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North Queensland: fuelling the art mix

Justine Wilkinson & Stephen Naylor at See Hear Now

Jenny Tyack, Karen Gibb Jenny Tyack, Karen Gibb
photo Glen O’Malley
Justine Wilkinson introduces her own and Stephen Naylor’s joint response to the See Hear Now festival of multidisciplinary art practices recently held in Northern Queensland:

“See here now!” was my indignant cry as an ardent tertiary music student when I failed to understand how my colleagues could be so blithely ignorant of the exciting things happening in contemporary art music on their very doorstep. Back then it felt like a cry in the wilderness. I just wanted to immerse myself in the riches offered by living Australian artists—composers, musicians, dancers. To become part of the vanguard of new thought, new aesthetics, was a thrilling thing for an ignorant country girl new to the city’s bright lights.”

So it was with a sense of irony that I viewed the title of this festival being held at the other end of the country and over 20 years later. See Hear Now, held over a weekend recently in Townsville-Thuringowa, North Queensland was not exactly ‘a cry in the wilderness’, but it was avant-garde enough to attract an interesting mix of original thinkers and presented a somewhat different approach to art from that normally offered in the provinces.

The festival was set in a converted Pinnacles Gallery, blacked out temporarily with black polythene sheets, filled with acrid aromas of scorched lighting gels and the wash of reverb and hum from the stacks of speakers. The room was strewn with cables, gaffer tape and desks of technology, and one wall was transformed by projected images. Innovation was in the air. The See Hear Now festival invited an informal and sometimes tentative viewing of collaborative improvisations across various art forms. The audience wandered the room, viewing the action from different vantage points, tailing a photographer or filmmaker’s vision or concentrating on the technology in an effort to work out how certain things were achieved.

The first session opened with the Townsville Guitar Orchestra, an ensemble of around 20 younger people performing Australian compositions. This was comfort music—a Latin-sounding piece, a short piece influenced by rock music, nice ensemble sound and some very competent solos; safe ground for those new to contemporary art music in the audience. A number of the performers stayed on for the next item—a seamless progression from solo harp and guzheng (a long zither) played by Clare Cooper to duo improvisation for guzheng and percussion (Ian Brunskill), to solo percussion, before being re-joined by guzheng, keyboard and live electronics (Matt Hill). Here was a shift from the known and/or expected repertoire to the unpredictability of new music improvisation. Wire brush on strings, fingernail patter like rain, battuto bowing, chopsticks vacillating on strings, sliding frets, harmonics, combined with a gamut of bells, chimes, gongs, brake discs, circular saw blades, pipes, metal bars, shakers and woodblocks. The keyboard controlled the electronics, beginning with nature sounds (bush walking and distant frogs) and ending with a rather predictable backbeat under minimalist riffs.

The late work on the Friday evening set the small audience on edge. After percussion, guzheng and electroacoustic soundscapes, the physical animation of two spectral figures (Rebecca Youdell and Jess Jones), walking or sliding amongst the audience wearing flowing dresses enmeshed with dozens of small glowing lights built into the fabric, altered the tone dramatically. The data projectors leap into action streaming images of the pair, diverting the audience’s attention from the real to the reproduced. The figures continue to move through the unsuspecting audience, data streaming interrogating the experience as the images are modulated, split, pixilated and refashioned. The audience is drawn towards the screen as the performers disappear.

Returning in scant petticoat garb, adorned with bundles of sticks and violin bows tied to their backs like quivers of arrows, the women natter and giggle amidst audience. The screen erupts with excerpts from Russell Milledge’s 2004 work Rupture in which a figure falls, thrashing about on the sand of an expansive beach. In the room, the performers tentatively clamber over 3 curved ladders shaped like an igloo. Now blindfolded, scantily clad and wearing high heels, they exude vulnerability as they writhe, twist and squirm over the frame. Bodies and bone maps, indices and intersections; the ungainliness becomes ordinary but never comfortable for the audience. The work is primal. One figure dismounts the frame and gathers the sticks and bows. Constantly, the streaming of digital images compete for our attention. The picking up and dropping of sticks becomes frenzied as the other figure slides through the frame and is reacquainted with terra firma. We are drawn back to the screen with its obscure montage of images. Silence. The audience erupts into spontaneous applause.

