photos Justin Harvey
Extra ferries had to be scheduled as the normal service became taxed, people were turned away at the entrance at times as the festival reached capacity and queues grew to Depression era proportions. Throngs of people across a broad demographic seem to be interested in the alternative arts, as long as they’re in a fascinating location.
Of course the downside was that many of the performance works were designed for a limited audience (some one or four at a time) and even the centerpiece, OJO by Strings Attached with a capacity of 500, was fully booked by the time I arrived at 4pm, so I have to admit, I failed the Underbelly challenge. However I tracked down some esteemed colleagues, Teik-Kim Pok and Sarah Miller, who had much better time management skills, to comment on some of these works. For my part, I spent my time queuing (to no avail) and taking in the installation works that inhabited the nooks and crannies of Cockatoo Island.
photo Justin Harvey
case study, [xuan] spring, pattern machine
The most impressive installation, and perhaps the most intensive process in Underbelly was Case Study in which six artists—Perran Costi, Jesse Cox, Emily McDaniel, Adam Parsons, Damian Martin and Justin Harvey—moved to the island for the 16-day lab, taking with them only a suitcase. If there were any Survivor-style power plays during the development the final installation was a picture of harmonious communal living. A series of makeshift huts and lean-tos were scattered around an old workshop, each with bedding, curtains, found objects and text curios. Some hummed with quiet sound installations and most glowed hauntingly with projected stills and videos. Plant and moss specimens from around the island adorned surfaces like miniature gardens and small assemblages were to be found in nearly every crevice. Exploring issues of inhabitation, colonisation and migration, Case Study offered a wabi-sabi micro-environment of wonderful intricacy.
|[Xuan] Spring, Ngoc Nguyen|
courtesy the artist
Pattern Machine was an intriguing audiovisual environment and performance by James Nichols, Dan MacKinlay, Jean Poole and Sarah Harvie. A giant inflatable wormlike object occupied one end of a vast workshop while video projections adorned the far end, glancing across a magnificent piece of old machinery. As was the case with most things in Underbelly, I didn’t catch the whole performance (I had to run to catch the ferry home), but the 20 minutes I experienced offered a rich soundscape of field recordings—flocking seagulls, machine rumbles—underpinned by sweet synthesiser tones delivered quadrophonically, with some great use of video masking to create projections that worked specifically with the architectural features.
|Fetish Frequency, Inflection|
photos Dylan Tonkin
inflection, all you can stand buffet, awful literature is still literature I guess
The island’s colourful past evokes treasure hunt sensibilities and attempting to live up to this promise of adventure, some of the artists responded with works exploring audience interaction. Inflection, an “interactive theatre game,” asks us to imagine an alternate version of Cockatoo Island. Stumbling into the middle of the story, I meet a troupe of ‘facilitators’ in a low-ceilinged room in the Naval Store, black stockings masking their faces. In the centre is a mannequin torso sitting upright amongst black garbage material surrounded by photos of various sites on the island laid out in an ominous looking ring. Above this is a clue played on video loop, prompting us to carry out one of five major rituals. A few audience members hesitantly step forward to fulfill one of these tasks: “build a lover from these objects.” Unfortunately, given the nature of the event, I have to move on and fail to witness the conclusion of this action, but Fetish Frequency’s haunting mix of audience-driven storytelling and installation building/intervening is something I hope to experience in their next outing.
Next door our Underbelly experience was becoming more rumble-belly as we anticipated a feast of sorts in Butterfries’ All You Can Stand Buffet. Billed as ‘’the disfigured love child of Dante’s Inferno and Sizzler,” we are ushered in by a performer who lays out the ground rules (replete with end-of-days metaphors) for moving through the rooms—each a different buffet ‘course’—the changes signaled by the loud clanging of a steel salad bowl.
Beginning our first course we are surrounded by mounds of strewn rubbish and encouraged to sift through black garbage bags for barely edible items, among them heads of iceberg lettuce left in various states of defoliation by previous audiences. Accompanying this is a diatribe on Third World famine and an exhortation to overcome our privileged First World disgust. This prompted some in my audience, already familiar with the practice of dumpster-diving and the earnest activist tenor of the work, to respond in one-upmanship from then on, to which the Butterfries team struggled to respond. Subsequent courses included being force-fed bread rolls, served minestrone soup out of a cling-wrap lined toilet, a makeshift abattoir with a row of raw chickens impaled on a wall overlooking a blood-soaked floor and a dinner party where two performers’ strained exchange invited my restless audience group to weigh in, escalating the action into a food fight. While Butterfries’ audience-wrangling strategies need bolstering, their efforts to visually reference the aesthetic of disgust is a worthwhile achievement for their first collaborative effort.
I choose to decompress from the gastronomic challenge by visiting the Festival Bar for some mulled wine while taking in one of the more relaxed offerings, Applespiel’s Awful Literature is Still Literature I Guess. At this point, surrounded by towers of books, they regale us with a series of abject confessionals which segue into an ironic promotion of books considered obscure and questionable in literary merit completing the bar’s role as a sensory pit-stop for the traumatised, exhilarated and perplexed among us island-hopping conceptual treasure hunters.
|Whale Chorus, Rhapsody, Paul Blenheim, James Brown, Janie Gibson|
photos Josh Morris
rhapsody, ojo, v
Whale Chorus took the idea of the musical and broke it right across their collective hootenanny kneecaps in Rhapsody. Even at this early stage of development, this short work-in-progress was performed with panache by Matt Prest, Janie Gibson and Paul Blenheim. It was silly, smart, kitsch and funny.
