CITIES, poetics of life, policy & design

On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

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CITIES, poetics of life, travel notes

At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary

Corto Maltese by Norwood, a very talented artist whose work you can admire here.

A short message from a Berlin dancer reminded me that I wrote an essay for Dancehouse Diary, a publication for Dancehouse, independent dance’s home in Melbourne, earlier this year. It was one of the very last bits of work I did before leaving, it got published just after I left, and, in the general confusion of intercontinental travel, I never saw it in print, and completely forgot about it.

But here it is now, reprinted under the break. It’s about travel, a topic very close both to my heart and to my scholarship. Reading my own writing from the past, articles I have completely forgotten about, always feels like reading someone else’s writing, and this one, read from a distance of 6 months, touched me in a strange way. I hope you will also enjoy it.

Continue reading “At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary” »

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CITIES, policy & design

Cultural policy and the arts

Save Live Music in Melbourne - a petition with 22,000 signatures calling for the the delinking of live music and “high risk” licencing conditions, delivered to the Victorian Government, April 7. Photo: www.carbiewarbie.com, with thanks.

IT IS A COMFORTING THOUGHT THAT AUSTRALIANS ARE GREAT AT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND SMALL-SCALE INNOVATION, BUT LET ME SUGGEST ONE THING WE DO EXTREMELY BADLY: LONG-TERM AND LARGE-SCALE STRATEGIC PLANNING.

IF SUSPICION OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION IS RIFE, IT MUST BE BECAUSE WE HAVE VIRTUALLY NO EXAMPLES OF A WELL-THOUGHT-THROUGH, AMBITIOUS AND SUCCESSFUL STRATEGIC INTERVENTION. FOR EVERY INNOVATIVE ECO-BUILDING AND LANEWAY FESTIVAL, WE HAVE A FAILING PUBLIC TRANSPORT NETWORK OR A FORGOTTEN CARBON EMISSIONS SCHEME.

One-person innovation has traditionally been the domain of artists — this is the thinking behind many a ‘creative industries’ policy. The corollary is that artists are perceived as situated outside large systems (ministries, policy frameworks) as subcultural rebels, creating on the geographical, economic and social margins, needing no infrastructural support for their ephemeral creations.

Yet, looking at Australian arts in urban terms, another picture emerges. My research finds almost every arts venue in Melbourne since 1991 clustering in loose clouds around public transport, state art centres and educational facilities, and moving around to avoid the worst of the real estate boom—in music, design and performing arts alike. It is tempting to attribute artistic success solely to individual genius, but there is in fact cultural infrastructure in place, which includes schools, low rents and central locations, on which every artist relies, and this infrastructure is what cultural policy can begin to protect.

the importance of breeding places

It is common in artspeak to talk about defunding artistically irrelevant institutions, as Gavin Findlay does, but it is actually the uncertain funding of institutions that emerges as a bigger problem. For small- and medium-sized companies, flagship buildings to perform in and independent programming venues are a vital link to peers, critics and audiences. Convinced of art’s ephemerality, we forget the importance of ‘breeding places’: spaces and events that yield exposure, attract audiences, house archives, provide education and build social centres for the fleeting world of the arts. They serve their role best when their location and program times are unchanging and predictable—because then they can become meeting points, exchange points, networking points.

When we speak of the ‘independent’ artist, we sometimes forget how much artists depend on each other. Our few remaining theatre archives, the only memory-keepers we have, are tied to institutions with longevity (STC, Dancehouse, arts centres, state libraries); while VCA, Dancehouse or La Mama in Victoria, or Performance Space and TINA in NSW, are actual incubators of ‘scenes’ (social capital, an aesthetic, training), ensuring continuity to the arts. We can myopically boast a long list of important places and events that have ceased operating, from Pram Factory to the Green Mill Dance Project. Our lack of regard for ‘breeding places’ is best exemplified by the treatment of Performance Space, possibly the most important space for contemporary arts in Australia. A living incubator of innovation since the 1980s, having nurtured dozens of our most important performers, it has still not been recognised as a cultural flagship, let alone endowed with a permanent space of its own or operational autonomy within CarriageWorks.

The arts can and do punch back — but only if the issue can be sold in more than artistic terms. As I’m writing this, Victoria’s liquor licensing laws are being tweaked to save The Tote, a ramshackle music venue, from closure. Politicians were more worried about the voting preferences of the 200,000 protesters than the cultural significance of The Tote, granted; but the 200,000 saw The Tote as an indispensable part of Melbourne’s culture, not a den for a handful on society’s margins.

