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

"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