Friday, 23 March 2007

The dance of the screen savers...

Chunky Move, Glow, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 22 March 2007

Just a short post for a short performance. Perhaps lesser than even the 26 minutes of Glow. We'll see. This afternoon I've actually been making progress on the chapter, so I don't want to procrastinate for too long...

First up I'll admit that while I am interested in dance, I will always read it in theatrical terms. I can therefore in no way be described as a dance connoisseur, and look for meanings that exceed the visceral pleasures of abstract movements, no matter how well executed. And trust me, this was well executed on all levels of the performance and the mise en scene. And I'd really been looking forward to this one - I tried to get in while we were performing in Melbourne last year, but it sold out. And all the press was rapturous. I think that by now, dear cyberspace dweller, it will be clear to you that I am somewhat less than rapturous.

The set up is simply described: a solo female dancer on a white square on the floor engages in a a routine, rolling on the floor, creeping along on her hands with her legs extended forward, twisting and contorting within the confined space at a speed only a highly trained and highly skilled dancer or a demon-possessed individual can do. Above her is a video projector, and its throw fills the square and provides the only light source. The projected imagery is the product of a highly sophisticated motion capture system, tracking her shape, movement and velocity within the performing area and translating it into ghostly glows, shadows, and lines that precisely wrap themselves around her. The 'glow' of the title is produced by a computer programming set up, one that I shudder to think of the price tag for its r & d. But it does look great. Money well spent. I guess. Well better than the last round of defence purchasing (today's news is a threatened billion dollar lawsuit against the defence department by the dumped US contractor Kaman on the abortive Super Sea Sprite helicopter project, a $2 billion flushing of public money down the toilet already that might get even more expensive.... and they say the arts are a waste of public money?!)

We the audience are seated above, and look down on the interactive proceedings below us. Its a duet really, between dancer and computer programmer. But I couldn't help thinking of it in terms of the old Microsoft screen savers and generate random lines and patterns in ever-increasing complexity. In spite of all the skill, talent and technology, Glow just didn't grab me, even when it did a bizarre late gear change toward horror movie land with the dancer pursued by multiple living shadows that she made earlier and left behind on the floor. The shadows develop a life of their own and turn nasty for no apparent reason, and the soundtrack momentarily lifts a few bars from the horror genre as well. A moment genuinely frightening and quite funny at the same time, like the best of the horror movies, but one that sat oddly with the rest of the piece. Though I suppose that if you view the first half of the piece as a performance that tests out the technological interface, then perhaps the final section is the interface refusing to be tested anymore, and trying to take possession of the body whose movements it had been responding. Kind of The Grudge meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets The Red Shoes.

For my money, as a piece of interactive technology driven performance Glow has neither the sheer interactive joy of Children's Cheering Carpet-Japanese Garden (Melbourne Festival 2006) nor the thrilling energy of Circa's time and motion studies (3 ball) (my review of that here). Motion capture and live interactive technologies show great promise for performance, but they require careful contextualisation and dramaturgical interaction. Glow while beautiful, did not for me exceed the decorative.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

New works by old favourites...

Martin del Amo Never been this far away from home Performance Space @ Carriage Works, 8 March 2007

William Yang China Performance Space @ Carriage Works, 20 March 2007

I must preface this piece of writing by stating that this is in no way a 'review' of either of these two performances. I'm on the clock today, and whatever I write in the next 20 minutes will go up, to be amended later. I want to be clear that I wasn't kidding about compromise. As Forced Entertainment's Richard Lowdon once said of performance: "A performance is never finished. You just have to show it to people at a particular time in a particular place." My time starts now.

Firstly, I was struck by the fact the Performance Space has begun its first season in the cavernous elegance of Carriage Works with the new works by two solo artists, each of whom in their different ways have well-established and well-regarded bodies of past work in the same aesthetic vein. With each of these artists, audiences know what they are going to get and know also that it will be pretty good. Both Martin and William are known quantities, good qualities. They deliver, and it helps that their production model is highly economic. I can't help but consider the similarity between this programming and emerging opposition leader Kevin Rudd's steady as she goes, good quality hard working image. Don't panic, implies Rudd. I'm not Mark Latham. Don't panic, implies Performance Space, both to long term stakeholders and the elusive general public audience out there. We'll be innovative, and hybrid, and very very approachable in this enormous new fancy building. We won't lose our identity at all - see, here are some old favourites!

