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brisbane festival 2010 - under the radar


the underworld of performance

douglas leonard: under the radar, brisbane festival


Birdmachine, Ivan Thorley Birdmachine, Ivan Thorley
photo courtesy of the artist
UNDER THE RADAR HAS EARNED A PERMANENT PLACE IN THE BRISBANE FESTIVAL AS A CURATED PROGRAM OF ALTERNATIVE, ARTIST-INITIATED WORKS DRAWN NATIONWIDE. FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR IT APPEARED IN THE MAIN PROGRAM WHICH PERHAPS ACCOUNTED FOR AN EXPANDED AUDIENCE INTERESTED IN CONTEMPORARY PRACTICES AND LONGER IN THE TOOTH THAN LAST YEAR’S MORE PAROCHIAL AUDIENCE OF DRAMA STUDENTS, SUPPORTERS AND FRIENDS (I’M TOLD THAT THERE WERE FAR FEWER SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS PROGRAM FROM QUEENSLAND THIS YEAR). SELF-CONTAINED IN THE MULTI-PURPOSE PRECINCT OF METRO ARTS, UNDER THE RADAR CONSTITUTED ITS OWN DISCREET, ATMOSPHERIC FESTIVAL OF PROVOCATIVE IDEAS AND INTIMATE, ENGROSSING WORKS.

birdmachine

On the outer edge of R&D into performance practices, the Birdmachine created by technologist/animateur Ivan Thorley and sonic artist Frederic Reuben was an animatronic performance installation that explored “the vitality and ability of movement to create difference and meaning between ‘forms of life’.” The installation consisted of a sparse (perhaps in the sense of last of the species) bird colony that performed ritualised, choreographed movements. Two tussocks were sites for a mating dance, the sex difference indicated by a stub of dowling, the atmosphere that of a silent rainforest until the microphones angled for interactive responses were utilised and triggered birdcalls. This was the most fragile, funny and endearing encounter of Under the Radar, one that enticed you, in the absence of narrative, to render your own meaning, to become aware of your movements as you bobbed up and down at the microphones, circled for a better look, moved in for closer inspection and away again as you shuffled round the space. We were an audience machine. These autonomous simulacra were deliberately tacky, daggy cloth puppets shaped from coat hangers with four elementary appendages to suggest flight and scuttling across a forest floor. Yet this bizarre assemblage conveyed the full bathos of Charles Darwin’s admission, “The suffering of the lower animals throughout time is more than I can bear.”

nostalgia

Also in the extreme R&D category was Nostalgia, a collaboration between three well-known Brisbane emerging artists: director/sound designer Matt O’Neill and performers Kieran Law and Ron Seeto. This work was intended to demonstrate that “different experiences and approaches were still capable in performance and, furthermore, that they could be realised and articulated with only the meanest of resources and the most rudimentary of skills.” Nostalgia’s concerns with movement relationships between bodies, the environment and a technologically produced soundscape echoed Birdmachine to an eerie extent. The piece began with the two performers immaculately miming industrial process work, a metaphor perhaps for the level of reproduction involved in the discipline of rehearsing and polishing a performance to the level of marketable product. This metamorphosed into free-form dance improvisation that was carried on over such a long time, to the point of physical exhaustion, that one ceased to be embarrassed by the lack of dance training and instead, dropping expectations, becoming fascinated by the performers’ monstrous prodigality and endurance. At the end, the audience was invited onstage for a free-for-all dance. Easily dismissed as self-indulgence, I was impressed nonetheless by the generosity of spirit in Nostalgia and the way the company re-envisaged community interaction with the arts and refused to be ghettoised. I only wish they’d been brave enough to perform in the City Mall.

brightness

It took a foolhardy Irishman to do that deed. In Brightness (funded by the Irish Arts Council), a modern version of an Aisling, or vision poem, the interventionist artist, Denis Buckley, presented poems and writings in Gaelic and English that were sometimes pre-recorded, sometimes read aloud, but went mostly unheeded in the gaderene rush of late-night shoppers or were drowned out by blasts of music emanating from Hooters, a strip club on the Mall. Buckley took this in his stride—he deliberately chose the location—as he performed against the incongruent projection of an Irish sky crisscrossed by plumes of jets carrying the latest wave of emigration caused by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. In a formal suit, minus the jacket and bardically arresting, he grandiloquently called for the restoration of Irish culture as a cure for the country’s economic woes. Buckley was inspired by the Muse in a medieval poem who upbraids the poet to forsake his arty ways for the sake of Ireland in terms that reminded me of the irreverent slanging match between Kirsty MacColl and Shane McGowan in the Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York.” It was Buckley’s sincerity that convinced this fellow Celt, with its perspective on place that seems only shared by the Indigenous first culture in this country.

