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Time-space reshape

Keith Gallasch, interview: Jeff Khan, Performance Space

Jeff Khan Jeff Khan
courtesy Performance Space
The ever gregarious, always welcoming Jeff Khan, Artistic Director of Performance Space, looks fitter than ever. “You have to be fit,” he says, to manage the job he’s in: the meeting and greeting, negotiating of commissions and partnerships and seeking out, nurturing and producing idiosyncratic artists in the territories of experimentation, hybridity, indigeneity and queer culture that are the province of Performance Space.

How does he do it? “Boot Camp for the last six months three times a week. I’m not a morning person, so it kills me every time, but I love it. When you spend a lot of time in your head, thinking about art and ideas, it’s great to be reminded that you have a body as well.”

How much does the job mess with or support your personal life?

The arts is one of those areas where there’s a very blurry boundary between work time and social time with all of the openings and functions and drinks. On the one hand I’m blessed to be working with people I love and with whom I’ve developed relationships over the many years of my career at Next Wave and now at Performance Space. So it’s a blessing and a curse, that blurry line, but I think it’s all about being cognisant of that balance. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. You need to get outside of this very complex, very tangled sphere that we move in and see it from a bird’s eye perspective so you can be ready to dive back in with energy.

A key cultural hub, nurturer and producer of innovative art, Performance Space, now under the sole artistic direction of Khan (after the exit of co-director Bec Dean in 2014) has radically remodelled its programming for 2015 and beyond. With the experience behind him of two hugely successful Next Wave festivals [2008, 2010], doubtless the notion of one big Performance Space festival was very appealing—to focus in one place, the entire Carriageworks building, and at one time on the results of sustained production development. Likewise the prospect of attracting an audience with a festival, as opposed to competing across the year with the host venue’s own rich program, must have been irresistible. But first we discuss producing and the delicate gestation of new work, like Vicki Van Hout’s Long Grass, premiered in the 2015 Sydney Festival.

It certainly pulls no punches. The thing that strikes me again and again about this work is its honesty in not flinching from those aspects, which are often difficult to discuss within the community involved, let alone outside them. This was one of the reasons that Vicki was so cognisant of the need to work alongside the community. In the final stage of development in December, (the artists) actually travelled up to Darwin and did a community showing with a lot of the Long Grass community who responded really well and appreciated the honesty and saw their lives in it. That was a great acknowledgement of their struggle and their reality, which, of course, could so easily be smoothed over or ignored.

You played an initiating role and then a co-producing role?

We commissioned the first development and once the project hit its stride we entered into a co-producing relationship with Harley Stumm of Intimate Spectacle. Sydney Festival was always interested in the work. It was a long dialogue and ‘courtship,’ as it usually is, but they’ve been terrific really.

And what about Tamara Saulwick’s Endings? Another emotionally tough subject—dealing with the voices of the dead and those grieving them.

Absolutely and I think it’s another hallmark of Performance Space through the years—that very responsive, very contemporary issues-based approach to work. Endings began for us with Tamara’s earlier work, Pin Drop, which we presented as part of a Mobile States tour in 2012 when she was not well known in Sydney. Pin Drop was based around women’s experiences of violence and home invasion and was such a beautifully crafted work, a compelling subject and truly interdisciplinary, pivoting around sound in lots of ways.

What was your role with Endings?

After our audience responded fantastically to Pin Drop we were very interested in what Tamara was doing next. We were in dialogue about the early stages of Endings and I flew down to Arts House in Melbourne last year to see a showing, which was very strong. It really had the bones of the idea of voices speaking from outmoded analogue playback devices with Tamara almost harmonising with them in her performance. It was so beautiful that we decided we’d co-commission the work with Arts House. And part-way through that process Sydney Festival became interested—director Lieven Bertels loved Pin Drop. Tamara was an artist he wanted to strongly support as well. So having already committed to it, we would have presented that work in our 2015 program but it was such a fantastic opportunity with Sydney Festival that we decided to split it down the middle and co-present. It will travel to Arts House in May.

Let’s move on to how Performance Space produces itself. How have you shaped 2015?

We’ve moved from a year-round program to mini-seasons—festival seasons that occur twice through the year. This year that model is evolving into a single annual building-wide festival of experimental art, LIVEWORKS, at Carriageworks in October-November this year and will recur at a similar time in future years. Essentially, it will collect the work we’ve been doing all year round and give it a stronger platform curatorially and, from an audience perspective, a bigger critical mass of work. Having the whole building means we can present in different scales, from very large works in Bay 17 to very intimate work in the corridors and interstitial spaces of the building to sited events in the public spaces, public programs in the Tracks and create a really dynamic interplay between the scale and styles of work. I’m super-excited; it’s a very logical progression from the way we’ve been programming towards one big moment that can be a real showcase for Australian experimental art. I think our experimental and independent artists need that kind of platform, that kind of visibility not only for our audiences here in Sydney but for national and international audiences as well. Hopefully that’s the direction it will grow in future years.

What kind of re-shaping does this new model mean in terms of the organisation, staffing and the way you work?

On the whole, it means we’re carrying forward with our existing staff structure but using our resources a little bit more intelligently. It also opens up the opportunity for us to be more focused, intensive and rigorous about our research process—researching the artists we’re working with and the artistic practices that are happening that might feed into the program—and how we develop work—making sure that we really understand the context of those works, the history of the practices. We’ll develop materials for publication or public programs to maximise [the impact of] the works.

So it’s an intensification of the producing and curatorial roles?

Absolutely—increasing that curatorial depth when you’re not just focused on getting a show on or producing it or logistically making it happen. You’re having a deep artistic dialogue with artists, something that has always happened at Performance Space but this just means that we’re giving a bit more time and weight to that process.

How does this fit with your relationship with Carriageworks’ own programming?

If you look at the programming environment at Carriageworks now it’s much busier than it was several years ago. For the first few years of Carriageworks we were the year-round program and that was a really important role we played. Carriageworks now has its own year-long program as well as those of other presenters, organisations and artists that Carriageworks has successfully drawn to the venue. That’s fantastic because it means audiences are coming to the building like never before, it’s on the map like it never has been. What’s the best contribution that we can make in that new context? It’s a very logical shift for us to be able to provide something unique in the annual program and in terms of the NSW and Australian cultural landscape.

You’ll of course continue focusing your research and producing model as a point of difference?

We’ve done a lot of development with contemporary Indigenous work across the visual and performing arts including Long Grass, which we nurtured over three years. We produced The Fox and the Freedom Fighters, which led our BURUWAN Island season last year and the Ken Thaiday exhibition was a co-commission with Carriageworks. This year we’re very excited to be developing a new performance work by the Stiff Gins [Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs], the Indigenous musical duo with their first step into the realm of contemporary performance. They’ll be collaborating with a theatre director and composer Felix Cross who’s just moved to Australia from Britain. Spirit of Things: Sound of Objects is a 2015 residency project looking at issues around the repatriation of Indigenous objects in museum collections. The Gins visited the Australian Museum where the objects ‘spoke’ to them, so they’re finding ways to release these stories.

What other cultures and sub-cultures do you address?

When Bec Dean and I took the helm as co-directors we were really interested in revisiting and reviving all the discourses around issues of gender and sexuality that has been a hallmark of Performance Space on and off through the years. In that first year of our co-directorship we co-curated SEXES, the big contemporary art festival around sex and gender with Deborah Kelly. That continues to be a strong curatorial theme in our program. The Stephen Cummins Bequest residencies for emerging queer artists are going strong. This year they’re in their fourth year. Day for Night (February 20-22) is our next big project off the ranks in conjunction with Mardi Gras and that’s curated by myself and Emma Price. It starts as a big queer dance party in Carriageworks with six artists presenting performance interventions into the party. At the end of the night the party shuts down and reopens the next day with the same performances continuing across the weekend but as an exhibition.

Emma Maye Gibson/Betty Grumble, Day for Night Emma Maye Gibson/Betty Grumble, Day for Night
photo James Brown
Performance Space has always been a bridge for the way that work develops and grows in the queer subcultural context and often translates across into a broader contemporary performance frame. Our key artistic collaborators in Day for Night are Stereogamous—Paul Mac and Johnny Seymour—and, of course, they’re deeply involved in the queer party scene around Sydney and run a lot of the really interesting alternative queer happenings from their weekly night Voguey Bear at Tokyo Sing Song in Newtown to Johnny’s involvement with Club Kooky, a club night that’s been running for 18 years. For us this is an opportunity to bridge two worlds and to create a context where the underground can be more visible yet hold its integrity.

Sometimes these cultures are very self-contained. Does the underground want to be overground?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. These alternative cultures are very relevant to the rest of society. Their ideas around gender and sexuality are some of the most exciting and progressive that we know. What we seek to do is to create a platform where some of those ideas can be discussed in a broader context.

Sometimes artists who come in from those areas, their vision looks strong but perhaps the movement and vocal skills are not quite there.

That’s exactly what the Stephen Cummins Bequest residencies were set up to do. They match emerging queer performance artists who might come from these underground or sub-cultural contexts and match them with experienced mentors. Over the years we’ve had excellent mentors like Chris Ryan, Victoria Spence, Martin del Amo, Victoria Hunt who are all about sharpening those performance skills and bringing these artists to new levels of ambition.

Do you go and see a lot of this work. Is it part of your reality?

It very much is. Club Kooky was one of the first party events that I went to in Sydney and I’ve been following it ever since. I see the performance world being inspired by these kinds of communities. Justin Shoulder is an artist who has really come up through that scene. His fantastic creatures developed through short performances at club nights. Benji Ra, who’s in Day for Night this year, is a rigorously trained contemporary dancer who’s been at WAAPA and trained at the Martha Graham School, but he’s also a Voguer with a bit of Filipino traditional dance to boot.

Does the community that goes to Club Kooky and like venues come to Day for Night?

Absolutely. Last year when we did the first Day for Night there was such a warm and excited response from the community, from Club Kooky and other parties. There are those who want more from queer culture, for it to be more than a mainstream fight for marriage equality or Oxford Street on a Saturday night. I think Mardi Gras had seriously engaged in cultural programming for the first time in a while and the audience was hungry for it.

What can you tell me about the festival program for October-November?

We have a few lead projects we can reveal now, one of which is a large scale new work by Wade Marynowsky called Robot Opera. This is definitely his most ambitious project to date because it’s a live performance with robot performers that corral and herd the audience. Wade is collaborating with Branch Nebula (Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters) to choreograph it and to do the sound and lighting design. Also involved is sound artist Julian Knowles. Robot Opera will be presented in Bay 17 as one of the key works in the festival.

We’ll also be presenting a major commission by Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones and the premiere of a work by Hissy Fit, a young, emerging artist collective who came through the Stephen Cummins Bequest program two years ago and were included in the first Day for Night last year. The work centres on the figure of the hysterical woman—the pathologised figure that arose through 19th century medical discourse and psychoanalysis re-imaged through the ‘hysterical’ women of all-girl Punk rock culture and the Riot Grrl movement from the 1990s.

Will you be continuing program of recent years outside of Carriageworks?

Our site-specific program this year is titled Streetworks, taking artists and audiences out onto the streets and into public spaces with all the associations with protest and the tension between the individual and the collective that those actions might imply.

It kicks off with a residency followed by the premiere, in May, of a new pvi collective work called Black Market, which will be sited in Kings Cross and sends audiences out onto the streets armed with their own possessions to trade with pvi operatives for goods and services. The work is set in the context is of the GFC and informed by the Occupy movements. The conceit is that this financial meltdown has occurred and you have to go out on the streets and trade your own goods and services for the things you might need to survive the financial apocalypse.

We’re also presenting SDS1, which is the new work by Ahilan Ratnamohan in a Mobile States tour. It’ll be presented in a sports stadium in Western Sydney, in partnership with Blacktown Arts Centre. Bec Dean will curate Sydney Metres Squared in September, inviting artists to respond to a square metre of Sydney, looking at alternative ways [other than economic] to value space in terms of its history, or its poetic qualities or the way people use it. That will be a walking project through the city.

The flip side to our residencies are the more concentrated laboratory initiatives where artists gather to spend an intensive series of weeks exchanging and developing new skills and exploring collaborative potential. We’re holding two of these this year. The first is called Nula Nura, an Indigenous artist laboratory on Cockatoo Island that we’re developing with the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. It’s evolved out of the Indigespace and Indigelab programs that we’ve done through the years with a new focus on site-specific work and responding to this very culturally loaded environment of Cockatoo Island. It’s a ten-day lab with a public showing at the end of it where people can travel to the Island and engage with the works in progress.

The other lab is Time_Place_Space, which we reignited last year with support from the Australia Council and our partner Arts House. Time_Place_Space: Nomad is a travelling laboratory where artists moving across various Australian landscapes and paring their work back to the essentials of their practice with whatever they can bring with them on that journey. It was a huge success last year, the artists responding to the challenge of working more sustainably and responding to different environmental contexts. This year Time_Place_Space will happen at the end of the year and will travel through regional Victoria and wind up at Arts House (see RT124).

Performance Space,

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 6-7

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

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