In beginning my reflections in this manner I no way intend to belittle the artists or the programming - I understand the pragmatic compromises involved in each of these endeavours. And these are both mature, fascinating artists. And these works are indeed fascinating.

Unavoidable of course are reflections upon past works. I breathed a sigh of relief at the end of China that this was a much stronger work than I found Objects for Meditation to be. The latter work I found to be aimless and meandering, for the fans only. I'm all for self-referentially in performance (I'm guilty of this in my non-documentary work), but the notion of a piece that spends much of its stage time detailing past international tours of other work by the same artist I thought pushed the limits of acceptable self-indulgence. China too is a travelogue, but a much more interesting one. Charting (and occasional blurring) several of Yang's trips to China, the land of his ancestors, China wanders around and criss-crosses the landscape of that nation, with the nominal frame of a desire by Yang to climb a series of 'sacred mountains' in order to in some way connect with his Chinese-ness. A regular theme of Yang's work, the psychic and material relationship between his Chinese heritage and his identity as a gay Australian man is a rich theme, and one that Yang exploits elegantly through his quiet, conversational delivery with accompanying imagery and video. Its a simple set up, and as in past work Yang makes a virtue of its simplicity, producing an always engaging and often moving performance presentation. Even though in my opinion the crafting of this work isn't quite as strong as The North, Friends of Dorothy or even Blood Links, I still unreservedly recommend his work both to old and new friends.

OK 20 minutes gone. Will return to Martin after seeing Chunky Move.

[imagine a time lapse sequence to bridge this temporal interval, perhaps rushing across the city of Sydney from UNSW to the Opera House, streaming traffic, day fades to night back to day, wine glass morphs into tea cup into takeaway coffee back at the desk]

According to Blogger, no time will have elapsed between posting within this post. Which is great. I too, like the character on Heroes it seems have the power to stop time. And I'll use it to write about performance, not waste it on undoing accidents and adjusting the dispersal patterns of shrapnel during an explosion. After all, I'm with the forces of good, not evil.

Back on message, as the political types say. Martin del Amo in this case.

Autobiography is also a key concern of del Amo's work, though manifesting in significantly different ways, as might be expected operating as it does within a medium with quite different aesthetic demands and expectations. As dance, autobiography appears in frequently more ambient and abstract ways in del Amo's work than Yang's, but it is by no means no less effective and evocative. In previous pieces there has been a palpable sense of working through personal crises and their lingering psychic and bodily effects. del Amo regularly presents his own body in various states of crisis, frequently the physical channeling of grief and loss. There is a sense, for me at least, that this piece shows a del Amo who has worked through this, and arrived in a safer, more securer emotional and aesthetic state of being. In this work del Amo seems positively relaxed, at times throughout the show he can only be described as buoyant, and by the end of the piece there is a sense of a bright hope and joy. So the piece, in my opinion, can only be described as uplifting. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Too many adjectives compromising my discussion.

While I was quite amused to read Deborah Jones' description of del Amo's costumed appearance in the work, on reflection I had to admit that its true. Martin is indeed becoming perhaps the best dressed male dancer around, largely thanks to Virginia Boyle's exquisitely tasteful three-piece suit. Her costumes always make him look glamorous, but here so even more than usual. Of course it helps that unlike previous work, del Amo here keeps his kit on throughout. White underpants have never appeared glamorous to me.

Exquisite too is Gail Priest's electronica soundtrack, operated and manipulated by Priest onstage and lending urgency and poignancy at ideal intervals. Its probably Priest's best ever score for performance, and is by far the best sound design I've seen so far in Sydney this year (Sydney critics awards take note). Its clear that the del Amo/Boyle/Priest collaboration has developed richly over the last four full length works.

Deftly blending gentle spoken word (various engaging micro-narratives and anecdotes detailing experiences of dislocation and being lost between the geographic and cultural distance that separates Berlin and Sydney) with del Amo's trademark alternately sinuous and jagged movement style, and adding an onstage forest of microphones, stands and trailing cables that produce an ever-multiplying field of arbitrary borders that must be traversed and negotiated (design Mirabelle Wouters), Never been this far away from home maps out a series of abrasively human attempts to bridge the voids that must be navigated between people and the national boundaries that delimit the spaces they might be allowed to call home. It may at times have been a difficult journey through the various voids, but home, it appears as the final dance and music duet builds joyously, is close at hand and it's a great place to be.