Last Man to Die Last Man to Die
courtesy the aritsts
the last man to die

The two installation performances that most impacted on a richly textured, deeply poetic level were the technologically sophisticated The Last Man to Die and the noir moodiness created in Of the Causes of Wonderful Things. (Unfortunately I didn’t see Neon Toast, but I heard great reports.) When I said to the crew of The Last Man to Die that the work reminded me of the library scenario in a David Tennant episode of Dr Who, they told me I was on the money. Normally I’m averse to multimedia overkill, but here the futuristic setting warranted, and vindicated, its skilful use, creating a subtly retro aesthetic to match the artists’ retrograde view of the immortality industry. Black and white time-lapse video of the production was projected on the back wall so that you recognised yourself ‘back then.’ As the hard working central performer, Hanna Cormick was costumed as a sexy cover girl from a 1950s sci-fi magazine. Everything was accommodated in the glow of a black and white film aura before the invention of technicolour; and each episode returned at the whim of an audience member placing a card in the alloted slot. We were in Borges territory, caught up in a maze of fine writing by Peter Butz and fine acting by Cormick with whom, as sadistic collaborators with technology, we were forced to repeat in an endless loop. Immortality.

of the causes of wonderful things

In Of The Causes of Wonderful Things performed and created by Talya Rubin we were in the noirish milieu of the 1940s and 50s, given a surreal aspect as the world of the dead merged with the living. This was a pure performer’s piece, and Rubin was in absolute control of her material. I particularly loved the slow, patient pace with which she drew us in. Rubin played all the characters, women and men, in riveting style as well as manipulating light, sound and sinister puppet vignettes onstage. Five children had disappeared while in the custody of their aunt, and a police hunt was on. The implicit conjecture was that they had been murdered and buried. An air of suspicion cloaked everyone, and, although there were hints, events remained a mystery to the end. The children’s natural mother who had seemingly abandoned them for a Latin lover is pure noir—torn, fragile and chain-smoking next to a single onstage lamp. The men—the Police Chief who falls for the aunt, the Latin lover and the aunt’s neighbour, a Japanese Bonsai lover—were portrayed by Rubin with, I suspect, undeclared humour.

With her own suspicions about the children’s fate, the aunt precariously attempted to keep sane in the world above ground, but was assailed by an elaborate symbology of underground motifs that gradually absorbed her. These were an assortment of found objects that atmospherically conveyed fragments of the children’s own story. Sometimes their voices conversed hollowly as if from a lonely grave. A cabaret MC of the underworld introduced a woman struggling dumbly to speak the silence of a lifetime in an anguished manner that was painfully, and artfully, prolonged. Another act from the realm of the dead involved the use of an enormous head of a donkey with an articulated jaw straight out of Goya.

the raven project

There was another work in the same vein that was lighter in tone, less integrated, but in the end as insinuatingly sinister as Alice in Wonderland. The Raven Project invited us into a parlour where we were offered tea and biscuits by white-suited Jeff Stein and black-suited Frank Mainoo making up a reticent ‘Gilbert and George’ pair. We were treated to a deliberately fumbling presentation with video illustrations of the ‘blot’ that allegedly appears on the horizon in Hitchcock’s movies and has ominous, even apocalyptic connotations. Halfway through we assisted in removing kitsch paintings from the wall to reveal peepholes through which we would espy the famous shower scene from Psycho. Instead, an alternative reality was revealed where we dimly recognised our vanished hosts in their true guise as demonic, hierophantic figures. They returned in their quietly polite mode to continue the lecture, but the orbit of our world had changed. I was reminded that I’ve never really trusted the bourgeoisie.


2010 Brisbane Festival: Under The Radar: Birdmachine, creator Ivan Thorley, sonic artist Frederic Reuben; Nostalgia, creator and director Matt O’Neill, creators and performers Kieran Law, Ron Seeto; Denis Buckley, Brightness; The Last Man to Die, creators, performers Hanna Cormick, Benjamin Forster, Charles Martin in collaboration with writer Peter Butz; Of the Causes of Wonderful Things, creator, performer Talya Rubin; The Raven Project, creators, performers Jeff Stein, Frank Mainoo; Metro Arts, Brisbane, Sept 5-25

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 3

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

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