it becomes impossible not to be taken in by it. Introduced to the players, we too begin to play the game. The trauma of parental death is suspended with an attempt to turn it into a playful joke, but this dismissal of past death as only a joke, only a narrative device that frames the game, is clearly inadequate. As Denis Hollier observes in his book Against Architecture (1992): "[o]ne plays dead so that death will not come. So nothing will happen and time will not take place." (p 36) Such attempts at stopping time to prevent death are rarely effective, producing instead new traumas, paranoia's and anxieties that also must in turn be banished through new acts of play. Despite attempts to remove its sting, this casually announced foundational death dwells uncomfortably in the immediate exterior of this stage world. It's little wonder then that these kids stay within the safe but claustrophobic confines of the basement in order to play.

It’s a very light and fun game to begin with. Lally Katz' command of zany cartoonish absurdity is near-absolute, and the dialogue is witty, sharp, and continuously sparkling. Complementing the text, the direction (Chris Kohn) and the performers (Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin) are absolutely precise, completely disciplined, and always compelling. No matter how strange the world's that Katz' language evokes, the performers inhabit them with gusto, and Kohn's shaping of the ever shifting stage worlds within worlds is always inventive, and regularly startling.

Abalone (Mullins) is practicing hard for what he sees as his overdue triumph at The Eisteddfod, in this case a drama competition in which he intends to perform the role of Macbeth. Talking about the Scottish play is supposed to be taboo in the theatre, and thus it is unsurprising that his pompous and precious rendition of the Thane who would be King is, like Macbeth himself, doomed. The fact that he plays out this doom in a drama competition that exists only in his imagination makes this all the poignant, even as it is really really ridiculous. It’s the force of his conviction that holds this very shaky premise together, and Mullins' performance is one of the best I've seen for years. Abalone drives himself ever onward with his ridiculous will to win, but he is unable to recognise that the only real obstacle to this goal is himself. Even in his forceful make believe, he can never quite seem to believe enough to make it.

Gerture (a beautiful halting and vulnerable performance from Katherine Tonkin), by contrast, lives a fantasy job in which she is a teacher. Unlike Abalone's narcissism, it seems that Gerture's desires are far less ambitious. She's not gifted in any way, she states. But she can "just appreciate other people's gifts." But while Abalone lives for, and is ultimately consumed by the Eisteddfod, Gerture's projections extend into the domestic realm, playing out an abusive romantic relationship with the imaginary Ian, whose role is enacted by her brother Abalone. Immediately, it's clear that we've entered a dark and uncharted sexual realm, and it appears that the implied incest of Abalone and Gerture is the least of their problems.

It appears however that the confused sexuality of this pair is only allowed to be expressed when they are playing an assigned role. For instance, mid way through the piece Gerture sits on the tiny bed and quietly delivers a monologue detailing her relationship problems with Ian, and her attempts at getting other characters within her fantasy world (her teaching assistant Julia, and the computer technician) to help her work out what to do as they seem to "know Ian better than I do." As she does so, Abalone is curled behind her, dozing and apparently masturbating silently. Gerture interrupts her story to gently chide him: "Abalone, don't. I'm right here you know." It seems that some things are out of bounds in these games. As is pointed out earlier in the piece, this is their parents' bed after all.

At Gerture's request – "Be him!" – Abalone performs again for her, but his Ian is a truly monstrous misogynist, far more disturbing than his ridiculous Macbeth. Ian takes ever opportunity to belittle and humiliate Gerture, on the grounds that while he likes to fuck her, he no longer loves her. She's just an object to him, to be used only at convenient times and in convenient ways for him. She is disposable for Ian, just one object among other objects, just part of the other clutter onstage. It seems that Gerture expects and almost welcomes this abuse, believing that suffering will produce an authentic experience: "I want someone to hurt me for a reason". But Abalone's Ian is having none of this: "Gerture, get control of your head." To Ian, and perhaps to Abalone also, this is all just a meaningless game. But it seems that this is a game that Gerture desperately needs to play, even if it is deeply unpleasant for her.

