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Amy Sharrocks, Museum of Water, PIAF 2017 Amy Sharrocks, Museum of Water, PIAF 2017
photo Ruth Corney

It is impossible to view the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF)—and perhaps all art right now—through any prism other than that of the strange, deeply disconcerting political moment in which we find ourselves. 2016 threw political surprises of the highest order, and then failed to follow up: unfathomable news, followed by the holiday season. As we return to art in 2017, there is no way to believe that everything is the same as usual, and yet there’s no real sense of how exactly things are different. Or rather, it seems that things may have been different for a while, without us noticing.

Either way, I have watched every work at PIAF 2017 as a possible answer to the same question: how do our individual reality and our collective reality collide? What in ourselves is made by great historical events, and what in ourselves sets those events in motion? It is a question coloured by news of the social media strategies that had driven extremist campaigns for both Brexit and Trump, and articles that describe Milo Yiannopoulos' rise to fame through the coordination of thousands of his Twitter followers into attack mobs. Still, it is a question bigger than this month's news.

Amy Sharrocks, Museum of Water

Amy Sharrocks' Museum of Water (UK) is a collection of publicly donated waters with accompanying stories that has travelled the world from its origin at a street corner in London's Soho, four years ago. There is water of all kinds: water from a bottle that spent decades in the pantry, melted ice from an ancient glacier, waters from childbirth, sea waters, as well as tap water from around the world. There is a water bar, with tap water infused with native Australian plants (eucalyptus was the popular choice). Then there are books, including a tome on Rotterdam's water squares, a city-wide design strategy to adapt the city to rising oceans by creating squares that double up as flood collection basins. Set on beautiful Cottesloe Beach among beach towels and waddling kids, Museum of Water is a subtle and profound work, taking us on a journey that starts with sipping from a glass of water and ends with pondering our relationship with our planet.

Before the Siren, PIAF 2017 Before the Siren, PIAF 2017
photo Toni Wilkinson

Lara Thoms and Snapcat, Before the Siren

Lara Thoms and Snapcat take similar stock of the entire vertical relationship between the individual and the collective on the topic of feminism. Before the Siren is a community event set on the Fremantle Oval, in which the inaugural season of the AFL Women's League is celebrated through a showcase of women's community groups. “It is modest—eight teams, smaller salaries and a two-month [season],” they write. “Despite this, the first televised women's game in September last year attracted record viewers. We know this competition is the beginning of something big and important.”

Writing from Melbourne, where tram stops were crowded, social media flooded and tears shed for the first AFLW match in February, it does seem like a moment of profound change is taking place, at least in this city's psychology. Before the Siren traces the genealogy of this moment through groups large and small, political and not. Wearing team colours and props, the players arrive, presented by the MCs Lara Thoms and Hannah Gadsby, who introduce each club and squad, their history, membership rules and achievements. There are women's rights activist groups, including Reclaim the Night Perth and the West Australian chapter of Amnesty International. There are the Fremantle Dockers banner team, the Gorna Liyarn Indigenous dancers, the only male cheerleading team in the country, the WA Roller Derby, WA Women Motorcycle Riders and Girl Guides WA. There is the club for everyone named Shirley and the Embroiderers' Guild of WA.

By the end of the event, the oval has filled with women of all ages, wearing all colours and costumes, with props ranging from giant embroidery needles to placards with feminist slogans held by tiny Girl Guides. It is an entire local history of women's organisations, embodied, present, loud. If AFL has a women's league today, is it because of the accumulated work of these women? Before the Siren suggests, here are the individuals whose labour has made an historical event.

The Year I Was Born, PIAF 2017 The Year I Was Born, PIAF 2017
photo Toni Wilkinson

Lola Arias, The Year I Was Born

One extraordinary work, however, asks the same question backwards. How are we made by history? The Year I Was Born, written and directed by Lola Arias, reverse-engineers the historical facts of Pinochet's coup in Chile by charting its echoes on the lives of 10 performers born during the coup years of 1973-1990.

The echoes are more than faint. Pinochet's coup d’état, which, backed by the United States, on 11 September 1973 replaced the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende, established a brutal dictatorship responsible for the murder, torture, disappearances, political repression and exile of thousands of members of numerous resistance organisations that had sprung up before and after the coup. Every family story told on Arias' stage could be a stand-alone narrative of exceptional vividness: one performer talks about how her parents, members of the urban guerrilla group Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, were so poor that they committed a robbery to pay for her mother's ultrasound; another describes how her mother was killed by the police, and a photograph of her semi-nude corpse displayed on the front pages of newspapers. Then there is the woman whose apolitical parents spend the coup years partying, and the man whose father remained a staunch supporter of Pinochet even though the coup kept him unemployed for over a decade. The stories tell of families broken and truncated through exile, imprisonment and disappearances—I was struck by how few of the performers grew up knowing both of their parents, or had anything resembling a geographically stable childhood.

Formally, The Year I Was Born is the most classic of devised political theatre, almost a perfect recreation of a moment in theatre history circa 2005. There is the video screen with historical documents, radio recordings of the coup, cut-and-paste personal narratives. There are moments of physical dramaturgy, such as when the performers line up according to class, skin colour and the political beliefs of their parents. The performers are not professional actors, their natural body language keeping the performance dynamic even and nicely uneventful. We are simply told one harrowing story after another, in the neutral language in which ordinary people generally tell life stories.

And that is The Year I Was Born's greatest achievement. I cannot be the only one who, after 2016, is tired and suspicious of heightened rhetoric, of connections too smoothly and swiftly made. The Year I Was Born builds a world out of small pieces of information: 10 people born into a ravaged reality, whose lives nonetheless include skateboarding and watching TV, continuing past 1990 to include childbirth, graduations, coming out. And that world is recognisably our own.

PIAF 2017: Amy Sharrocks, Water Museum, Cottesloe Beach 18 Feb-5 March; Lara Thoms and Snapcat, Before the Siren, Fremantle Oval, 19 Feb; Lola Arias, The Year I Was Born, Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, 15-18 Feb

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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