The second day saw a range of performances linking Dance North under the directorship of Gavin Webber, the musicians including pianist Robert Nixon, and a group of James Cook University students performing some set works and attempting an audience interactive improvisation. These pieces were interspersed with the extraordinary lighting set and live processed video of Mark Bancroft and Stephen Armstrong and the live photography of Glen O’Malley. During many of the performances visual artists, including Michele Deveze, Gerald Soworka, Bradley Craperi and Jenny Tyack, worked on collaborative paintings and drawings. Challenges abounded as musicians, dancers, and artists attempted spontaneous collaborations. As is to be expected in true experimentation, many of the pieces worked if only in part.

Saturday evening saw 2 remarkable works that demonstrated the solid groundwork necessary for collaboration to flourish. David Salisbury (flute) and Steven Campbell presented Gabrielle Takes a Bath in collaboration with Michael Whiticker and Matt Hill modulating the live performance though sampling and mixing suites. The highlight was Campbell’s extraordinary array of electronic sensors played by raising and lowering his flattened hands. The sight of him playing an almost virtual instrument revealed a truly improvisatory performance, anticipating aquatic gurgles, splashes and ‘ohhh’ murmurs of pleasure as baby Gabrielle cavorted in an invisible tub.

Later in the evening, after Dance North had performed on refectory tables accompanied by JCU music students, a quirky piece entitled Threads saw Karen Gibb enter the performance space soaked to the skin with water. She proceeded to wring out her wet clothes and hair and then enter into a psycho-spatial dialogue with performers Thalia Klonis and Ron Pullman. The trio, augmented by improvising musicians Brunskill (percussion) and Whiticker (voice), masterfully erected a web of unspoken dialogue and supposition as they developed the interplay between 3 insubstantial yet convincing personae.

On day 3 of the festival, what appeared to be a life drawing workshop seemed like a huge leap of faith as visual artists, musicians and life models with theatre backgrounds took to the floor. The model, Karen Gibb assumed a pose and then began to move. Steven Campbell’s double bass pattered as David Salisbury’s sax oozed its way around the space. The feel was jazz and very low key. At first the model and sound seemed to take precedence. Gibb appeared to take cues from the sounds while the visual artists struggled to anticipate the next pose or even its duration. The piece took a turn at the 15 minute mark when, behind the model and musicians, a screen revealed fragmented vignettes of the performance, images reminiscent of Andre Kertesz’s surreal photographic morphs of distorted and fragmented bodies. Soon after this point another model, Thalia Klonis, joined the performance, clothed and animated, challenging and interacting with the nude. The music became enormously rich as the sampling sound artist (Matt Hill using the Max program) and musicians interacted, elevating the performance in conjunction with the stream of images gathered from the entire event. The visual artists kept true to the task, realising strong gestural works.

This festival was, by its very nature, experimental. It tapped into the grand traditions of Dada, Fluxus, performance, sound sculpture and new media art. Special mention must be made of the small group of dedicated, innovative organisers and the massive amount of support the Music Centre of North Queensland invested in the project. For a weekend event, much was achieved, documented and experienced, and some of the art reached fruition. The word ‘cross-arts’ emerged in one of the forums—an uncomfortable term, yet reasonably apt for such an event. It is hoped that See Hear Now has opened up possibilities for future work or similar events to build on the challenge of cross disciplinary collaboration in the distant, but dynamic region of North Queensland.

Justine Wilkinson is Cultural Development Officer for Townsville City Council. Trained as a music teacher, pianist and singer, she has been a music journalist and copyist of new music. Stephen Naylor is a Lecturer in Art Theory and Visual Arts at James Cook University, Townsville. He has worked as a practicing artist for more than 20 years, concentrating more recently on contemporary art theory and writing for art journals.

See Hear Now Festival, director Michael Whiticker; Music Centre North Queensland, Thuringowa City Council, Regional Arts Development Fund and Arts Queensland; Pinnacles Gallery, Thuringowa, Oct 14-16

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 16

© Justine and Stephen Wilkinson and Naylor; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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