When Gerture complains to Abalone that this performance is too relentless awful, he replies that it has to be this way. All love ends. "Do one where he loves me" she cries, and he responds, "But we have to make it real." Meaning, it seems, is always linked to pain of one form or another. As if to escape the need for such pain, Gerture throws herself back into the world of her imaginary classroom, a stage beyond the reach of both Abalone and Ian. Abalone, wakes to find her gone, and is momentarily in despair at losing his sister and his Lady Macbeth. But due to another narrative conceit, this time an author ex machina (in another sign of the truly odd psychology of the piece, Abalone insists that the voice of Lally Katz must be Mum, a title that she reluctantly accepts), he is able to be transported into the schoolhouse to win Gerture back, in order to finally compete in the Eisteddfod with his Lady M.

This much-anticipated event occurs offstage, and as in art, in this imagined life Abalone's Macbeth meets with a tragic end, at least from his perspective. In the aftermath of this offstage disaster, the siblings seem only to be able to make believe another death, this time that of another girl who lived on the cul-de-sac beyond their house, a story that may or may not be true. It’s a shared account of the girl's last moments, as she hangs herself from the monkey bars in the playground with a skipping rope, for no other reason than she was so very tired. In the distance, a car alarm, "soft, like a lullaby". It seems that even the play of innocents always comes back to death in the end, collapsing back on itself, reaching the point at which it far exceeds its status as a game. The piece ends quietly, and the worlds and stages fade to black. In a somewhat macabre gesture, a child's skipping rope sways gently in the exit door.

There's clearly much more that can be said about The Eisteddfod, and many others will and have already given highly favourable accounts and accolades that it well deserves. But the short version must be this: see it

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Getting away with it – pvi collective’s adventures on the dark side of technology

'David goes to work' from pvi collective's panopticon: Sydney (MCA, 2004)

photo credit: tamera dean, from pvi collective's website

In order to celebrate the current production in Perth of pvi collective's latest work 'inform', here's some notes about their ongoing series of works titled 'panopticon'.

Perth-based media arts group pvi collective describe themselves in the following terms:

"responding to sociological, psychological, technological and legal perspectives on the relationship between risk and freedom. pvi often engage the public within their artworks - offering up survival tactics for living in the 21st century and activating viewers through eccentric acts of intervention, on the streets, on-screen and in any other spaces they can get away with..." (pvi collective website)

While they continually push the legal and logistical envelope, they don’t always ‘get away with it’, with these failures becoming a key part of meaning generation of the artworks. In other words, pvi’s work continually risks failure, and the failures this produces through the intervention of State agents (security guards, police, etc) or technological breakdown (exposing the limits of the technological investigated and/or deployed) make the subject of the work abrasively visible.


The panopticon project investigates personal privacy in an ever-increasingly monitored and surveilled public space. Referencing of course Michel Foucault's take on Jeremy Bentham's notion of the panopticon as a perfect prison in which the inmates would be able to be continually surveilled without being able to see their oversee-er, pvi collective's panopticon is an ongoing series of artworks responding most particularly to CCTV surveillance of public space. This surveillance is enacted in the name of public safety but has worrying implications for the privacy of citizens. While John E McGrath does usefully question the underpinning of many of the privacy-based objections to video surveillance in his excellent book Loving Big Brother (2004), in the panopticon project pvi collective nonetheless engage in a fascinating series of artistic interventions into public spaces and their control by surveillance, engaging in their own, often extremely eccentric acts of what McGrath describes as "counter-surveillance".

There have been several distinct outcomes of this project between 2002 and 2004 (subsequent to these there's also been panopticon: brisbane in 2007). The first stage was titled panopticon: scanning the big slab, and was performed in the company's home town of Perth. The performance recruited a number of volunteer informants to gather information on the movements of citizens through the city. Trained as 'operatives', each was given a codename inspired by the film Reservoir dogs, Mr Brown, Mr Pink etc, and costumed as what the company described as various "low level authority figures". These included, bizarrely enough, nurses, parking police, and Santa Claus.

