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Incidental Pleasures: Arf Arf

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is a film critic, cultural commentator and the author of Phantasms.

Jacques Tati’s final film, completed almost a decade before his death, was Parade (1973). It is a strange, decidedly amateurish swansong from this great director. Parade is a modest effort, shot on video and transferred to film, completely theatrical in its setting. Different groups of performers come on and off stage, doing their time-worn routines; Tati meanwhile concentrates on the behaviour of audience members as much as the acts themselves. The film ends with a surprising, ragged coda: children wander about the empty set, picking up discarded objects and letting out little noises that mean nothing and lead nowhere in particular.

Tati’s film is utterly entrancing because it gives the viewer the rare sense that, here, the very language of images and sounds, the potentiality of performance and space, the relationship of spectacle and spectator, is being discovered step by step, as if for the first time. Filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub described Parade as a film about “degrees of nervous flux – beginning with the child which cannot yet make a gesture, who cannot yet coordinate her hand with her brain, and going up to the most accomplished acrobats”.

Parade would make a good double bill with Arf Arf’s wonderful ‘performance film’ Thread of Voice (1993). Although nominally this work could be taken as an innocent ‘documentation’ of some of the sound pieces that Arf Arf have performed live since the mid 80s, the film confounds all categories. They use their sound work to transform the medium and language of film – and vice versa – just as the most inventive recent dance films, such as Mahalya Middlemist’s Vivarium (1993), have done.

Co-ordinates of time and space, and all the usual connectives between these filmic realms, are freely, lyrically distorted in the rigorous montage plan of Thread of Voice. Physical gestures begin in semi-darkness, get carried on by another body in another place. The film constantly displaces itself from one register to another: ‘direct’ filming, varieties of refilming, animation. A marvellous sequence, anchored in an aural performance of a blackly comic and unnerving piece about a violent domestic argument, visually weaves together ciphers, actions and motifs from right across the film. Silhouettes lumber and fly behind screens, a dream of silent cinema that recalls the shows of the Even Orchestra, or the childish pantomime of Wenders’ buddy-heroes in Kings of the Road (1976). Words and drawings, forever cancelled, restarted and superimposed, hurl past frame by frame. Previously seen images of the performers are retrieved, slowed down, frozen, caught mid-production of some odd utterance or gesture.

Arf Arf refer to their sound pieces as ‘songs’, which surely makes Thread of Voice some kind of mutant musical. Their entire fugitive oeuvre, down this past decade, is difficult to ‘place’ in an Australian context. The exploration of body and voice that goes on here, the haphazard constructions of ‘multimedia’ assemblages, the merry ‘deconstructions’ of sound, meaning and narrative draw their inspiration from some other bundle of influences and traditions than the ones we are normally used to recognising and citing in local performance art.

There are traces of art brut, arte povera, Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’, Artaud ... and also the ‘chiselling’ practices of the Lettrists, the sound-poetry of Bob Brown, and Baruchello’s visionary uptake on the legacy of Duchamp. But, ultimately, a kind of hushed secrecy is the watchword of Arf Arf’s art. If there is a complex archaeology of influences in their pieces – across all the media they work in – it is a mangled, shattered, thoroughly transformed lineage. There is an extreme ‘symbolist’ legacy in their work, as in the avant garde films of Stan Brakhage or any number of the dense, allusive, little known poets they so admire: the ‘source’ of a piece has been lost or disguised beyond recognition, the key for its decoding has been buried, the ‘score’ they use is a dizzying, compacted mass of lines, dots, letters and markings.

“We do not concentrate on any one medium as we are specifically interested in how a particular medium can be transported into another one”. Arf Arf has always been interested in unusual, cryptic, almost fantastic correspondences and exchanges between different art forms and media. The principal members of Arf Arf are Marcus Bergner, Michael Buckley, Marisa Stirpe and Frank Lovece. Between them, individually and collectively, they have worked in everything from post-punk music (Melbourne’s ‘Little Bands’ era so feebly mythologised in the film Dogs in Space) to CD-ROM, via all the visual and literary arts.

As an ensemble, Arf Arf bears out an old motto of Philip Brophy’s – that it is better to have not artistic intention, just artistic tension. All the key members have different styles, approaches and strengths. Bergner’s forte is his experimental animation – drawing and writing on film – and his radical approach to artistic collage (both evident in his masterly Tales From Vienna Hoods, 1987). Lovece has a very distinctive, quite lyrical and aleatoric way of working with bodies, gestures and voices (as in Te Possino Ammazza, 1987). Buckley’s strength is in the poetic ordering of diverse materials in montage; his work is multi-layered, juggling anarchy and control (as in the excellent recent shorts Witness and Forever Young). And, as one of the best ‘songs’ in Thread of Voice memorably shows, Stirpe is a remarkable performer able to mutate herself with each new vocal inflection.

Arf Arf is a performance group that, it might be said, does not ‘communicate’ easily. But on the other hand, there is an utter simplicity, directness and transparency about what they offer. In their sound pieces, words appear from random noises, are momentarily played with, and then disappear back into a sound-mass. Nor is it much of a theatrical ‘spectacle’: very drawn to non-slickness and the pleasures of an ‘incidental’ art, Arf Arf do their shows in their everyday clothes, without fast or tricky transitions from one piece to the next. You see clearly all the moments of randomness and improvisation that go into their pieces. When they use ‘props’ or items of technology, these are deliberately primitive, clunky, exposed: bits of wood, transistor radios, a 16mm projector.

The artistic work of Arf Arf, across all the media they use, is vivid, kinetic, involving, very humorous, full of the rawness and randomness and mysteriousness of life. It is an extremely heterogeneous art, clashing different styles, timbres, textures. It is sophisticated, deeply considered, and also spontaneous and immediate in its emotional effects. It is full of almost violent juxtapositions and gear shifts – as well as sudden, hushed passages of calm, poetic grace.

This article is part of a series called Across Media written with the assistance of the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council.

Adrian Martin is a film critic, cultural commentator and the author of Phantasms.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 10

© Adrian Martin; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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