This hasn’t come out of nowhere: at least since Espy, the iconic music pub in St Kilda, was threatened with closure in 1997, live music has been promoted as a key part of Melbourne’s ‘cultural’ specificity. However, there must be a better way to protect cultural incubators than with rallies.

culture as a given

For many arts practitioners, the debate on the national cultural policy may look suspiciously like yet another thing to complicate already-fuzzy KPIs — but it would be unwise to limit the discussion to arts funding, because it is about more than that. To admit to a ‘culture’ is to say that there are things that we do that are important and worth protecting, because they make us who we are, regardless of their economic, health or social outcomes. In a sense it is irrelevant whether ‘culture’ includes media (as in Germany), is defined as “anything that stimulates closeness” (as in Croatia) or is left undefined (as in many European countries that nonetheless have robust cultural policies). It is primarily a principle of protection.

Artists should understand the power of words. At the moment, ‘economy’ is one of the powerful ones. Being good or bad for the economy, vaguely defined, is argument enough to defend or shelve a policy. Agreeing that we have a ‘culture’ would allow a whole new string of arguments to be made and, with due respect to David Throsby, defend the arts not on the grounds of its goodness for the economy, community or health, but simply as important for our culture.

Of course, arts policy in Australia already assumes ‘culture’: our funding of opera is otherwise inexplicable. But let me give you a sense of what else ‘culture’ might protect: in the 1990s Amsterdam initiated Broedplaats (“Breeding Places”), a squat protection policy, recognising them as incubators of creativity. “No Culture Without Subculture” was the mayor’s rallying cry. Formation of ‘alternative cultural centres’ is common throughout Europe, with a kind of light heritage overlay protecting use, rather than the form, of a building. Palach, in Croatia, has been an alternative music venue/gallery/café/performance space since 1968. It has had its dull phases, of course, but a new generation of bright young things inevitably emerged, taking over the same central location and benefiting from access to facilities, a ready-made audience and previous generations of artists. Similarly, the Save the Espy campaign in Melbourne could not rely on existing state laws to protect the beloved music pub: it didn’t qualify in terms of architectural, community or social heritage. After a prolonged fight, Espy was ultimately saved in 2003 because the local council managed to install sufficient protection on the grounds of local ‘cultural’ significance.

Save Live Music in Melbourne (SLAM) poster.

cutting across policy areas

Another intervention that only national cultural policy can achieve is the nurturing of systems, interventions that cut across policy areas and require departmental collaboration on the federal level. Many have been picked up in the submissions to Peter Garrett’s cultural policy discussion website: simplification of artist work visas, greater support for regional and overseas touring (having no national culture, Australia has no sustained cultural diplomacy either). To this I would add improvements to arts education, understanding the importance of subcultures and integration of arts institutions into the urban fabric—giving them centrality, advertising, public transport. What was the point of investing millions in CarriageWorks, if it is still sitting next to an underdeveloped train station, in a dark street, untouched by a single useful bus line? A comparatively cheap intervention into public transport would have quadrupled the returns on the enormous investment. Instead, one of Sydney’s most central performance venues manages to remain hidden to most of its population.

But what I would like to see most is some meaningful form of social security for artists. In most countries with ‘culture’, artists benefit from tax exemptions and reductions, access to free health insurance and pension funds, and different forms of income support that usually don’t require active job seeking. It is a measure that gives artists some modest existential certainties, but it’s also an intervention that the Australia Council for the Arts cannot initiate on its own.

art without culture…?

Judging from the way we mangle our strategic policies across the board, there is no reason to assume Garrett’s national cultural policy will get everything right. But defining ‘culture’ as an intangible, but protectable and nurturable good is the first step towards building systems, structures and strategies that ensure longevity for what we’ve got. We need culture if we want to remember, and be remembered ourselves; if we want our art to matter. Without ‘culture’, we’d have no culture wars, true, but also no values, meaning, sense. Without culture, nothing differentiates the arts from any other unprofitable industry. And without culture, there is literally no subculture.

Jana Perkovic is working at the University of Melbourne on an ARC-funded research project titled “Planning the Creative City”, studying the geographical clustering of independent arts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and the relationship between arts policy, demographics and urban planning. She writes for RealTime on contemporary dance and performance in Melbourne and Europe.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 10.

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CITIES, theatre

minus signs (reviewed: Artshouse season 01/2010: works by Rotozaza; Mem Morrison Company; Helen Cole; Acrobat; Scattered Tacks)

Silvertree & Gellman, Scattered Tacks. Photo: Alicia Ardern.

THE NEXT DECADE IN THEATRE AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE WILL BE A DECADE OF PHENOMENA, NOT OF SIGNS, OF EXPERIENCING RATHER THAN READING PERFORMANCE. THE FIRST ‘SEMESTER’ OF THE ARTS HOUSE 2010 PROGRAM COULD BE NEATLY DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS: AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS AND UK-BASED RELATIONAL PERFORMANCE.