Kate Neylon, the controller and narrator of the performance roamed the streets dressed as Santa Claus. She directs the performance by reporting into cameras hidden inside teddy bears around the city, including several in phone boxes surrounding the building in which the performance takes place (PICA, in James St, Northbridge). This could be seen as just plain silly, or perhaps as a tangential reference to the Soviet practice of hiding explosives in toys left on the side of the road that would be picked up by Mujahideen children during the 1980s war in Afghanistan (as far as I know the Coalithion of the Willing hasn't tried that yet). Perhaps this use of the 'teddy cam' anticipated the recent release of Microsoft's teddy bear that can maintain video surveillance of young children by their parents, and even, if deemed necessary, speak to the child through in-built speakers in the voice of the parents. It's clear that even the more ridiculous elements of pvi's work often have more disturbing undertones.

The action inside the theatre is a more of a gameshow, in which contestants also known by colour, in this case red and blue, struggle to retain their privacy. The loser at the conclusion of the performance has his home are raided by one of the anonymous members of the public, known only to the performers by their codename. This staged struggle to attempt to preserve privacy, and yet being unable to effectively do so informs the investigation of future stages of the panopticon project.

A residency in Taipei in 2003 saw pvi collective experiment with strategies to circumvent the extremely high number of security cameras around the city, cameras that continually monitored the movements of civilians in this highly militarised society (Taiwan is of course under continual threat of invasion from the People's Republic of China, at least psychologically). In the end they settled on something they saw on street every day, the humble umbrella. Using standard and modified umbrellas, the company provided what they described as a 'privacy protection service' with which they offered to escort members of public on their daily journey through public space. The final setup was an wearable bubble made from umbrellas which was designed to completely encase the torso of the member of the public in order to protect their privacy. Their identity is protected from the surveilling eye, but in order to achieve this they must sacrifice their ability to see for themselves, relying on the eyes of the artists to guide them on their way.

This setup was replicated in panopticon: Sydney, a project hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art for their Primavera exhibition in 2004. Five members of the public were invited to use the service to undertake journeys around Circular Quay area, possibly the most highly regulated and surveilled section of Sydney. The journey is ranged from visiting the local market, to posting a letter, taking a ferry ride, and attending a bar. I participated in the project by undertaking a journey to work, travelling the seemingly simple route from the Museum of contemporary Art to the Sydney Opera house, a trip that took over an hour (for context, its about a ten minute walk normally), and was ultimately terminated as the number of security personnel trying to order a halt to proceedings began to outnumber the artists and documenters. It seems that even threatening to interrupt the smooth flow of surveillance space is a problem for those who watch over us. Authority, it seems, must also be allowed to see all, but their agents do not understand jokes about transparency.

Documentation of these journeys, audio and video, as well as other ephemera from the performance actions, including the umbrella bubble itself, was displayed at the MCA. The curator of the exhibition, Vivienne Webb, described the work in the following terms:

“The lateral, even dysfunctional re-use of the ubiquitous umbrella in the panopticon series posits old technology against new, as well as the individual against the system. Instead of protection from natural elements, the umbrella is utilised as a barrier against invasive technology. Patently inadequate to the task, its very failure poetically highlights the extensive use of technologies of control within our public spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating both the vulnerability of the individual and their capacity for resistance.” (Primavera 2004 catalogue, p 21)

It is the failure of this home-made technology to effectively challenge the technological power it engages that provides the power of these works. It is only in the artwork's failure to enact social change, and to make this failure public, that the technological paradigm it critiques can be made visible - no longer part of the background of everyday life, but rather an abrasively visible problem that must be dealt with in the domain of everyday life. As Webb suggests, it is the very inadequacy of the artwork's materials and strategies that open up possibilities for everyday civic interventions into the systems that monitor and attempt to control the lives of citizens. The very ridiculousness of these methods - the teddy camera, the Santa suits, and the bubble of umbrellas - foreground the human scale of the pvi collective project. The fact of the human scale of these acts of ridiculous resistance makes the project endearing. That it can continue to be so given the seriousness of their political project makes the artwork even more special.

pvi collective's current work inform is playing throughout the suburbs of Perth until June 30. More details of this and other work by the company can be found online.

version 1.0 were guest artists on pvi collective's TTS: Australia in 2005.