Performing citizenship: version 1.0's recent explorations into the sweaty armpits of the Australian body politic

As an introduction to the type of work I make, write about, and am interested in, I submit the following performed paper, versions of which were presented at PSi #12: Performing Rights, Queen Mary University of London, in June 2006, and at Macquarie University, Sydney, in October 2005. I am doing another version this Saturday for the Association of Independent Schools Drama Conference. I promise that readers will not be compromised too much...

Ladies and Gentlemen: Please! Please! Ladies and Gentlemen. My fellow Australians.

Heh heh heh.

Ladies and Gentlemen: can I say, first of all that I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the Coalition. And the first thing I’d say to the Australian people in accepting their charge to lead the nation over the years ahead, the first thing I’d say is to re-dedicate myself, and all of my colleagues, to the service of the Australian people. This nation, this nation, by reason of the circumstances of history, and by reason of its great capacity, and the great capacity and dedication of the Australian people, this nation stands on the threshold of a new era of great achievement. This is a proud nation, a confident nation, a cohesive nation, a united nation; a nation that can achieve anything it wants if it sets its mind to it. And no Australian should ever shrink from a passionate belief in the ability and capacity of this nation, not only to provide a wonderful homeland for our twenty million people, not only to be a partner with our friends in our own region, but to be a beacon of democracy, of tolerance, of hope, and of achievement all around the world. The rest of the world sees us as a strong, successful nation and tonight the Australian people by their decision have declared themselves confident and hopeful about their future. And my task, my mission, my commitment to the Australian people is to lead them to the achievement of all of the opportunities that we have in the world. We have a strong economy, we are a nation that is respected around the world because we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in. Ours is a great democracy, there can only be one winner when an election is held. You face that great moment of electoral judgment and electoral truth. We are happy, we are joyful that the verdict has been given by the Australian people but never forget the fact that governments are elected to govern not only for the people who voted for them, but also for the people who voted against them.[1] Heh heh heh…[2]

In his election victory speech of October 9, 2004, Prime Minister John Howard declared that Australia was “a proud nation, a confident nation, a united nation". If it is, then there must be something seriously wrong with me. I feel none of these describe Australia at this moment. The neoconservative commentators triumphantly claim ad infinitum that the Australian people have given John Howard an unambiguous mandate, and to be honest, it's getting increasingly harder to argue with them. We, the Australian people, want to feel safe from war and terror. The repeated accusations that I, and people like me, are elites out of touch with the will of the Australian people has started to colour the way I position myself in relation to my own country. I need to think seriously about assimilation strategies. Or at least about effective camouflage. It is clear that theatre that does anything other than celebrate Australian-ness as proud, relaxed, and comfortable is unwelcome, and it seems that such theatre will soon be illegal as well, with a local version of the Patriot Act passed recently. I hear strange noises on my telephone line, and can't help but think that ASIO, the Australian equivalent of MI5, is on the other end. Perhaps I should say hello.

Hello. My name is David Williams, and I direct a Sydney-based performance group called version 1.0. On our website, I describe the company somewhat grandiosely as:

a performance group whose work not only investigates, but also enacts, participatory democracy. We believe that if the personal is political, then the opposite is also true – the political is personal. We make political performance that is also intensely personal – human scale interventions into the body politic. We make performance through collaboration, densely interweaving contemporary performance, theatre, opera, dance and video art. We do not create simple narratives, but kaleidoscopic portraits of the contemporary world we inhabit – a complex and multiple Sydney, Australia, World. […] We delve into the sweaty armpits of the Australian body politic, and the themes we return to are interrogations of everyday ethics, national identity, religious faith, political rhetoric, the cracks in official history, and the nature of theatre itself. We test the limits of bodies and the limits of language to speak and act about our times. We explore the act and the art of public speaking, mapping the intersections of life, art and politics.[3]

In mid-2003, version 1.0 began work on the major project CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident), examining the ‘children overboard’ Senate Inquiry, and subsequent projects have continued to explore explicitly political material both as subject and content, interrogating the operations and language of power. We believe that it is our civic duty to use the theatre to speak back to power using its own language, that it is in the public interest to ‘perform citizenship’, and creatively engage with these dense, politically loaded, and defiantly non-theatrical cultural documents that are the evidence that our democratic processes produce.

