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welsh border crossing

theron schmidt at experimentica 2007, cardiff

Theron Schmidt is a writer and performer based in London. He was writer in residence at Experimentica 07.

Tracing Shadows, Helena Hunter Tracing Shadows, Helena Hunter
IN 1971, THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT OF CARDIFF, WALES, AGREED TO A BOLD EXPERIMENT. AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO CONSTRUCTING NEW BUILDINGS TO HOUSE THE ARTS, THEY ACCEPTED THE PROPOSAL FROM LOCAL ARTISTS TO ALLOW THEM TO OCCUPY AN OLD HIGH SCHOOL ON THE WESTERN, MORE INDUSTRIAL SIDE OF TOWN. THIRTY-SIX YEARS LATER, CHAPTER ARTS HAS EVOLVED FROM ITS COMMUNAL, ARTIST-RUN ROOTS INTO A MORE PUBLICLY ACCESSIBLE COMPOUND OF THEATRES, CINEMAS, STUDIOS FOR HIRE, AND AN ART GALLERY, BUT IT RETAINS A CLOSE CONNECTION TO THE CITY AND A PARTICULARLY WELSH FLAVOUR OF ARTISTIC EXPERIMENTATION.

This commitment is demonstrated by Chapter’s annual Experimentica festival, now in its seventh year, where the emphasis on promoting a wide range of artistic practices is one of its real strengths. At this year’s festival, the week-long program brought together sonic arts, film, performance, movement and installation. The work seemed to take over the whole building, with the former classrooms becoming sites for examination and testing of received forms of performance such as puppetry, cabaret, and installation.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the work at Experimentica which is most markedly cross-disciplinary also tends to be addressing ideas of Welshness. Sonic arts collective Gwrando create a shrine to lost Welsh music, mixing the cracked and distant sound of dozens of discarded Welsh language records with live singing and film. The effect is a rich evocation of the way in which our relationship with the past is fragile and fragmented—as is our experience of presence. In Cerdded Adre (The Long Walk Home), Rowan O’Neill combines historical lecture and autobiography with fragments of performance, using playful self-reflection to both celebrate and critique the layers of fakery involved in performing national identity. In On Running, Gareth Llyr and Louise Ritchie also work with the tension between description and event, combining improvised dance with handheld video to explore how an experience of the landscape around them can be brought into the contained space of the theatre.

With their crowd-pleasing work Cabba Hey, performance duo Mr and Mrs Clark discover a neat trick with regard to expectation and experimentation. By framing their performance within the cabaret format they invite an audience to react to their work as comedy, and this allows the Clarks to be as experimental as they want without ever worrying about being labelled pretentious. They start out with bags over their heads, and in a series of musical skits strip them off only to reveal or assume more and more masks. Disavowing seriousness, they can actually be increasingly serious: upon closer study, their piss-take choreography is more choreography than piss-take (including a faithful reproduction of the Martha Graham technique). When they perform a ventriloquist act with Mrs Clark as live dummy, it is both absurdly hilarious and heartbreakingly earnest, a balance that has everything to do with painstaking attention to the details of their performance.

Experimentation involves looking back to the past as much as looking forward to the unknown, and the Clark’s Cabba Hey could be seen as a knowing reflection on early 20th century Dadaism. But if Dadaist cabaret was insurrectionary theatre, then this is insurrectionary cabaret, in that what makes it pleasurable is its more and more clever deferral of pleasure. And so, one of the Clark’s closing numbers does literally what the Dadaists attempted metaphorically, giving the finger to its audience—and the audience loves it.

Puppetry doesn’t often find a place in experimental theatre festivals, but Jeong Geum-Hyung’s duet with a vacuum cleaner is a reminder of how fantastical, magical and disturbing a form it can be. The long hose of the vacuum cleaner has a man’s head at its end, the gaping suction hole his mouth. Throughout, this face appears to be the only animated thing in the room, with the rest of Jeong’s body completely lifeless and inert. In a reversal of roles, the face-object appears to manipulate Jeong’s body to serve its masculine desires: lifting her to her feet, rolling her across the floor, and ultimately using her as an object of its own bizarre and disturbing sexuality. The effect should be comical, and at times is, but it is not the comedy of the absurd but that of the absolutely truthful and perfectly executed. Jeong’s work addresses issues of control and manipulation and of animation and death—exactly the realm of puppetry, but Jeong’s brilliant performance is a reminder of how exciting it can be.

Joost Nieuwenburg’s Common Sense combines the welcoming experience of installation with the arduousness of durational performance. A one metre high by three metre square box, contains Nieuwenburg, a stove, a sink and several kilos of onions. Only able to crawl, he peels and chops the onions for four hours, adding them to a pot which is always cooking. A swimming pool ladder at one end of the box invites us to climb on top, from where we can see the artist through a small vented porthole placed directly above the simmering pot. Another small window on one of the side panels offers a different vantage point. The smell and the heat escaping these windows are overpowering, as is the image of Nieuwenburg sweating and crying inside. As the day wore on, the darkening room became illuminated only by the glow from within the box, and there was an exquisite contrast between the warm peacefulness of the room, the aesthetic pleasure of the shining, meticulously crafted object, and the infernal labour going on inside.

The final performance of the festival, Helena Hunter’s Tracing Shadows, feels like it would be at home within the live art genre, with its use of intense imagery to address the material presence of the body—but it’s an experience entirely mediated by the mechanisms of the theatre. Hunter employs a veritable arsenal of theatrical tricks: projections and pulleys, carefully calibrated lights and sound effects, and darkness as cover for theatrical sleight-of-hand with which to surprise the blinded audience. But its central concern is Hunter’s barely visible body, her naked back twisting and straining in the faintest of light. In brief glimpses through the blackness we see blue ribbon pouring onto her body, a child’s dress appearing in the darkness, and Hunter’s body writhing and breaking in an attempt to fit into the impossibly small dress. These elements create a fairytale world that combines the seductive and the destructive, the childlike and the adult, desire and the artificiality of desire. Like fairy tales themselves, Tracing Shadows relies entirely upon the contrivances of its formal conventions, and at the same time, it is eerie and compelling.

The range of work presented at Experimentica allowed for intriguing explorations of cross-disciplinarity, Welshness and the dynamic tension between artifice and authenticity. Above all the festival was most commendable for its genuine commitment to experimentation. This was an environment where untested work could be tried and where artists could talk openly with each other and their audiences about the challenges they were addressing. It’s rare to find a place that values process as much as product, but it’s clear that experimentation has a welcome home in Cardiff.


Experimentica 07, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales, Oct 16-21, 2007, www.chapter.org

Theron Schmidt is a writer and performer based in London. He was writer in residence at Experimentica 07.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 33

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

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