Logging on to my Facebook account, I found it filling up with invitations to events that claimed to a part of something called The Imperial Panda Festival. Intrigued, I head along to the launch at Black and Blue Gallery, and find myself part of the humid swirl of the festival - two weeks of art, alcohol, and conversation in an intoxicating and highly satisfying blend. Due to my own commitments to the tour of version 1.0's The Bougainville Photoplay Project to Canberra, I was unable to attend every event, but nonetheless I felt very much as if I had been witness to something significant.
Part of the joy of the idiosyncratically named Imperial Panda Festival (January 31- February 9) has been discovering, and in some cases re-discovering, what might be not entirely satisfactorily be termed the 'emerging artist scene' of Sydney. Driven ever-further underground for various financial and compliance issues (no one with an OHS certificate should open their eyes in these venues until they've had at least three drinks), much of these cultures of practice have failed to appear on my radar as they've shifted away from more established contemporary arts hubs such as Performance Space, and contemporary arts developmental spaces such as PACT and Shopfront. My loss, not theirs. Imperial Panda, ramshackle and chaotic as it regularly was, is nonetheless an initiative of welcome ambition.
Crammed into artist-run spaces that seem to adhere to planning codes less than the Lanfranchis space that was the former epicentre of this scene (if that can be imagined!), the Imperial Panda festival events were sweaty affairs. However, fueled by buzzing enthusiasm, cheap booze, and loads of goodwill, these were great spaces to be in. If nothing else, it was great to see crowds of people (mostly) younger than myself excited about art! Contrary to Nick's experience, I didn't see a lot of that in my Sydney Festival travels (but then I must confess that my work schedule precluded visits to the Beck's Bar or the Spiegel Tent. In fact, I didn't get to Hyde Park all January...). It made me excited to be a maker of art again. (A tangent on this point, remind me to never put my occupation as 'theatre maker' on entry documents to the UK ever again. It's a real hassle to explain yourself and your art practice at Heathrow when jetlagged and faced with an odd mix of serious disdain and suspicion. My most irritating border crossing in many years. But I digress...) Anyway, it made me feel like continuing to be an artist, a calling that has seemed more and more impossible to maintain. Academia, policy, and administration have all become tempting full time careers, much to my existential horror. But Imperial Panda, and the enthusiastic and disparate community of artists it gathered, proved a very welcome and timely reinvigoration. It wasn't all great art, but it was indeed a fantastic place to be. Viva la shambolic revolution!
Seated upon milkcrates topped by cardboard, almost shouting to be heard over the chatter, I eagerly awaited the reprise season of Post's Gifted and Talented, for me one of the performance highlights of 2007 (just to give you sense of what else would be in my very provisional top ten, this includes Jerome Bel's The Show must go on, UTP's The Folding Wife, Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod, the Maly Theatre's Uncle Vanya, Dood Paard's Mediea, and maybe STC's Season at Sarsaparilla and Deborah Pollard's Blue Print). I'd just given a big talking up of the show to Nick as we squeezed with our beers into the confines of the downstairs gallery at Chalkhorse, so of course I was nervous about expectations. (One of my favourite ever shows, Hotel Pro Forma's Operation: Orfeo was transformative at the Sydney Opera House in 1997, then frustratingly imprecise and even sloppy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999, so I'm aware than expectations can indeed be crippling).
The verdict? Well, the cramped confines of the gallery did the work no favours, severely limiting the movement that erupts out of the brutal conversations that form the core of the piece. Despite this, the work retains, for me at least, its dark, hilarious, and appalling glory, with the ability to shock, amuse, and surprise. I look forward to seeing in back in a more appropriate theatre space in Adelaide next week (I'll be attending APAM to spruik version 1.0's Deeply offensive..., and will hopefully have time for a few nibbles of the Adelaide Fringe in between networking functions.) Look out for Post's Gifted and Talented in the Fringe program - its truly a gem, and is thoroughly recommended.
Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase!