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This year’s Junction Festival was an invitation to listen: carefully, intimately, deeply and playfully. Whether via the beats and breath of the city’s artists in the walking experience of Enroute or the iPod-directed audio-virtual reality in the physical theatre performance Blindscape, deep listening in this festival was rewarded with unexpected shared intimacies of place, body and mind.

Even the listening (and grooving) at the raucous Junc Room, a big top tent at the heart of this much anticipated winter’s-end event, invited a shambolic kind of intimacy among the multi generations and tribes who call Northern Tasmania home. Now in its fourth year, Junction wears its contemporary arts/community ‘glocal’ cred very well indeed.

And so it was a little disheartening that one of the headline international acts in ‘the art of sonic culture’ for this festival wasn’t all it might have been. Dogs and Boats and Airplanes Children’s Choir was a world premiere collaborative artwork performed by a children’s choir of 100 voices. Conceived by Toronto conceptual artist, Bill Burns (see interview RT116) with artistic partner and cultural researcher Krys Verrall (under the name Big Pond Small Fish), the central intent—to capture a “radical banality” where ordinary things tell extraordinary stories through sound—had much going for it, especially given the delicious potential for rupture and irony in the cultural and literal frame of Launceston’s majestic proscenium arch Princess Theatre. Dogs and Boats was billed as provocative, edgy, ‘is this art?’ kind of stuff. And what better collaborators to imagine playing at such edges than 8 to 12 year olds who know all about dogs, boats and airplanes—if not in reality then in rich fantasy lives.

To devise such a large-scale multi-participant, multi-layered work with over one hundred children in just six weeks was logistically a feat in itself. And for that, Burns and Verrall with the students of four Launceston schools, choral director Amanda Hodder and choreographer Emma Porteous are to be applauded. The participants engaged in drawing and writing their own stories as a precursor to creating the libretto in that time. Themes of absence and loss co-mingled with adventuresome snapshot narratives of dogs and clotheslines and happy fishing trips. In performance, small clusters of students conveyed these snapshots in spoken word with the rest of the choir—traditionally positioned in a bank on stage—dedicating their choral voices to reverberating these stories in sonic play.

But in a country renowned for producing internationally leading works for and by young people, Dogs and Boats served to remind us of the crucial value of time in generating genuine artistic collaboration with young people. For while we were presented with insights into children’s lives in Dogs and Boats there was little sense of a collective energy having developed among the performers on stage. While the sounds of dogs barking and mechanical engine whining communicated well enough as a quirky and abstracted focus for a choir, the novelty soon wore off when we realized there was very little way in for us as audience to share in the listening. Except near the end, when we were invited to throw paper airplanes toward the stage.

The choir and audience erupted and for a split second the frames of performance were distorted in interesting ways. Was this the edgy bit promised? This production is the result of a curious and brave artistic turn for Burns whose internationally renowned gallery work has focused on animals and civil life. Burns’ recent studio-recorded sound art on the same theme of dogs/boats/planes in Toronto was a sharp pairing of kid voices and their curated soundscapes that conveyed some exquisite conceptual play between profound and not-so-profound domesticity. So perhaps the performative meeting of sonic and visual cultures in this piece—Burns’ next step with his artistic work—was not quite as brave or committed enough? Like the “scream when you see the villain” style of children’s theatre of old, my young companions and I couldn’t help but feel the paper airplanes thing was a little too token in a project that held such promise. Then again, isn’t that exactly what festivals are about? The space in which to take risks? We’re glad Burns chose to do so here.

Junction Arts Festival 2013, Bill Burns and Big Pond Small Fish, Dogs and Boats and Airplanes Children’s Choir, The Princess Theatre, Launceston, 6 Sept

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 38

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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