Postcard from Perth/Brisbane
APAM Diary (cont'd)
Day 4: Friday 21 February
I start the day with a breakfast catch-up/meeting with a friend from Sydney who used to be an artistic director in Perth, and Melbourne before that. Now he heads a small national touring organization who program mostly NSW work. He’s pretty much the only person who’s contacted me rather than the other way around, apart from the woman from the Queensland regional touring body who stalked me after my pitch yesterday. I discover it’s a little easier ‘networking’ or ‘building a relationship’ with someone you already know and actually have a relationship with. We both know it's all pretty hypothetical though in terms of actual work.
We catch a bus into central Brisbane together. Most of today’s activities are in and around the cultural precinct, which like cultural precincts everywhere for some reason is on the south bank of the river (except Perth which has a freeway there instead). It’s home to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), which houses the state orchestra, theatre, ballet and opera companies, and forms part of the sprawling and multilayered South Bank cultural complex (I choose the term advisedly) that also embraces the State Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, the State Library and Museum, and the Conservatorium of Music.
It reminds me of a brutalist concrete termite mound. I wonder how the locals find it – or indeed anything inside it.
I’m feeling pretty cruisy (though not in an Al Pacino way) after yesterday’s climatic ups and downs (ditto). I plan to take in a few showcases; spend some time at the Gallery of Modern Art; and then head back to the Hub this evening for the much-vaunted Australia Council drinks, which everyone says is a biennial highlight of APAM, at least in terms of what’s also known as ‘wetnurking’. I’ve even had an email from yet another Irish festival presenter (whom I dutifully buttonholed and awkwardly ‘started a conversation with’ after the lunchtime workshop yesterday) suggesting we catch up at the drinks. I emailed him back to say I’d look out for him, but at this stage I’m not too fussed; I just want to have a drink and unwind.
My Sydney colleague and I head into QPAC to see a 20-minute excerpt of a show by some colleagues from Perth: It’s Dark Outside by Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs for PTC. I’ve seen it before in full, I think it’s wonderful, and the excerpt does it justice. Dark Outside uses a mixture of puppetry, mask-work, shadow-puppetry and video projection, and has already been picked up on the national and international touring circuit. It’s flawlessly executed, is about something that affects us all, and has a big heart. During the show I find myself weeping.
I have a quick chat with the artists afterwards, but they’re already surrounded by interested delegates. I feel happy, and hope APAM goes well for them. Apparently they had some technical issues at the rehearsal yesterday, but it all seemed to go without a glitch. They’ve got a second showing this afternoon.
I wander out into the blazing sun. It’s the hottest day it’s been so far, and I’ve pre-booked for my next showcase, a full-length outdoor promenade live-art work on the Brisbane River, in the middle of the day.
I’ve got an hour, and I need to eat something, but the nearest café is clogged with delegates, and I can’t face any more wetnurking right now. I run into a delegate from Tasmania I’ve only met in the last couple of days. She compliments me on my pitch, and we wander down to the bizarre concrete artificial beach in the parklands by the river just past the Conservatorium to cool our heels. I leave her there and continue along the river to find some shops and grab a sandwich before heading down to the Goodwill Bridge, which is the rendezvous point for the show.
The Stream/The Boat/The Shore/The Bridge is by Dan Koop and Co from Melbourne, where it’s previously been staged; but it would work on any inner-city stretch of river anywhere (even Perth). At the rendezvous point I’m met by a host-artist and three other participant audience-members. We’re offered sunscreen and water, each choose a differently coloured texta, and collectively draw a blue river, a red boat, a yellow shore and a black bridge on four identical pieces of paper which became our maps. Then we’re each allocated three out of the four places as stages on our individual journey. I miss out on the bridge, which I’m happy about, as it looks clogged with people and traffic. Finally we’re each given a differently coloured sun-umbrella and set off in our respective directions, following a broken line of correspondingly coloured flags.