So why use theatre as a medium to address these issues of war/terror? What can the theatre do in these times? Surely part of this answer has to be the public nature of the theatre, its ability to re-publicise these often forgotten public documents. In talking about version 1.0’s work, I often refer to the act of public speech[4] – speech as an act in itself, powerful speech. Despite its frequent ridiculousness, tautologies, solipsisms, etc this is the speech of the powerful, and therefore it is powerful speech. Powerful public speech, both notorious and obscure, is the subject and material of version 1.0’s recent performance work. version 1.0’s CMI and The Wages of Spin have each worked through powerful public language – speeches from politicians, media interviews, news programs, opinion pieces, and parliamentary proceedings. All of these different types of public language are publicly presented and publicly available (though not, interestingly enough, public domain, being still subject to copyright restrictions). The work produced using this language fits into an emerging sub-genre of theatre practice described variously as ‘verbatim’ or ‘documentary’ theatre, and sometimes as ‘the theatre of fact’. version 1.0’s work fits a little awkwardly in these categories however. Despite the factuality of most of its source materials, and the massive research devoted to produce it, the performance work is concerned as much with representational issues – the theatre act itself – as the ‘facts’ of its source materials. I think of the work in terms used by Bruno Latour to describe criticism in general in his article Why has Critique Run out of Steam? (2004)[5] in which he distinguishes between matters of fact and matters of concern – so rather than a ‘theatre of fact’, version 1.0's is a ‘theatre of concern’. In the research and development of our 2005 work, The Wages of Spin[6], upon which this paper focuses, we found much to be concerned about.

Publicity material for the performance describes it in the following (also somewhat grandiose) terms:

The Wages of Spin provokes a closer examination of the issues at the core of the controversy surrounding the "intelligence" reports that were the deciding factor in Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq. […] While the production's subject is serious, the treatment is often hilarious. Audiences can expect to be shocked and horrified at the reality of war and the manipulation of truth, and in the very next moment, laughing at the irony of the media's obsession with pop star Delta Goodrem's 'suffering' and 'trauma' caused by her relationship 'crisis'. The production's […] script re-examines Senate Committee proceedings, often cheekily using the Hansard transcript verbatim as a theatrical device that leaves audiences asking: What should we believe? Further provoking the audience to question the authenticity of information, and the 'word' of those in power, is the productions clever re-contextualization of official public documents, television interviews and even raves from columnists & webloggers. This production asks: Does it matter that we went to war on a lie?[7]

The Wages of Spin charts both the War on Iraq, taking place at a great physical distance to Australia, and the culture wars within Australia, of which the war on Iraq is an important theatre. The performance attacks the powerful players on the level of their own rhetoric, aiming to pull apart the seamless weave of this highly spun discourse of war and terror. The work performs the operation that Judith Butler called for in a critical practice of war photography in her recent public lecture Giving an Account of Oneself[8], a practice that makes the frame that constructs the discourse of the image visible within the image itself. In The Wages of Spin, we became very obsessed by framing, particularly of the interface between the screen-image, the rhetoric of war/terror, and the body of the citizen/performer. The Wages of Spin set out to achieve this by layering representation, by presenting multiple channels of signification in order to allow our audience to find a new way of reading these often very familiar textual and video source materials.

The performance opens with a debate taken from Senate Estimates between Labor Senator John Faulkner and then-Defence Minister Robert Hill[9]. The subject of the conversation is an interview on ABC TV’s Four Corners program with former Australian intelligence officer Rod Barton, who alleged that Australians (i.e. himself) were directly involved in interrogating Iraqi prisoners of war, despite official Australian denials of this fact. The language game of the semantic niceties differentiating between ‘interrogation’ and ‘interview’ are thrown into sharp relief (no pun intended) by the real risky act of performer Stephen Klinder being navigated blindfolded through a field of large sharp nails, with his progress followed in extreme close-up by a video camera and projected massively onto the screen behind. This is the studio that the audience are brought into, with the performance already in progress. There are many ways to read the nail scene. For some audiences, focus was on the delicate act of producing spin in such a high stakes environment – Senator Hill must tread carefully in this exchange, both literally and metaphorically. Others emphasise the lateral reference to the torture occurring under Coalition military control in such places as Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib, and on the reversal of roles in this scenario – Senator Hill is interrogated by a militarised opposition, given a taste of the medicine being dished out by him in our name in Iraq and elsewhere. There’s an element of desire in this reading – haven’t we all wanted at some point to have one of our leaders in such a position? Still other readings focus on the machinery of the image production – the mechanics of it all are on display in a high-tech Brechtian fashion, with the image and its framing are both presented in the stage picture. We encourage all of these readings.

