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Hit Parade Hit Parade
photo Aksana Hugo Anastas
OPENING THE LIQUID ARCHITECTURE 2014 FESTIVAL BOOKLET FOR THE FIRST TIME WAS A DISCONCERTING EXPERIENCE, AS LOOSE PAGES FELL TO THE UNSUSPECTING READER’S FEET. THE PAGES FEATURED ARTISTIC STATEMENTS, QUOTES FROM FRENCH THEORY, ROCK LYRICS, BUT NO PAGE NUMBERS. WHERE WERE THE FESTIVAL DATES? WHO WAS PLAYING WHERE? WHAT ORDER DID THE PAGES GO IN? THE FESTIVAL WEBSITE WAS SIMILARLY DISORIENTATING.

New festival Artistic Directors Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela had warned us that audiences this year would be confused, angry and divided. The festival booklet’s fluid hierarchy and lack of easy answers augured this challenge. With the theme “The Ear Is A Brain,” Liquid Architecture 2014 encouraged audiences to listen and think critically. They proved sturdy enough to accept the challenge with gusto, selling out the majority of events on the Melbourne leg of the festival and on more than one occasion becoming participants in performances (both voluntarily and unwittingly).

It was clear from the moment the audience entered the Meat Market for the opening night concert that things were not going to be made easy. As the crowd of 500-plus filed in, they gradually became aware of an irregular knocking coming from the PA. Melbourne artist, Helen Grogan, was crawling around the perimeter of the space, tracing its edges with a live microphone. Grogan’s Concrete Room, performed previously in much smaller gallery spaces, was executed with a single-minded intensity that emphasised the work’s ritualistic nature. Grogan’s microphone negotiated carpet, skirting boards, bluestone and at times the feet of audience members. The long microphone cord tailing behind her forced the audience to physically negotiate the performance by stepping over it.

Most of the capacity opening night crowd had come for Robin Fox’s headlining RGB Laser performance. This was expertly staged as a large partitioned wall opened to reveal a spacious extra wing of the venue, with Fox’s smoke, laser beams and jagged electronic tones spilling out. The crowd strode into the smoke like entranced cultists for a truly immersive sound and light experience, with Fox presiding over it all from a raised platform like a new Wizard of Oz.

Yet the most interesting performance of the night was Christof Migone’s Mixer. The first of several works by the Canadian artist on the festival program, Mixer was performed by a group of volunteers briefed shortly before the concert. The work took place on the main stage in between the more ‘official’ performances with the participants enacting a series of simple, repetitive actions, mostly involving microphones. These included repeating your age for an equal number of minutes, and giving other participants backrubs with a live microphone. These unheralded episodes were largely ignored by the large crowd, whose own sound world of reverberating pub chatter created a distinctly odd juxtaposition against Mixer. The audience’s dogged ignorance became part of the performance.

The following evening’s Stutterances program at the National Gallery of Victoria attracted a more attentive crowd. Most of it took place in a lecture theatre setting with speech/text-based performances from touring and local artists. Some artists ‘detourned’ various visual communications technologies: from overhead transparencies (Kusum Normoyle) to crappy PowerPoint presentations (New Waver). Johannes Kreidler’s taxonomy of heavy metal with short accompanying audio examples (black metal, power metal, poser metal, true metal...) was a highlight, as was Alessandro Bosetti’s circular spoken text and its interaction with a pre-recorded female voice that could have been that of a lover or a phantom ‘voice in my head.’ Local conceptual/parody project New Waver’s overdue return to live performance was a winner, coaxing the ponderous audience to sing and clap along to that ode to real estate and gentrification, “We Built This City on Indie Pop.”

Both the opening night and Stutterances event featured performances that, if not exactly spectacular, were provocative in the concepts they explored and the tropes challenged. Yet some acts struggled to rise above middling in their conceptual depth. The Friday night program in the Trench under Federation Square had its moments, but for the most part performances lacked a dynamic arc or failed to convey the complexity that artists such as Migone and Kriedler had done so elegantly. The Donkey’s Tail performance of noise ensemble with soprano was beautifully staged from a platform overlooking the audience situated below in the subterranean industrial cavity of the Trench, but other acts wavered between extreme obscurity and the plainly undergraduate.

The success of various lectures and workshops prior to and throughout the festival also varied, with James Parker’s “The Jurisprudence of Sonic Warfare” standing out as the most accomplished. The festival’s gamut was ambitious; the fact that not every act was a resounding success shouldn’t be construed as marks against it. Experimental arts practice needs room for failure, and opportunities for formal discussion of sound practice are all too rare in Australia and should be encouraged.

Migone’s mass participant piece, Hit Parade, was an undoubted success. The closing event of the Melbourne program, it pulled many of the festival’s ideas together through the primal act of banging a microphone on the ground. Migone gathered 50 volunteers of all ages to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall and armed each with a microphone and guitar amplifier. Fifty bodies lay face down bashing their microphone into the floor at their own chosen pace and intensity, one thousand times each. Sonically, Hit Parade differed depending on whether you walked around the prone performers in the hall itself (like being in a room with dozens of people knocking on the walls around you) or listening to the racket distantly from the nearby galleries. The visual aspect of the performance in concert with the sound was the most arresting aspect. Hit Parade looked like an act of mass civil disobedience; a peaceful yet doggedly single-minded protest where the only violence was sonic (and to the poor microphones). As each participant gradually reached their one thousand hits, Hit Parade lessened in density until fewer and fewer hits were sounded. All participants remained facedown; their action complete, silent but present.

The sublime bookending between Grogan’s ritualistic inauguration and Migone’s mass microphone action conceptually framed the festival’s various themes, including sound as power/violence, mass participation in performance and authorship, and voice/text as music. Liquid Architecture 2014 was always going to flirt with the danger of deconstructing until all that remained was a conceptual gruel of no real interest to anyone, but happily the festival managed to dance around this intellectual precipice without irrevocably stumbling in. Liquid Architecture pushed the boundaries of not only what could be considered music, but what constitutes sound performance. Many of us are looking forward to the challenges offered next by this reinvigorated Liquid Architecture.

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 49

© Clinton Green; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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