Friday, 24 August 2012

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All text copyright David Williams, 2010

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

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