The real issues

In poring over the documents from the war and its electoral aftermath, we were struck by two key things. Firstly the outrage about the torture of kittens on a western Sydney railway station makes national newspaper front-pages, provoking copycat torturers and effectively erasing ongoing revelations about Coalition commanders giving implicit encouragement of the Abu Ghraib abuses, and actively trying to cover it all up. The torture of kittens is seen in most quarters of the Australian media as much more a sign of our catastrophic moral decline than the torture of Iraqi prisoners of war under the power of Coalition forces in ‘free’ Iraq. It seems that it is much worse for Australians to torture animals than it is for Australians to participate, presumably indirectly, in the torture of humans. They’re only terrorists after all, and if bad things happen to them, well, they had it coming. The kitten torture saga sucks all the media oxygen from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse stories, and interestingly enough there are few links made between this incident and the systematic torture of kittens by serving Australian soldiers in Townsville almost a year earlier. We the people are happy to move on.

Secondly, we were struck that out of a year and a half’s worth of newspapers (dramaturg Paul Dwyer helpfully delivered several boxes full when we started work on the project), while Falluja is being obliterated (“The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Falluja. And we're going to destroy him” declares US Marine Lt Col Gareth Brandl[10), and while the piles of uncounted Iraqi dead grow larger (“We don’t do body counts”, proclaims General Tommy Franks, US Commander for Operation Iraqi Freedom[11]), while this is occurring, teenage pop star Delta Goodrem appears to be on every second front-page. Delta has cancer. Delta linked to tennis star Mark Philippoussis. Mark has a fling with Paris Hilton, breaking Delta's heart. Delta breaks up pop star Brian McFadden's marriage, but they're in love. We don’t really have anything against Delta, but her presence looms large over The Wages of Spin. In a strange coincidence, while we were performing in Canberra shortly after the London terrorist bombings in July 2005, The Canberra Times had a promotional article for Delta’s concert, complete with a picture of her in fairy wings, right next to a picture of our beloved Prime Minister posing at the bedside of an injured Australian citizen, assuring her that London wasn’t bombed because of Australia’s participation in the War on Iraq. We couldn’t have come up with a better illustration of the show’s argument.

Delta’s timeless search for happiness and the horror of the tortured kittens – these were obviously the real issues of concern to real Australians, and we thought it was time that our political theatre got real. We have been repeatedly mugged by reality, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling. No decent Australian citizen truly believes that Australia's good name has been dragged through the mud for entering a war on false pretences, and then failing to adequately prepare for the peace. So we’ve got to get with the program. We have a responsibility to provide bang for buck. Can't be wasting taxpayers money at a time like this, now can we? We’ll need them for our boys on the front line, fighting for our freedom. In this ‘real’ context, freedom means compliance, and democracy means silence. In fact, under the new terror legislation enacted in late 2005, if you don’t stay silent about any actions by government that curtail your (or someone else's) freedom, you can be imprisoned. To even criticise the government’s actions can now be interpreted as sedition. But we’ve got to trust in our leader’s goodwill. And we've got to stop complaining – the nation has moved on. As the Prime Minister said in 2002 of corporate governance, “It’s not as important as the Commonwealth Games”[12]. And don’t forget, they were in Melbourne in 2006, and Australia once again won an overwhelming majority of the medals. Aren't we the best? version 1.0 was there with our show From a distance… which explored un-Australian behaviour in sport and culture, and we were very proud of Team Australia. So proud that we nearly burst.

Nay-sayers

In the research for The Wages of Spin, we trawled through a large volume of pro- War on Iraq statements and commentary from both conservative politicians and their supporters in the media. Of great interest and surprise was the repeated use of the term ‘nay-sayer’ to describe opponents of the invasion. The general contention was that anti-war commentators and peace activists would say no to anything supported by the leaders of the Coalition of the Willing, and were generally beyond reason. These anti-war commentators were therefore, following the logic of the argument, capable of nothing more meaningful than saying ‘no’, and are unable to do anything positive or constructive at all. This perceived inability to do anything but reject and denounce, places the anti-war lobby in the position of de facto support for terrorism, and in direct opposition to the development of democracy in post-Saddam Iraq. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” as President Bush famously stated. As the research for the show continued, we read between the lines in local conservative commentators Gerard Henderson, Piers Ackerman, Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine and the rest of the Prime Ministerial cheer squad, and we heard the call to stop whining and let real Australians get on with the business of being proud, relaxed, and comfortable. Miranda Devine states of the 'nay-sayers':