I won’t describe what happens in detail: suffice to say that I’m met at each place by a different artist who guides me through a one-on-one experience for about fifteen minutes and then directs me to the next place, exchanging umbrellas with one of the other participants on the way and following a new set of matching flags. The experiences themselves are site-specific, carefully conducted and differentiated in terms of participation, simple and deeply personal. Each of the guide-performers uses their real names; no one pretends to be anyone or anywhere else; each encounter feel unique and real; and I feel safe and free to say and do as much as I want at every point. Abiding themes include the experience of place and time; the meaning of home; leave-takings; decisions; crossings; and points of no-return.
At one point, on the shore just past the Maritime Museum at the end of the parklands, I’m invited to pick up something from the ground and put it in my pocket. I choose a piece of bluestone gravel, which has probably been transported to Brisbane from Melbourne, my original home. Later, in a rowboat, just before returning to the shore, I’m invited to leave something behind if I want. Without thinking I take out the piece of bluestone and toss it into the river.
Afterwards my fellow audience/participants and I are offered icy-poles and invited to hang out at a riverside café and compare our experiences. We’ve all had a great time; the bridge sounded like fun, but I don’t regret missing out. In fact, after the experience I’ve just had, I don’t regret anything.
I wander back down (or is it up?) the river with one of delegate/participants, who works for Queensland Theatre Company on touring and regional programming. Brisbane’s home for her. She tells me stories about the floods of 2011, how the river engulfed the artificial beach completely, shifted islands of debris downstream, endangered the lives of people on the ferries and inspired acts of ordinary heroism.
I realize I’m completely drifting now, still under the influence of the show. I’ve had this experience before after participating in one-on-one site-specific theatre: it seems to continue long after the show’s over and transform my sense of reality.
My companion’s on her way to the Conservatorium to see another 20-minute excerpt. I follow her into the air-conditioned cool of the foyer, and we say goodbye.
In the men’s toilets, I run into the festival director from the UK who was on the panel at Metro Arts last night, and whom I’ve been persistently emailing. He looks a bit startled when I our eyes meet, and I’m about to say something, but think better of it; it’s neither the time nor the place. Besides I’m not sure how my contributions during the Q&A last night might have gone down. He certainly disappeared post-haste afterwards; and does so again now. There’s no trace of him when I go back out into the foyer, and I never set eyes on him again. (Two weeks later I finally get an email saying he was sorry to miss me and my pitch, but that to be honest my piece ‘isn’t really a fit’ for his festival. I’m not sure if it’s really the piece that didn’t fit, particularly given he missed the pitch, but who knows?)
Inside the auditorium I catch sight of Minneapolis, sitting with Ong Keng Sen (the Singapore cross-cultural guru who was on the panel at the Keynote Event) and a friend from Hong Kong with a Mohawk haircut, who’s the head of something in West Kowloon. Keng Sen glances back and blows me a kiss. I decide to accept the invitation (within reason) and join the cool gang, even though I feel like a bit of a geek in comparison. ‘He’s back,’ observes Minneapolis archly, as I settle beside the delegate from Hong Kong to watch the show, without any clear idea what’s coming.
Transducer by Speak Percussion features two percussionists and a sound guy/new media artist doing weird shit with microphones and odd bits and pieces, in a kind of sonic bricolage that reminds me of the musical equivalent of Braque or Picasso c.1910. They’re wearing black, in classical muso form, and the stage is black too; but the staging and lighting have a spatial and temporal dynamic that’s highly (and perhaps unnecessarily) theatricalized. Watching the choreography of the musician’s bodies while they’re totally focussed on doing stuff is like a lesson in Stanislavski, or the aesthetics of modernist architecture and design as applied to performance: form follows function (though the ‘ornamental’ lighting would probably disqualify it). I soon find myself bored and assaulted by the sound, and cover my ears after a while; but I’m delighted and mesmerized by watching the action. Afterwards Minneapolis and I agree that we’d like to see it staged in a living room, and with the musicians wearing normal clothes. In my case, maybe with the sound switched off. Mind you, I often feel that way about concerts, and a lot of text-based performance too.
