Drawing and Painting class in ŠPUD.

ŠPUD is Škola Za Primjenjenu Umjetnost i Dizajn, or School of Applied Arts and Design. In the Croatian high school system, divided between the general academic gimnazije, and academically much more lax trade schools, ŠPUD is an oddity. A lair of self-selected weird kids, of an academically suspect, but artistically rigorous curriculum. Not least, it generates a very strong sense of belonging.

“This is the best school ever!” they hail me in the Interior Architecture department. “Well, in Croatia at least.”

Some final works in Grafika.

Chess set made in glass (?) by a student in Interior Architecture.

I am here as a delegate from Australia, and as my sister’s sister. She introduces me to each one of her classmates, and each one shakes my hand. They are finishing up their semester duties, and spend most of their day at school. The school is a maze of classrooms, lockers, bathrooms, workshops and exhibition spaces. They stay overtime and hang around. I come and go; nobody asks (“With your lip ring and hair and camera, you look like one of us”, the students are adamant). Some classrooms have loud music coming out; all the doors are open. I snoop.

Girls bouncing balls during class time.

The graphic design teacher finally comes into the class.

“Am I allowed to be here?” I ask. The girls laugh.
“Just don’t try to take his photo. He won’t like it.”

I am photographing their work, hopping around while he is inspecting their final drawings. The students are sending text messages, talking, arguing, and pulling out their maths homework. The teacher gets to Dora as she is in the middle of an animated conversation with her friend Jasna, and pulls her back onto her chair, holding her by the shoulders.

“Lean back.” he instructs her with a deep voice. “Relax. Breathe. Di-a-phragm!”
She giggles. He looks at me.
“Good morning!” I say. “I am from the Ministry!”
“Good.” he nods. “I’m from New Zagreb.”
We shake hands, too.

Dora’s pencil drawing, next to the original.

Illustration homework.

Discarded jewellery.

Sopija (Josipa) + Hitchcock.

Students during class.

“When’s your recess?” I ask, waiting for a fag break, and unsure of the high school time-table.
“Oh, it’s almost over…” the girls grumble, reassuringly.
“Shall we go out for a fag while we can?”
“Oh god, not now!” they exclaim. “Wait until the recess is over. The first years will be throwing snowballs at everyone!”
Only once the recess is over, am I allowed to go out with them.

Croatian National Theatre, the stronghold of mediocre performance and a very fine building, outside the school window.

A ‘general’ classroom, the sort I had in my non-artistic school. The board, cryptically, says “black and white technique”, followed by “socio-political situation in Croatia” and “struggles between feudalism and the bourgeoisie”.

The next day, I visit the girls in their Graphic Techniques class. They are doing their final linocuts. I like Dora’s.

“No, it’s crap!” she answers. “We have to make five, and this is zero. Zero! An attempt!”
What’s wrong with it?
“Everything! The outline isn’t clear, it shouldn’t have these smudges, and the colour should be more consistent!” she is fixing her design, very concentrated. “I will probably have to stay in for the rest of the day.”
The teacher walks through, and looks at one of the finished works:
“This is very good. The colour is solid, the parquetry floor has turned out great. It wouldn’t hurt if you had more going one here”, she points at the centre of the print, a solid dark bookshelf, “it’s very monotone. This guitar in the centre doesn’t do anything for the composition. But the rest is very good.”
She leaves again.

Graphic Techniques class, with the best linocuts exhibited.

Textured surface that used to be a desk.

Despite the complete lack of disciplinary effort (at the parents’ meeting the day before, some parents complained about teachers leaving the classroom so often), student life is strongly ordered. There doesn’t seem to be more than a very basic code of behaviour in place, but the amount and the level of work they are expected to accomplish is demanding enough to structure their life very firmly around the school. Apart from nine academic subjects (Croatian, English, Music, Mathematics, History, Geography, P.E., History of Art and a choice of Religion/Ethics) they have professional subjects, which vary depending on the department. Grafika (which can be very, very loosely translated as ‘Print’), Dora’s department, has six: Painting and Drawing, Graphic Techniques, Graphic Design, Illustration, Script (which will be followed on by Typography in the years to come) and IT, in which they learn to work with design software.

Final works in the Typography class.

Grafika is an elite department, I am told, and so is Arhitektura (which is really Arhitektura Interijera, or Interior Architecture). Theirs is a separate, small building, and my guide is a charming young man called by his surname. (Generally speaking, I find these children both charming and interesting: they are funny, articulate, and independent, which is more than I can say for most Melbourne University students, many years older. During our conversations, I never feel particularly older.)

Final years’ graduating works.

I am intrigued by the fact they do their technical drawing by hand, which my faculty has abandoned – the fact of which some of my colleagues bemourn. Ivek introduces me to one of his teachers, who confirms that they only start working with AutoCAD in third year (out of four).

“But there is no individuality in computer sketches”, she says. “Hand drawings are artistically much more interesting.”

All architecture and design schools seem to have thriving bulletin- and pinboards. We have more than a few in my office alone, and Ivek’s department is no exception:

“I’M BUSY I’M BUSY I’M BUSY…”; in the hand-written explanation above the photo, the girl lauds some competition she travelled to, saying: “I FINALLY LOST MY… CAMERA :)”

The answer, I suspect, is in the problem-solving nature of design, and the multi-step lateral thinking it requires.

“You know what I’ve realised?” my sister tells me on the street that day. “A designer is actually very much like an inventor. He invents new things to solve problems.”

They are making a simple mortise and tenon. The teacher, needless to say, is not there.

“My Australian audience will be dying to know: do you guys get injured?”
“Yeah! Like, she’s injured now…” says Ivek, hugging his friend.
“Just pinched my finger!” she’s protesting, jumping on the spot and shaking her hand.
“No, really injured?”
“Oh, once a week. Once a week someone cuts themselves.”
“No, really injured. As in, someone cuts their finger off?”
They look at me baffled:
“We pay attention to what we’re doing.”
“I’ve heard it happened once, but to someone from Carpentry, many years ago…” the girl helpfully remembers.

I took a photo of the ‘injured’ girl. She hid her face, but it only made her look more aching.

“Look at my mortise and tenon!” one girl jumps in to show. It’s perfect, compared to Ivek’s, which has also chipped.
“Hers is much better.” I point out.
“Yeah, well, I decided I wouldn’t pay anyone to do it for me.” he pouts at the girl, who starts beating him, with joking anger. As I leave, Ivek is shouting: “I wouldn’t get naked just for homework…!”

Since Grafika is the elite department, their toilet is labelled (in free translation) ‘the most elitest water closet’.

CITIES, travel notes

Tell me how many laws I'm breaking, I'll tell you what country you're from

CITIES, spatial poetics, theatre, travel notes

on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

CITIES, poetics of life

Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or www.union.unimelb.edu.au/tickets.

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on vibewire.net.

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)