info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
play:ground play:ground
photo Irene Rincon
IN 2008 I SAW A LOT. ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY EIGHT LIVE PERFORMANCES BY MY RECKONING, NOT INCLUDING LIVE MUSIC. AND I SAW A LOT OF KIDS ALONG THE WAY. I SAW KIDS SHOT OR GARROTTED, DRENCHED IN BLOOD (THE WOMEN OF TROY; THANKS BARRIE KOSKY) OR SCREAMING THEIR INJUSTICES AT ME. I ALSO SAW KIDS BARING RICTUS-LIKE SMILES AS THEY BEGAN PAINFUL BALLET CAREERS, AND KIDS WITH NO DREAMS OF STARDOM RELUCTANTLY DRAGGED ONSTAGE DURING FAMILY SHOWS. I SAW ADULTS ACTING AS CHILDREN, BUT THAT’S RARELY INTERESTING.

Maybe I’m presuming, but I’m pretty sure we were all kids once. I don’t have any children but I think childhood is a fine subject for any artistic worker. This opinion piece—and that’s all it is—is not really a comment on the Bill Henson debate, though it will necessarily intersect with the murky issues that case brought to public attention. What interests me here is less about the depiction of children in art and more about their participation.

Last year I attended a performance directed by a VCA masters student entitled play:ground. Claudia Escobar created the work as a response to the child soldiers who exist around the world, including in her homeland of Colombia. The piece was performed in a twilight-bound park by primary school children who engaged in mock battles, were terrorised or recruited by sinister authority figures, and turned upon each other in savage fashion as they became inured to the reality of violence.

For these child performers, as for real child soldiers, killing bore no more reality than a videogame or schoolyard playfight. This was the point of play:ground, in part. But the spectacle of pre-adolescent kids riddling each other with machinegun bullets or emerging from the trees covered in the sackcloth hoods of terrorists and toting fake semi-automatic weapons was authentically disturbing for its adult audience. An effective and deeply provocative evocation of a very real contemporary horror, yes, but also more unsettling in its involvement of real children playing out—and thus vicariously participating in—the problem.

Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy was an equally violent spectacle. Its unending cacophony of ear-splitting gunshots was either traumatic or numbing, depending on your response. And near the work’s climax, as dictated by Euripides himself, the figure of a dead young boy appears, carried in a bloody cardboard box. As with play:ground, I doubt that the child in question was adversely affected by the performance. I played dead when I was a kid.

But I’m surprised that the spectacle of violence towards children doesn’t raise hackles in the way that sexuality does. I’m sure it’s something to do with our troubled notion of consent. Children are assumed (legally at least) to be unable to make informed, adult decisions regarding certain aspects of their lives, and laws and safeguards are in place to make those decisions for them. I have no problem with this. But the Henson affair barely touched upon a more challenging aspect of this system of protection: is a child’s right to self-determination also taken out of their hands in the realm of representation? That is, can an adult decide whether and how a child’s image may be presented in the public sphere?

An Anne Geddes calendar featuring babies in pot-plants or dressed as watermelons is a commercial goldmine, but how would the same buying public feel about similar shots featuring people suffering dementia or Alzheimer’s? Not so cute, sure. But ethically on the same level. Former UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar has suggested that “a society is judged…by the quality of life which it is able to assure for its weakest members.” I wonder if that concept can be extended to the rights we accord others to control their self-representation.

For several years I tutored tertiary students in a subject on art and censorship. Every new class arrived with a surprisingly regular set of opinions on the topic— censorship was unequivocally wrong, and freedom of speech was an essential component of our culture. Western liberal democracy is founded on this rhetoric, though a little nudging suggests limits most people would agree with. Censorship might not be so bad when it comes to child pornography, religious vilification or racial discrimination, for instance. And indeed, if we broaden our notion of censorship from the simple state-imposed variety to the more organic forms of censorship—the way we censor our own thoughts and comments, or the community censorship that exerts an influence on the discursive relations amongst any social group—the black ban on capital-C censorship becomes more muddled.

And what irked me most about the Henson debate and its offshoots was that a most pernicious form of censorship was exercised by even the artist’s most strident defenders. What was absent from discussions was the voices of those in question, for whom we’re all happy to speak. Children simply do not have a public voice in the way that a mature white male artist or a newspaper columnist or a prominent politician has. The censorship of a child’s voice is not legally enshrined but it’s no less institutionalised. And I suppose my concern here stems from the fact that despite all the kids I saw onstage last year, I’ve never had a sense that anyone is particularly interested in speaking to, rather than for, a demographic whose minority status stems from age alone.

The one exception could have been Tim Etchells’ That Night Follows Day, which appeared at the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Here, a few dozen children of various ages chanted a litany of complaints to their audience: “You teach us that in the world there are bad men/ That monsters are not real/ That words are only words/ That the shadows are nothing to be frightened of.”

My sister has recently been working on a documentary called Eleven, which features interviews with 11-year-olds from around the world. Her theory is that kids at that age are no longer children but not yet adults. The results are compelling. Her subjects speak about sexuality, terrorism, cold fusion technology, romance, action movies and politics, often in the same sentence. They are thoughtful and generous, mostly startled that someone would care to hear their opinions on things that are normally considered the discursive province of grown-ups alone.

I recommended That Night Follows Day to my sister, who attended a showing followed by a public discussion of the piece. She was disappointed to learn, as I had, that the text itself had been written by adults. A producer explained that the thoughts of the juvenile participants wouldn’t have produced the effective, impactful political statement which the work ended up delivering. They would have talked about rainbows and boyfriends. I have to disagree.

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 15

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

Back to top