Referencing everything yet nothing I could quite put my finger on, Rhapsody evoked moments of Oklahoma but also Deliverance, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Psycho, not to mention various high school musicals, segueing from popular culture to irreligious cult. The costuming for Paul Blenheim and Matt Prest—red checked shirts and tight black pants—was inspired while Janie Gibson’s deadpan Doris Day provided a great counterpoint to boyish petulance, blokey bravado and dang-crazy angst.
Whale Chorus “aims to borrow techniques used for creating music to create theatre” and the effect of translating musical concepts such as polyphony and dissonance into theatrical manoeuvres leads them into some hilariously unlikely places. Matt Prest’s delivery of the Beatles’ “Taxman,” and Janie Gibson’s attempts to get two reluctant lads to sing the Judy Garland standard “Good Morning” reminded me of classic comedy—think Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy without the pratfalls. Kazoo, celery, song, story and hypnotism were brought together in an absurd narrative to create something utterly idiosyncratic and funny.
|OJO, Strings Attached & Younes Bachir, Underbelly|
photo Catherine McElhone
Performed at one end of the cavernous Turbine Hall, the work begins before the audience enters the space, with a single performer hoisted high in the air, flailing and spitting words at the gods. On the other side of a large curtain, the audience stumbles across bodies sprawled or curled foetus-like on muddy, wet concrete floors amidst the wreckage and detritus of modern industrial society. The imagery is apocalyptic, the performers intense, edgy and focused. I’m reminded of Nietzche’s dark “primordial unity” that seeks to awaken our Dionysian nature through an evocation of the primal, ritual, extreme physicality and chaos as a means of bringing us to harmony.
Anyone old enough to experience the 1989 production of La Fura dels Baus’ Suz/o/Suz at the Hordern Pavilion will remember the massive spectacle and ritualistic nature of the work: blinding lights, cacophonous noise, water and mud, sex, birth, festival, sacrifice and death, combined with a fantastic physicality and extraordinary aerial work. Audience members ran for their lives as huge machines and implacable performers bore down on them.
OJO worked with similar materials and themes, albeit stripped back, and without elaborate or expensive sets, but the experience was no less intense. One of the most thrilling moments occurred when the performers manually dragged the huge machinery high in the ceiling of the Turbine Hall from one end of the performance area to the other. The horrifying yet compelling momentum of the industrial machine—Blake’s “dark satanic mills”—and its devastating impact on the natural world was powerfully evoked.
|Justin Shoulder, V|
video stills Sam James
With the culmination of activities in one big bonanza there is a danger of losing perspective on the developmental status of many of the works in Underbelly, some of which began a mere 16 days before. However audiences could visit the island in the weeks prior to watch the artists right in the midst of the thorny business of artmaking. I regret that I didn’t take up this opportunity, as I may have been able to make a one-on-one appointment with J Dark in Joan of Arc is Alive and Well and Living on Cockatoo Island by Triage Live Art Collective or have the drive-in experience of Julie Vulcan, Ashley Scott and Friends with Deficits’ Spotlight Bunny.
After a smaller-scale festival in the streets of Chippendale last year, the 2011 Underbelly, thanks to its site and more rigorous programming, reached a whole new scale and level of engagement with audiences and artists. If the event continues on Cockatoo Island, it feels as though it would be best to expand to a two-day final event in order to satisfy its eager audience. GP
Underbelly Arts 2011; Case Study, Perran Costi, artists Jesse Cox, Emily McDaniel, Adam Parsons, Damian Martin, Justin Harvey; (Xuan) Spring, artist Ngoc Nguyen; Pattern Machine, artists James Nichols, Dan MacKinlay, Jean Poole, Sarah Harvie; Fetish Frequency, Inflection, artists Jimmy Dalton, Lucy Parakhina, James Peter Brown, Skye Kunstelj, Aimee Horne and Amelia Evans; Butterfries, All You Can Stand Buffet, artists Damien Dunstan, Jennifer Medway, Kirby Medway, Tessa Musskett; Applespiel, Awful Literature is Still Literature I Guess, artists Simon Binns, Nathan Harrison, Nikki Kennedy, Emma McManus, Joseph Parro, Troy Reid, Rachel Roberts, Mark Rogers; Whale Chorus, Rhapsody, artists Matt Prest, Janie Gibson, Paul Blenheim, James Brown; Strings Attached & Younes Bachir, OJO, Younnes Bachir, artists Alejandro Rolandi, LeeAnne Litton, Dean Cross, Kathryn Puie, Angela Goh, Matt Cornell, Mark Hill, Kate Sherman, Carolyn Eccles, Gideon PG, Robbie Ho, Matt Rochford, Elisa Bryant, Charlie Shelly, Julia Landery, Victoria Waghorn, Cameron Lam, Craig Hull, Leanne Kelly; V, artists Justin Shoulder, Jeff Stein, Toby Knyvett, Sydney Bouhaniche, Nick Wales, Cheryle Moore, Joey Ruigrok; Underbelly artistic director Imogen Semmler, executive director Clare Holland; Cockatoo Island, Sydney; Lab July 3-12, Festival July 16; http://underbellyarts.com.au/
This article first appeared in RT e-dition august 23.
RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 5
© Gail Priest & Teik-Kim Pok & Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org