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Stepping just out of the frame

Malcolm Whittaker: Junction Arts Festival

Sydney-based Malcolm Whittaker works as an interdisciplinary artist, writer, performer and is a PhD candidate at The University of Wollongong’s School of Creative Arts. For the Junction Arts Festival he presented My Best Friend, a walk in memory of beloved departed pet dogs.

Cypher, Nick Power, Junction Arts Festival Cypher, Nick Power, Junction Arts Festival
photo Melde Ruyter
In an early interaction with a local, I ask what he is most looking forward to seeing at Launceston’s Junction Arts Festival in 2014. As we flick through the program guide together he remarks, “This isn’t really an arts festival. It’s more an events festival.” He’s instantly a little embarrassed at his apparent ignorance about what constitutes ‘art.’ What he had picked up on though is at the centre of the curatorial vision of the festival.

The artworks in the program this year were events. Each project possessed only a subtle artistic frame around an encounter between artist and audience. The works were not just for an audience but also made with and between them. That is the nature of art as event. It is a rupture in which people are necessary. It actively privileges the public, both their gaze and their presence. To borrow a line that I love to quote, but cannot remember where from: “It is not about something, it is something.”

Events took forms that ranged from script-reading to guided walk to dance battle to workshop to party-for-one. They were situated in a range of places—theatre, gallery, shop-front, warehouse, function room, park, car park, river and other public sites across town. The event-ness of these projects offered the potential to invite Launceston audiences to displace their typical status as subordinate to an artist and their artwork and instead take on their own agency and active interpretation within the established framework.

Nassim Soleimanpour, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

There was palpable excitement in the audience of largely conservative local theatre subscribers upon entering White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. We walked through the grand auditorium of The Princess Theatre and onto the stage. A meta-stage had been demarcated in white electrical tape, around which the audience sat in rows of chairs. Theatricality in terms of lighting and sound is renounced, and the set is simply a ladder, a table, and two glasses of water. A local actor enters carrying an envelope. He opens it and removes the script for the show. It is the first time he’s seen the text. He reads it to us.

The performance focuses on the presence of the audience, co-opting members into acting out scenes and noting biographical information on the Iranian writer and his life which we are both removed from and largely ignorant of. There is a joyous charm to be had in experiencing the actor attempting to fulfill what is stipulated in his script. Ultimately the work is a confrontation with the words he speaks: words via which the playwright has ‘travelled’ to Launceston, in order to conjure the performance through this intermediary. Everyone present is unified through the event of the script-reading. We have moved beyond a representational theatre experience and into the theatrical experience of an event. Because of this, a collective voice of the audience takes over the work in the concluding moments of the show. Despite what feels like a far-fetched provocation in the text, the majority in attendance band together to prevent the actor from drinking the glasses of water that have been said to be poisoned. Indeed, the actor too appears somewhat worried about the possible result.

Nick Power, Cypher

In Cypher we have another performance space demarcated in white tape. This is a break-dancing circle, known as a ‘cypher.’ In it the codes, conventions and gestures of ‘breaking’ and ‘battling’ are abstracted and appropriated by four break-dancers towards making a contemporary dance work that alternately has the performers competing with each other and dancing together. The cypher circle continually fluctuates and is literally deconstructed and reconstructed by the performers. The treatment of space mirrors the treatment of the break-dance practice and brings the audience in close, looks them in the eye, and encourages them to treat this cypher as the real deal.

The cypher eventually multiplies and the audience co-inhabits these spaces with the performers, before the performers hand them over entirely to the audience who dance within them. What the audience perform is shameless parody, a by-product of the representation and consumption of mediatised subcultures. As the light slowly fades, the show ends with a poignant moment of silence, a final repetition of synchronicity: we hear in the breath of the dancers the labour expended in their virtuosity. For a moment they are only human after all, and not that different from us.

Cypher is a thoroughly entertaining demonstration of the ‘breaking’ subculture. Sequences condense and repeat as rituals move towards the cathartic threshold of collapsing the work’s dance form and including the audience in an event that continues in the space post-show as enthusiastic children play at the break-dancing moves they have just seen.

Big One Little One, Confetti

After standing in a line for a little over 30 minutes I am instructed to knock on a door. It opens with screams of delight and two young women pull me into a tiny room. Silver streamers line the walls. I am offered a shot of vodka. I am spun around and instructed to strike a piñata. I am presented with a birthday cake and told to blow out its solitary candle. We dance. They strip a layer of clothing. Confetti is thrown. It’s over. I am ushered out. The concentrated joy of the minute-long work Confetti, by Australian collective Big One Little One (NSW-VIC) was the representation of a party rather than a genuine party-event. It was the formulaic machine of a party performed identically on repeat, with the audience as the anonymous trigger. The subject celebrated was the rather dehumanising act of partying itself—relentlessly and forever, and in a bittersweet way, always wanting something more.

Abigail Conway, Time Lab

UK artist Abigail Conway’s Time Lab performance exemplified one of the subtlest artistic frames at the festival. It takes the form of a workshop in which we individually make items of jewelry out of broken wristwatches. We are greeted in a shop-front by the artist and briefed on what is to happen. We are directed behind a curtain where a clinical workshop laboratory has been set up. There is an individual station for each of us, with all manner of utensils we will need for our arts and crafts session. The artist then leaves us entirely to our own devices, informally focused on making something of our time. The artist is there to provide assistance, but only really addresses us again to encourage us to finish when the hour-long workshop is nearly over. She then wants to document our pieces and have us answer personal and conceptual questions on the idea of time, for a publication that will provide a bigger picture of the travelling project.

The work privileged the workshop event over any sort of artistic conceit and was essentially handed over to us as genuine workshop participants. We became bricoleurs, for the artist and for ourselves, of transience itself. Timepieces of course are not time itself, but act as our representational measuring devices as we vainly attempt to control it. In Time Lab that representation is reconfigured into a personalised decoration—we each left with an individual pearl that somehow managed to personify the formlessness of transience.

Junction Arts Festival, 10-14 September,

Sydney-based Malcolm Whittaker works as an interdisciplinary artist, writer, performer and is a PhD candidate at The University of Wollongong’s School of Creative Arts. For the Junction Arts Festival he presented My Best Friend, a walk in memory of beloved departed pet dogs.

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 14

© Malcolm Whittaker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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