Sooner or later the opponents of the war will have to admit they were wrong – again. As events have changed, their unrelenting enmity towards Howard and the US President, George Bush, has placed them in the position of, in effect, barracking for the wrong side. They are virtually willing the Iraq project to disaster. While arguments about body counts are distressing - and meaningless if it is your son or daughter killed - they are nonetheless important as an illustration of how the Iraq debate is progressing, or not. Can't the war critics see, even if mistakes have been made, that Iraq is on track to a brighter future and that is a cause worth supporting? Can't they see their unremitting negativity has consequences? What is happening in Iraq is good. The election was good, defying all naysayer expectations. The good news about Iraq and its elections at some point has to sink in. In this week's edition of New York Magazine, the anti-Bush writer Kurt Anderson confessed: "Three months after failing to defeat Bush in our election, plenty of New Yorkers privately, half-consciously hoped for his comeuppance in Iraq's. You know who you are." "Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush ... just might - might, possibly - have been correct to invade, to occupy and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq. …either we hope for the vindication of Bush's risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians." You know who you are.[13]

Thanks Miranda. Yes, we do indeed know who we are. In his program note for The Wages of Spin, dramaturg Paul Dwyer discusses Miranda Devine’s call to self-knowledge in terms of Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation. A policeman in a crowd calls out ‘hey you there!’ Miranda Devine calls out: “You know who you are!” This process of interpellation, according to Althusser, is how ideology ‘acts’. The Wages of Spin shows ideology acting up and behaving badly. Dwyer continues:

Miranda knows who I am and that’s pretty reassuring. I was getting lost in the crowd of sadly out of touch, left-leaning, inner-city dwelling, caffe latte-sipping, cultural elitists who’ve barricaded themselves in the offices of ‘our’ ABC and who, along with their fellow travellers in Academia, spew forth a continuous stream of ‘unremitting negativity’ about all the good things this Government has done for interest rates and for the people of Iraq.[14]

Yes, we know who we are. And we know who you are too Miranda.

Disorientations

While version 1.0’s CMI staged a coherent argument about the systematic dehumanisation of asylum seekers in Australian public discourse[15], The Wages of Spin is a performance of disorientations. Any of this material could have been spoken or written at any time over the last three years. Was it yesterday? Will it be tomorrow? The performance is a swirl of illogical positions and inappropriate stagings. The Wages of Spin re-presents arguments that unravel. Speakers always go too far, given just enough rope, but are rarely parodied by the performers. Their arguments are delivered with great weight and seriousness, no matter how flimsy or contradictory the position. This is the ‘passionate drivel’ of the paranoid nationalistic discourse. These are arguments filled with sound and fury. They do not signify nothing, but instead circle around empty logics, false premises, and hollow rhetoric. Despite all this being the case however, the arguments are delivered as if they make sense. The further strength of these arguments is that they presume to be no more than common sense. Only an idiot, and a traitorous idiot at that, could disagree with these arguments, they say. The arguments may be drivel, but they are passionately patriotic drivel. These arguments wrap themselves in the national flag, setting themselves in defence of ‘our values’ and the things for which we stand – freedom, tolerance, and democracy – while reducing these terms to floating signifiers that can mean whatever they want them too. ‘A word means whatever I say it means’ says Humpty Dumpty ‘No more, no less.’

When I talk about passionate drivel, I don’t want to suggest that those who deploy it are stupid. Quite the contrary: these speakers are cunning, in control, and meticulous in their framing. And just because the positions being argued are nonsensical, does not mean that they are not well argued. In his book The Philosophy of Nonsense (1994), Jean-Jacques Lecercle describes Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum’s harassment of Alice as “hostile affects carried independent of any subject”[16]. In The Wages of Spin the arguments deploy passionate affects, patriotic affects, jingoistic affects carried independent of the subject. The war on Iraq is ever present, but the war, as a war, is meaningless. The meanings are carried by the passionate affects that take the war as their subject (but are not subject to the war). While this is not quite at the level of Jean Baudrillard’s mischievous suggestion that the first Gulf War did not take, or need not have actually taken place[17], it remains that the actual war, and the ideological frames that hang themselves off this war seem to operate largely independently of each other. The reality of the war rarely impinges on the reality of the culture war. And yet the culture war takes reality – the ‘real world’ – as its subject. We have to get real. The world has changed. We, the nay-saying elites no longer live in the ‘real’ world, and are therefore unable to see the good done in our name. We should be ashamed of not being proud, not proud of being ashamed.