The latter (where the audience become performers and co-creators) is a backlash against 20 years of over-mediatised postmodern theatre. These new works are theatre minus stage, performance minus performers and spectacle minus the spectacular. The audience experience is the event itself: tactile, immediate, immersive, anti-ironic. The semiotic component is minimal, sometimes altogether absent, as the performance exists mainly in the mind of the spectator. It appears, perhaps, as our era abandons questions of meaning and engages with amplified possibilities of doing. It’s almost like a direct answer to Deleuze’s dream of the new non-representational theatre, in which “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit.” And although tested by performance-makers both here (bettybooke, Panther) and elsewhere (Rimini Protokoll), the UK, building on its rich variety of live art, is something of a leader.

This form is too young to have encountered much meaningful criticism in Australia, but every form quickly accumulates knowledge. While I don’t think everything we have seen at Arts House could be called successful, the failures are just as interesting, like the results of an experiment.

Take Rotozaza. Their two shows, Etiquette and Wondermart, promised a new form of expression, ‘autoteatro,’ but delivered a half-hearted combination of pomo referentiality and demanding, mediatised interactivity. Both are no more than voices inside a headset, giving instructions to a single audience member. Wondermart is a walk through a(ny) supermarket. Etiquette is 30 minutes in a café, in which you and another audience member perform an encounter, a conversation from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the final scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and much else—sometimes by talking to each other, sometimes moving figurines on the chess board in front of you.

Wondermart, Rotozaza. Photo: Ant Hampton.

While very engaging in those few moments when the narration matches what’s happening in space (such as when theories of shopper behaviour are confirmed by innocent bystanders in the supermarket), most of both shows consisted of a series of mundane and tiring little tasks. Despite the interactive pretences, they were not so much an experience for one audience member as a performance by one audience member, with the concomitant stage anxiety—even if nobody was watching. The problem was not just that many aspects of the situation cannot be sufficiently controlled by the audience-performer (my noisy supermarket trolley forbade me from following shoppers as instructed; or the concentration required to both quickly deliver lines and hear your partner-in-dialogue). Rotozaza underestimate our anxiety not to let the performance down: a compulsive need to please the dictatorial voice inside the headphones by performing everything right.

.Mem Morrison, Ringside. Photo: National Museum of Singapore/Chris P.

If Rotozaza forgot how unpleasant structured events can be, Mem Morrison went all the way and staged the worst aspects of a wedding ceremony in Ringside. Its entire conceptual spine is the sense of alienation, monotony, meaninglessness and loneliness one feels at a collective ritual. The performance starts before it starts — audience groups are arranged into family photos, well-dressed and carnation-studded as per instructions—and seated around one long table. An infinite number of black-clad women, both attendants, family and brides-to-be, deliver food and crockery. Amidst the flurry Morrison is the only male, unhappy, confused, 12 years old, jokingly told it’s his turn next, sometimes playing with a Superman toy and sometimes MC-ing with his shoe instead of a microphone.

Ringside’s aspirations are sky-high, but the performance never manages to reveal much of its topical menagerie: ethnicity, gender, tradition, multiculturalism are signposted rather than explored or experienced. Morrison’s entire text is delivered through headphones, creating a mediatised distance that in 2010, after 20 years of screens onstage, is as déjà-vu as it is genuinely disengaging. There is a paradox within Ringside: it purports to bring forth an aspect of Turkish culture, but the distanciation intrinsic to the method condemns it as facile. The experience is ultimately of witnessing a whining 12-year-old, loudly airing his discontent at being dragged to a family event.

Helen Cole’s Collecting Fireworks, on the other hand, a performance archive and an archive-performance, is as simple as it is brilliant. A genuine one-on-one performance (a dark room, a single armchair, recorded voices describing their favourite performance works, followed by recording one’s own contribution), it exemplifies the opening possibilities of this new form: no stage, no performers, but a deeply meaningful experience. I suspect the end result will be a genuinely valuable archive of performance projects, as we are encouraged to remember not only the details of these works, but also the effect they had on us.

The reasons the two local circus performances were on the whole much more successful are complex: Australia’s long tradition of contemporary circus and Melbourne’s close acquaintance with both the form and the artists are not the least important. If with relational performance, imported from an emerging artistic ecology overseas, we occasionally felt both short-changed and ignorant, with circus we could comfortably feel at the world’s cutting edge.

