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Box of Birds, De Quincey Co Box of Birds, De Quincey Co
photo Lucy Parakhina
Across 30 years Performance Space has mutated in the hands of visionary artistic directors, each with their own agenda, but each sustaining commitment to the “obdurately ephemeral,” as an early manifesto put it, to providing a home for innovative performance and visual arts and their hybrids.

Leafing through the pages of RealTime from 1994, our first year, Performance Space’s history seems too vast to contemplate. It had already been operating since 1980 and Virginia Baxter and I had been performing there as Open City since 1987. What Performance Space offered beyond its vision was an enduring sense of community and continuity embodied in special events, conferences, workshops and parties (not least the celebrations for exiting artistic directors). In this community individuals collaborated on projects and some moved productively between performance companies associated with Performance Space or beyond, to Sidetrack Performance Group, Stalker, Marrugeku and others.

The standout shows across the years were often big works: Angharad Wynne-Jones’ unforgettable action-packed yet contemplative Sydney Harbour event Hydrofictions; Performance Space conferences with international guests, not least the one focused on food, Progressive Dinner; visiting artists Guillermo Gomez Pena and Robert Pacitti’s creations of large-scale works in collaboration with local performers; the queer-driven, sometimes hilariously shocking cLUB bENT (anus-baring dance; urine-spraying trapeze work); the Antistatic festivals pushing at the boundaries of dance; LiveWorks’ early embrace of the burgeoning Live Art scene; and Tess de Quincey’s and Joey van Ruigrok’s transformations of Carriageworks’ vast interiors. Or big in a different way—Nigel Kellaway’s This Most Wicked Body, a 240-hour durational work at the old Cleveland Street Performance Space with restaurateur Gay Bilson feeding Kellaway and one audience member a night with a fine meal.

Each year has had a host of works of small to medium scale representative of and vital to the Performance Space ethos: performances, creations and curations by many individuals—Deborah Pollard, Barbara Campbell, Derek Kreckler, Penny Thwaite, Julie Anne Long, Rakini Devi, Kate Champion, Victoria Spence, Nikki Heywood, Julianne Pierce, Denis Beaubois, Tess De Quincey, Rosalind Crisp, Alan Schacher (Gravity Research Institute), Vicki Van Hout, Jeff Stein and many more. Then there have been several generations of performance groups: All Out Ensemble, One Extra, The Sydney Front, Russell Dumas’ Dance Exchange, Entr’Acte, Open City, Frumpus, Legs on the Wall, Gravity Feed, Post Arrivalists, De Quincey Co, version 1.0, Branch Nebula, The Fondue Set, My Darling Patricia, Matt Prest & Clare Britton and Team MESS. There was also a wealth of visiting artists, including among many others, Nico Lathouris, Margaret Cameron, Jenny Kemp and Canberra’s Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. Performance Space has also been a key player in the national hybrid arts laboratories Time_Place_Space and Indigilab, which has become Indigispace, yielding productions from Aboriginal artists in 2014, at a time when PS will have its own Indigenous producer.

When I meet them, Bec Dean and Jeff Khan, current directors of Performance Space, are in a state of high excitement—great bundles of the printed program for the organisation’s 30th birthday, You’re History, to be celebrated in November, fill their admin office in Carriageworks, where the company resides as a major tenant. We slip into the bulging archive room to talk about the pair’s inheritance of Performance Space tradition and as shapers of its future.

Bec Dean, Jeff Khan Bec Dean, Jeff Khan
photo Nic Dorward

Dean points out that both she and Khan had come from Perth, “which had a strong connection with Performance Space through Alan Vizents [initiator of Media Space in Perth] who subsequently became the director of Performance Space. I became aware of his practice through Sarah Miller who came from running Performance Space 1989-93 to be director of PICA in 1993.” Both worked at PICA, Dean as a curator and Khan at the front desk. “Through Sarah, Jeff and I had an arm’s length understanding of Performance Space.” Khan moved to Melbourne, becoming artistic director of two very successful Next Wave festivals, 2008 and 2010. He recalls, “the evidence of the national reach of Performance Space was clear. As soon as I started at Next Wave we had a big focus on site-specific and interdisciplinary work and in non-traditional venues, so Performance Space was an obvious partner in Fiona Winning’s time as director (1999-2008).” Dean became a curator at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, “hung out at PS as a punter,” and was then employed by Fiona Winning as Associate Director at Performance Space and continued to work with the subsequent director Daniel Brine (2008-2011) in whose time Jeff Khan was to program performance.

Continuity & community

I ask the two how palpable is a sense of continuity with the Performance Space of the 80s and 90s. “There are artists from that time who are still associated with the space,” says Dean, “although the relationship might be different, while the field has diversified and a lot of new artists have come into the frame.” Both feel that there is a persistent sense that “the community is still strongly around us. They also point to intergenerational connections forged by Clare Grant [ex-Sydney Front] at UNSW and Sarah Miller and Chris Ryan [ex-Sydney Front; version 1.0] at the University of Wollongong from which Team MESS and Appelspiel have emerged.