The proud wear khaki

Can I start by expressing my personal welcome and that of my wife Janette to all of the men and women who have touched Australian soil for the first time after your deployment in Iraq. […] You went abroad in our name on a just cause, and you joined others in liberating an oppressed people. That is something of which you can always for the rest of your lives be immensely proud. And as the Prime Minister of Australia, can I say how immensely proud I am of the way in which you upheld the reputation of the fighting men and women of the Australian Defence Forces. You won the admiration of your nation. You also won the admiration of your coalition colleagues. You were not only great war-fighters, but you were great peacemakers and you were great conciliators. Thank you for what you have done. You took the ultimate risk. You put your lives and your limbs on the line like none other, and I shall always remember that. I shall always be grateful. But even more important than that, your nation, which welcomes you home today, will always remember that and will always be very grateful to all of you. Thank you from Australia.[18]

Thanks for your thanks Prime Minister. You’re right. We do have a lot to be proud of. The rise of democracy in Iraq will be a Good Thing. Very few people that I know would dispute that. So good on you Prime Minister. The fact that we went to war on a lie does not change the essential fact that Saddam Hussein was a Bad Thing, and that democracy is a Good Thing. You made the tough choice Prime Minister, and unlike US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, you seem to have come out OK. Don’t worry about those weapons of mass destruction. They’re probably in Iran, and you'll find them later. Remember, the nation has moved on.

But before we all move too far, can I just ask what sort of democracy the people of Iraq will be getting? And they’ll be free to do what, exactly? Prime Minister, what is it that you mean by freedom, anyway? And when you say ‘democracy’, do you just mean holding an election? Does democracy only ‘happen’ every three years? I think that anthropologist Ghassan Hage is right on the money when he writes in his article Warring Societies (2005) about contemporary Australians living in what he describes as a phallic democracy, a democracy designed more to be boasted about than to be lived in:

Phallic democracy is the democracy that one has, rather than the democracy one lives. It’s the democracy of those who say ‘we have got democracy’, rather than those who say ‘we live democratically’. It’s the democracy to show the other that ‘I’ve got a big one’. The phallic democrat says to his other: ‘My democracy is really big! As opposed to you who have a very little democracy! Likewise my tolerance and freedom of speech – look at them!’[19]

The bigger the election, the bigger and better the democracy. And we have a really big one. So big, that we can wave it in other people’s faces. For their own good, of course. For the good of all of us. Prime Minister John Howard believes that Australia has a really big democracy, demonstrated by a great big election. And this democratic greatness gives us the right to proudly spread our democracy around. And that's a wonderful thing:

It is a wonderful thing to be able to participate in a great democratic exercise like an election. It's nerve-wracking and like many of you in this room, I had butterflies in my stomach this morning. I happily confess to that and it's true and it's perfectly normal and it's perfectly human but we are privileged to be able to participate in the great exercise in democracy. Let us remember that this very same day the people of Afghanistan have had an election and for the first time in years. That election has been made possible by reason of the fact that a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and to take a stand against terrorism. As the people of Afghanistan vote today, and particularly the women of Afghanistan, they have been so brutally suppressed for so long, we should be proud of the role that we have played in liberating Afghanistan just as we should be proud of the role that Australia has played in many other areas in standing up for the values we believe in and the things we hold dear.[20]

Thanks again Prime Minister. It's obviously a wonderful thing that the women of Afghanistan can vote again. Everyone can be proud of our small part in making that possible. But surely if we hold ourselves up as a shining example of a ‘great democracy’, and are intent to export our democracy around the world, by force if necessary, don’t we need to critically examine our own democratic processes and institutions? Democracies cannot function without trust, and trust has to be both earned and maintained. Can I trust the architects of ‘freedom and democracy’ that call themselves the Coalition of the Willing? I’d like to. After all, I sincerely believe that Australians are basically good people who generally engage in good works, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. I love my country, and I support ‘our boys’, fighting the good fight. But despite this, I have serious trust issues about the direction of our democracy and the institutions that enable it. This is the territory of The Wages of Spin. It begins as an interrogation of the motivations and outcomes of the War on Iraq, but at heart this is a performance about Australia, and the ways in which this ongoing war has transformed our democracy, making the previously unthinkable into reality, for instance the emergence of torture as a legitimate part of the national security apparatus of an established Western liberal democracy, able to be carried out in the open with a large degree of public support. Did anyone see that coming five years ago?