I say au revoir to Minneapolis, Hong Kong and Singapore. They’re heading off to a showcase performance of Dirtsong at the QUT Gardens Theatre. I need to get away from APAM for a while and clear my head.
I leave the air-conditioned blandishments of the Conservatorium and make my way further down (up?) the river through the concrete termite mound of the cultural complex to one of my favourite places in Brisbane: the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). They’re showing a solo exhibition by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang – his first in Australia – called Falling Back to Earth. The works are monumental installations in three separate rooms, and two of them, Eucalyptus and Heritage, have been newly commissioned by GOMA.
My interest is piqued in particular because the gallery’s director Chris Saines mentioned one of them in the context of the Keynote Event as an example of ‘collaboration’ between an artist and presenter. Apparently Cai changed his mind about the details of the installation when he arrived, and enormous demands were placed on the gallery at the last minute as a result. The example helped me to understand what was missing from other pseudo-discussions of collaboration, where presenters demanded things from artists based on their own preconceptions and insisted on ‘getting what they had paid for’. So I’m keen to see what a genuinely collaborative installation might look like.
I’m also keen to see it because it sounds like it might be a long time before the work is installed again, if ever. This gives an added sense of event, and even performance, to the work. (Something similar, incidentally, applies to the William Kentridge installation currently at PICA in Perth, which I’ll review next week.)
The first room I walk into contains Eucalyptus: two enormous spotted gum trees lying on their sides: one along the length of the room, and the other across the end and extending into the corridor. The one in the main room looks about forty metres long. Its trunk is supported from the floor by metal brackets, and the branches overhead are attached to the ceiling by chains.
The visual impact is colossal: even more so because they’re lying down. They make me think of felled megafauna: there’s something overwhelmingly sad about them.
I approach a gallery attendant and ask if I’m allowed to touch them. He tells me that as it happens this is the one exhibit in the whole gallery that people are allowed to touch, but that I’m the first person who’s asked, although lots of people do so furtively. He wonders if people want to touch them just to see what they’re made of. I tell him I just like touching trees, in the forest usually. He tells me someone asked him the other day how long it took to make them, and he answered: ‘About fifty years.’ I wonder how long they would have lived if left undisturbed: a hundred, five hundred? Apparently they were earmarked for clearing for ‘an urban community development’; he names a suburb I’ve never heard of somewhere on the outskirts of Brisbane.
I walk around the base of the tree. The roots are clogged with chunks of rock and hard red bunches of sap. I continue halfway along the trunk, stop and stroke its rough flank. A piece of bark flakes away under my hand, and I let it fall to the concrete floor.
In the next room is an older work, Head On. A column of 99 motionless artificial wolves advance along the centre of the floor, take off into the air (again, suspended from the ceiling), crash into a glass wall at the other end of the room, spill back down onto the floor and make their way back down to the other end in an endless frozen loop (or perhaps loop de loups). The wolves aren’t real or stuffed, but made of gauze and resin and covered with painted goat-hide. They don’t look real, but uncanny, and I have no desire to touch them.
I walk amongst the wolves in the direction of the glass, for some reason feeling a bit like Pierre when he’s been taken prisoner by Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow in War and Peace. All around me are people – I mean, real people, members of the public (though I often have to look twice in exhibitions like this) – posing and taking photos of each other. I reach the glass wall like everyone else and wander back through the wolves.
On a wall near the door is an accompanying work called Illusion II. Two video screens show a replica of a house exploding and burning on a vacant lot near the ruins of a train station in Berlin that was bombed during WW2. Apparently Gai had the house constructed, stuffed it with fireworks, and captured the detonation on film.
I find the whole room deeply disturbing after the melancholy of Eucalyptus. The wolves are us; that much seems obvious; doomed to repeat ourselves again and again in the nightmare of history from which we’re trying to awake. But the contrived and manufactured quality of everything, including the violence, itself feels oppressive, and seems intimately related to the destruction of the real trees next door.