Rosalind Crisp, Tess de Quincey and Nigel Kellaway, who feature prominently in the 30th birthday celebrations, have performed at Performance Space across two to three decades. From 1987 to 1994 Kellaway was with The Sydney Front and in 1997 formed The opera Project. De Quincey worked with Stuart Lynch in the 90s before moving on to solo performances and the formation of De Quincey Co. Rosalind Crisp’s early works were premiered at Performance Space where she also initiated the Antistatic dance event and later relocated to France to successfully develop her d a n s e methodology, still appearing from time to time at Performance Space ever since. These artists are exemplars (among many others) of a commitment to craft and exploration identified with Performance Space.

Performance Space seasons have led, says Dean, to a closer relationship between artists and a much larger audience than the old Performance Space had. The seasons have become intensive mini-festivals with a great sense of occasion, each with a broad thematic focus and much discussion enabled by Daniel Brine’s addition of the Club House concept to programming. Dean says that the interdisciplinarity of Performance Space and the seasons allows “conversations between performers and visual artists to happen within one frame.” “Audiences cross over too, which nuances the program,” adds Khan.


I ask Dean and Khan what drives their directorship. Dean refers to Performance Space founder Mike Mullins’ (1980-85, see RT95, p38) focus on “new forms and new ways, and a commitment to looking outside the frames of reference that you know. We totally take this forward into the future.” Khan agrees: “It’s been Performance Space’s great strength across 30 years and it gives us a very clear vision as to what it can be in the future—that it’s a process that’s led by artists.” Under their own directorship, says Khan, “that means we’ve been focusing a lot of our programming energy on site-specific work and the dramatic increase in the number of artists wanting to work in that context. Nationally there isn’t another institution that champions that kind of work on an ongoing basis.”

As well, Dean feels that Performance Space “has continued to be socially aware and politically engaged although it might not be as forthright as it was when Mike started because he had to fight to establish Performance Space.” However, as well as mounting the highly successful SEXES program this year, in 2012 it reaffirmed its long-term commitment to queer practice by activating the Stephen Cummings Bequest as a residency-mentorship program for performance practitioners. Khan notes that as part of the birthday celebrations, choreographer and dancer Dean Walsh “will be looking back at the transformation he experienced as a performer in cLUB bENT, through queer language and drawing parallels with his current investigation which is all about marine life.”

An embodying birthday

What, I ask, are you celebrating above all? Dean says, “We want people to feel they embody Performance Space. It’s a celebration of us that is also of them.” Khan says, “We’re looking to the next 30 years so we want to emphasise that ours is a living history. People from the 80s and 90s are still our colleagues. This is not a dusty archive.”

The ambitious birthday program has an impressive line-up of talent that reaches across the space’s 30 years including The Directors’ Cuts, presentations (a night each) by the former Performance Space directors plus one for the late Alan Vizents (with Barbara Campbell, Derek Kreckler, Annette Tessoriero and Amanda Stewart presenting the late artist’s performance texts) and a screening of footage of Post Arrivalists’ infamous 1994 work Lock Up. 30 Ways with Time and Space features free performance scattered through Carriageworks and the 12 days of You’re History has performances from Paul Capsis, Apelspiel, Vicki Van Hout, Mike Parr, Jon Rose & Lucas Abela, Rakini Devi, Aunty Rhoda Dixon Grovenor & Nadeena Dixon, Lauren Brincat & Bree Van Reyk, and Matt Prest & Clare Britton.

Brown Council will present their ongoing tribute to a mythical Australian feminist performance artist “who disappeared in 1981.” Alex White and Emma Ramsay will celebrate the passing of analog television broadcasting, featuring a large cast of artists including Lara Thoms, Joel Stern, Pia van Gelder and Wrong Solo (Agatha Gothe-Snape & Brian Fuata). The opera Project’s Brief Synopsis is a creation by Nigel Kellaway, Heidrun Löhr and Katia Molino—“sumptuous music with the cool allure of France’s filmic Nouvelle Vague.” De Quincey Co’s Box of Birds, taking audiences deep into Carriageworks, will doubtless reconfigure our sense of the building. Rosalind Crisp’s danse (3)—sans spectacle, performed with European associates Celine Debyser and Max Fossati, will refuse to be categorised in its unpredictable unfolding.

There’ll be much reflection on Performance Space’s past over the 12 days of You’re History, but true to the organisation’s vision, the works are all new, sitting side by side with the memories that will be lovingly and deservedly conjured by some of the Director’s Cuts, although Nick Tsoutas (1984-86) promises not “a night of memories, but a night to remember,” Angharad Wynne-Jones (1994-97) will create A Parliament of Animals “realigning ourselves to our planet and ecosystem” and Daniel Brine will present 30 one-minute clips of artists in a toast to the next 30 years.

The ironic titling of the 30th birthday celebration as “You’re History” is therefore apt. Collectively, as artists and audiences, we constitute a living Performance Space archive; but if we only live out its past, the art it nurtures will truly be history.

Performance Space, 30th Birthday, You’re History, Carriageworks, Sydney 20 Nov-1 Dec;

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 24-26

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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