Propaganda, Acrobat. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

Acrobat’s long-awaited new work, Propaganda, points to the long tradition of circus used as Soviet agitprop, educational art dreamt up by Lenin in 1919 as “the true art of the people.” The company’s take is both ironic and deeply earnest, and it takes weeks of confusion before concluding that, yes, their open endorsement of cycling, eating veggies and gardening nude was serious. The tongue is in cheek, yes, when spouses Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates heroically kiss in the grand finale, centrally framed to the tune of Advance Australia Fair like the ideal Man and Woman in social-realist art. But it is a very slight joke indeed.

The specificity of circus could be defined as the pendular motion between crude and dangerous reality and the illusion of spectacle: relying on physical strength more than on representational techniques (it is impossible to just ‘act’ a trapeze trick), it can never completely remove the real from the stage. Acrobat’s previous (and better) work — titled smaller, poorer, cheaper — created tension by opening up the spectacle to reveal the hidden extent of the real: social stereotypes and obligations, physical strain, illness. Propaganda foregrounds circus as this family’s life: from the two children pottering around to the unmistakable tenderness between Lancaster and Yates and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the beliefs they propagate. The dramaturgical incongruence between the ironic self-consciousness of the Soviet theme, with its inevitably negative undercurrent, and the performers’ trademark lack of pretence, remained the least fortunate aspect of the work. From the message to the magnificent skills on display, everything else was flawless.

Scattered Tacks, by Skye and Aelx Gellman and Terri Cat Silvertree, stripped away spectacle to reveal the essence of circus: awe. Circus is a naturally postdramatic form: its narrative arc fragmented, aware of its own performativity (what Muller called “the potentially dying body onstage”) and constantly anxious about the irruption of reality on stage. Scattered Tacks is raw circus, naked: at times it felt like an austere essay in thrill. It revealed that the rhythm of audience suspense and relief hinges less on the grand drama of leaps and tricks and more on visceral awareness of the subtle dangers and pain involved. Eating an onion, climbing barefoot on rough-edged metal cylinders, overworking an already fatigued body—these were the acts that left the audience breathless. Yet they also achieve poignant beauty. The Gellmans and Silvertree bring Australian circus, traditionally rough and bawdy, closer to its conceptual and elegant French sibling, but in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Australia offers a good vantage point from which to observe the human being. Visiting Europe recently, it struck me how dense the semantics of the European theatre are in comparison. Performing bodies there are acculturated and heavy under the many layers of interpretation, history, meaning. The body here, on the other hand, easily overpowers the thin semiotics of Australian culture, emerging strong, bold and without adjectives, without intermediary. Body as phenomenon, not as signifier. It will be interesting to observe how the emerging interest in theatre as presence, rather than representation of meaning, unravels—and how much this country will participate in this trend. In this season it’s circus, one of the oldest forms of performance, that emerges as the more successful. The relational performance works only rarely overcame the trap of referentiality.

Arts House: Rotozaza, Etiquette, Wondermart, co-directors Silvia Mercuriali and Ant Hampton, Arts House and around Melbourne; Mar 16–April 3; Mem Morrison Company, Ringside, writer, director, concept, performance Mem Morrison, sound & music composition Andy Pink, design Stefi Orazi, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-21; Helen Cole, Collecting Fireworks, director Helen Cole, technical consultant Alex Bradley, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-19; Acrobat, Propaganda, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, also featuring Grover or Fidel Lancaster-Cole, Meat Market, March 27-April 3; Silvertree and Gellman, Scattered Tacks, created and performed by Terri Cat Silvertree, Alex Gellmann, Skye Gellmann, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 16-21.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 33.

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CITIES, theatre

shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London's LIFT and BAC's One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival

An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?

Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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CITIES, theatre

incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

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CITIES, poetics of life

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library | The Awl

What the available details of Wallace’s life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression.

The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent ’70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn’t as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on “Me” is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the ‘star’ as something we want to be.

A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.

“We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?”

Maria Bustillos, Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library

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CITIES, how the world works, poetics of life, theatre

Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich

This interview was first published on 16 September 2008 on Spark Online, and is normally available here.

"What Do You Think About Me?", still from the exhibition

Sivan Gabrielovich’s new project, opening on Wednesday 19 November at the Meat Market, a video installation titled What Do You Think About Me?, brings together members of the Israeli and the Palestinian communities together for a series of discussions, workshops and interviews. It is a rare moment of viewing these two groups thoughts and concerns about who they are, and what they think of the other.

Gabrielovich is rushing to finish the installation, neck-deep in cutting 60 hours of video footage down to 3. “I have these visions that I’ll be editing as the people are entering the gallery. I’ll be just putting the DVD in the player.” Continue reading “Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich” »

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CITIES, policy & design

Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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CITIES, policy & design

Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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