As Paul Dwyer stated in rehearsal one day, attacking the hypocrisies of our representatives is pretty easy, “like money for jam”. Everyone knows that Australia went to war on a lie. But so what? Saddam was a bad guy, wasn’t he? Freedom and democracy are worth fighting for, aren’t they? We are a good people, aren’t we? Trust us, as John Howard so regularly states, without any hint of irony. Trust us.

So again I say to my fellow Australians, thank you for the enormous trust that you have placed in us. I said at the beginning of this election campaign that it was about trust, it was who the Australian people had trusted to manage the economy, to lead this nation at a time of international peril, who did the Australian people better trust to keep the budget strong, who did the people better trust to lead it. In the first part of the 21st century ... The Australian people have given their answer, we thank them for that, and we start work immediately to justify and fulfill the trust that they have given to all of us tonight. Thank you very much.[21]

Thank you again Prime Minister, and thank you all.


[1] Prime Minister John Howard, October 9, 2004. Complete transcript online.

[2] The laughter was recreated in version 1.0’s The Wages of Spin, based on an audio recording of this speech, online.

[3] version 1.0, 2005. Online.

[4] Obviously I draw heavily on J L Austin's notion of the performative utterance, literally a speech act that enacts what it says, where the speech act itself has the power to transform its saying into doing. For more on this notion, see Austin's How To Do Things With Words (1962)

[5] Latour, Bruno (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry Volume 30, Number 2. pp 225-248.

[6] The Wages of Spin by version 1.0. Devised and performed by Stephen Klinder, Deborah Pollard and David Williams, dramaturgy by Paul Dwyer, outside eye Yana Taylor, video artist Sean Bacon, sound artist Gail Priest, lighting/production Simon Wise. First performance 20 May 2005, Performance Space, Sydney.

[7] Media release for the Canberra season of version 1.0’s The Wages of Spin, July 2005.

[8] Butler, Judith (2005). Giving an Account of Oneself. Public lecture, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. 18 June 2005.

[9] Official Estimates Hansard (2005). Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, 16 February 2005. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

[10] As cited in Wood, Paul (2004). ‘Fixing the problem of Falluja’. BBC News, Sunday 7 November 2004. Online.

[11] As cited on the homepage of the website Iraq Body Count www.iraqbodycount.org.

[12] As cited in Spike (2002). ‘The city and the suits’. Sydney Morning Herald, December 27, 2002. Online.

[13] Devine, Miranda (2005). ‘Critics are willing Iraq to fail’ Sydney Morning Herald, February 24, 2005. Online.

[14] Dwyer, Paul (2005). ‘Don’t Mess with Mr In Between’. Program note for version 1.0’s The Wages of Spin.

[15] See for instance Williams, David A (2006). 'Political Theatrics in the Fog of War'. Australasian Drama Studies, Number 48, April 2006.

[16]Lecercle, Jean-Jacques (1994). Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature. London and New York: Routledge. p

[17] Baudrillard, Jean (1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. Paul Patton. Sydney: Power Publications.

[18] Prime Minister John Howard, 22 May, 2003. Transcript online.

[19] Hage, Ghassan (2005). Warring Societies. Arena Magazine, February/March 2005, No. 75, pp. 26-31

[20] Howard 2004

[21] Ibid.

A compromised beginning...

Dear unsuspecting cyberspace dwellers,

Welcome to my blog. This is the first time I have contemplated such a thing as this, despite being mildly obsessed with other people's blogs for some months now. So bear with me as I make the necessary compromises to make this appear to work.

Please feel free to disagree with any of the opinions, perspectives, reviews or ramblings that appear in this blog. Please also respect that I may or may not agree with your disagreement, or even care for your opinion very much. In life and art, I find that I constantly compromise and am compromised. But in this blog I may or may not choose to compromise given opinions. They are my opinions after all, informed by my (slanted) perspective, (partial) experiences and (provisional) expertise. But I won't (always) apologise for this. This is after all my blog, and you can start your own if you really feel strongly about it. After all, I did.

One thing I will apologise for outright - I find that currently I am rather overemployed, and while I will attempt to update this blog regularly, this must be taken by you, dear unsuspecting cyberspace dweller, as a non-core promise.

To open with however, I offer you a big meaty chunk of performance and politics in the form of an artist talk I've given in several forms over the last 18 months...

many thanks and happy compromises to all,

David