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Techno-shapeshifting

Laura McLean: Firstdraft and Auto Italia South East, Rogue Agents

Sydney-based Laura McLean has curated projects for West Space (Melbourne), MuseumsQuartier (Vienna), Maldives Pavilion (55th Venice Biennale), Photo Access, (Canberra) and Tin Sheds Gallery (Sydney). She has been published by Arena, Maretti Editore, Frame (Finland), HKW (Berlin) and The MIT Press. She is currently an editor of Runway Australian Experimental Art magazine.

Angela Goh, Rogue Agents Project Angela Goh, Rogue Agents Project
photo Catherine McElhone courtesy Firstdraft

A set of subversive figures populating Rogue Agents—a performance night and workshops curated by London-based artist-led organisation Auto Italia South East—sought to explore "fictional, esoteric and latent modes of self-representation" at Sydney's Firstdraft. Cyborgs, body hackers, trans identities and chthonic ones were key figures in this project to find agency in new modes of technological shapeshifting, and appeared in multifarious guises throughout the night.

Projected above the courtyard and overlooking a solid crowd drawn by the line-up of international guests and local artists, a bald, pointy-eared woman of impossible proportions walked confidently through empty space. This glamorous yet Gollum-like figure was one iteration of Ursula, a character devised by Auto Italia and CGI-rendered by Pablo Jones-Soler in three Hi-NRG EDM videos punctuating Auto Italia’s performance piece —also titled Rogue Agents—in the darkened upstairs gallery.

Here, a Lycra-clad trio recounted the total collapse of their earthly environment, "a dense mesh grid of bodies, metal, concrete and production," and their encounter with the interplanetary Ursula, who, after accessorising with body mods (her mirrored eyes a wink, perhaps, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer), takes the group to dance on Planet B, to "dissolve into a common" of disembodied bliss or, in their embodied state at Firstdraft, into the crowd to dance. Jones-Soler’s videos flashed on multiple screens as dance music burst through the space.

"RECONNECT / LOVE / BE INFINITY TOGETHER / CAN YOU FEEL IT / TRANSCEND YOUR HORIZONS / TRANSFORM YOUR NETWORK / FLOW ACHIEVED

Rogue Agents Performance, Auto Italia South East Rogue Agents Performance, Auto Italia South East
photo Catherine McElhone, courtesy Firstdraft

Unsure of the tone being sought in this mix of performance and media, this energy wasn’t successfully transferred to the crowd, who, rather than spontaneously segueing into a rave at the end, shuffled downstairs to see what else was going on. Maybe Sydney is too sunny for dystopian transcendence. Though humorous in parts, the second staging of Rogue Agents that evening was received by sections of the audience—perhaps used to the comedic strain in local performance practices—as an all-out comedy.

Auto Italia South East’s name is derived from its first location, a huge former Alfa Romeo showroom in south-east London that allowed the organisation to stage impressive large-scale projects like Auto Italia LIVE (2010-12), an online live-streamed program produced on a fully-functioning television studio set in the space, and this emphasis on high production values and collaborative, event-based projects has carried through into more recent work. At the open workshops conducted during the week, successfully bringing together project artists and others for generative discussions, the curators worked to produce a large backdrop banner for Rogue Agents depicting a female cyborg framed by fragmentary phrases developed during these conversations.

Screenshot, Linda Dement, Rogue Agents Screenshot, Linda Dement, Rogue Agents
photo Catherine McElhone courtesy Firstdraft

These phrases also became the foundation for Linda Dement’s code-based work displayed in the downstairs gallery, part of a temporary exhibition assembled for the evening, where the words flashed and echoed onscreen in an endless cycle: "faggot witch / biopolitical bitch boy /molecular fork / evoke aberration / placebo + fiction / mummy molecule / true state / pharma-penetration / some people mutate / get over it…"

In the adjacent gallery housing Spence Messih’s minimal but striking installation Slow Dance, thin copper poles reached from floor to ceiling. Any dance with these delicate structures would have to be slow and careful indeed. Skewing the assumption that the dancer would be a cis female performing her sexualised gender were empty sachets of Testogel littering the floor at the base of each pole. Developed as a testosterone replacement therapy for men, the dermal gel has been appropriated by medical and trans communities to help break the binary of cis gendering, acting, as Paul Preciado puts it, as a "molecular prosthesis" for a transgendered identity.

Slow Dance, Spence Messih, Rogue Agents Project, Firstdraft Slow Dance, Spence Messih, Rogue Agents Project, Firstdraft
photo Laura McLean

On the basketball courts behind Firstdraft, a different display of queer athleticism played out in a surreal and beguiling battle and display of strength between Sydney dancers Angela Goh and Bhenji Ra. Strapped into climbing harnesses over stubbies and with Pippi Longstocking braids, black lipstick, large pointed ears (Ursula again?) and spray-on tans betrayed by discarded bikini tops, Goh and Ra scaled the fences and basketball hoops with ropes and carabiners before performing what can only be described as a choreographed rope-jumping sequence with BDSM undertones. With their mobile phones blaring competing dance FM stations, the soundtrack evoked a gym or building site, often hyper-masculine zones where bodies are pushed to peak performance. To finish, Goh and Ra came together and held bodybuilding poses for the crowd, relishing the gaze of the circle surrounding them.

Rogue Agents was Firstdraft’s first international exchange, supported by all three levels of government (and project funding from the Keir Foundation). It's satisfying to see the organisation growing evermore ambitious in its programming. With the now proven capacity to facilitate such an exchange of ideas, practices and working models, we can look forward to seeing who they'll next bring from over the horizon.

Bhenji Ra and Angela Goh, Rogue Agents Project Bhenji Ra and Angela Goh, Rogue Agents Project
photo Catherine McElhone courtesy Firstdraft


Firstdraft: Rogue Agents, a project by Auto Italia South East in collaboration, artists Holly Childs, Linda Dement, Angela Goh, Mette Hammer Juhl + Lorenzo Tebano, Spence Messih, Bhenji Ra, Victoria Sin, Pablo Jones-Soler; performances also featured Veronica Baric, André Shannon, Erica Englert, Athena Thebus, Jana Hawkins-Anderson; Firstdraft, Sydney, 28 March-1 April

Sydney-based Laura McLean has curated projects for West Space (Melbourne), MuseumsQuartier (Vienna), Maldives Pavilion (55th Venice Biennale), Photo Access, (Canberra) and Tin Sheds Gallery (Sydney). She has been published by Arena, Maretti Editore, Frame (Finland), HKW (Berlin) and The MIT Press. She is currently an editor of Runway Australian Experimental Art magazine.

RealTime issue #138 April-May 2017 pg.

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

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