I head off to the third, most ambitious, spectacular and complex installation of all, Heritage. It’s the work that Chris Saines spoke about in the context of collaboration and making last-minute changes. Once again, 99 replicas of wild animals, but this time from all around the world – leopards, polar bears, monkeys, elephants, deer, zebra – are gathered around an immense waterhole. It’s been sunk into a raised floor, and its base is lined with blue plastic, so it looks like a huge swimming pool. It’s surrounded by sand from North Stradbroke Island, which is where the inspiration for the work came to the artist, according to the wall plaque. The animals are arranged on the sand, in frozen attitudes of drinking.
I ask if I’m allowed to touch the sand, but I already know the answer. I walk around the perimeter, sit on a bench, and stare at the animals, and the water. The surface is still, apart from a slow drip from the ceiling that I only notice after about ten minutes.
Another gallery attendant joins me, and tells me I’m lucky: there’s no one else here. Only half an hour ago, the place was resounding with schoolkids. It’s about 4.30pm now; almost closing time.
I ask him about the lighting. Unlike the other rooms, there’s a false ceiling above the pool. It’s covered with a pale translucent fabric that looks like gauze and distributes a peculiarly even glow. He tells me Cai got them to install it after he arrived in Brisbane, and points out the special lights on top of the roof-beams pointing up to the real ceiling and bouncing back through the fabric so you can’t see the source of the light. I wonder if this was the last-minute change the director Chris Saines spoke about. It has a subtle yet precise effect, and would have involved a lot of extra work.
The attendant and I agree it’s a pretty special installation, and one that’s unlikely to be seen again for a while. There’s something both utopian and apocalyptic about it – beautiful, ominous, touching and faintly comic too. The animals are obviously fake. Their sizes aren’t quite accurate and are slightly out of proportion with each other. The faces in particular are a dead giveaway, especially the wombats. They remind me of the toy animals I used to collect from the shop at the zoo as a child. Only if you look at their reflections in the pool do they seem real.
I decide to have afternoon tea at the State Library café nearby. I run into a colleague from Perth there: the general manager of a major theatre company. She’s just finished a submission to a major sponsor on her laptop, and we decide to celebrate with wine and cake. We have a long chat about work and life, kids and schools, and she explains networking to me in the context of theatre company sponsor nights. For a moment it almost makes sense, and I glimpse the arts as a cog in a big machine of wheeling and dealing. (It’s a vision later reinforced by the current controversy over the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transcorp).
We find the nearest ferry terminal and head back up (down?) the river back to The Powerhouse. It’s getting dark, and the colour-synchronized lights of the city are coming back on as we pass illuminated bridges and buildings.
We stand at the prow and chat to a delegate with a production house touring multi-disciplinary performance work for kids and families. He’s based in Brisbane, but he’s almost never here; he’s always away touring or on the performing arts market circuit; in fact he’s only in Brisbane now because of APAM, and he’s enjoying the ferry ride like an excited tourist. He points out landmarks, and confides that he’s about to rent a house with some friends for the first time later this year, and marvels at the prospect of buying furniture and kitchenware. He says he’d like to tour to Perth, but there’s no suitable or accessible venue for them in the city; he tells me the new Performing Arts Centre in Albany is the best designed venue he’s ever played in.
We get off at New Farm and troop up to the Powerhouse for the Australia Council drinks outside at The Hub. My general manager colleague and I order pizza from one of the takeaway stands, grab the first of many plastic tumblers of free wine, and find a table.
Soon we’re surrounded by a huddle of Perth artists, including (astonishingly) some I’ve never met before. I find myself chatting to a woman who runs her own commercial contemporary circus company, mostly doing corporate gigs. She tells me she did a show for Gina Rinehart and friends last week. She says the irony of it is that she has total creative freedom to make work that’s as cutting-edge and contemporary as she wants. I suspect that freedom might not extend to actual content; and that there’s a reason you can run a sustainable business model with circus more easily than text-based theatre. She says she’s never felt so empowered as when she recently went through her books and fired half her clients. I wonder who the ones she fired were (Twiggy Forrest perhaps?) and whether it’s too late for me to start a career in circus.
The Perth huddle round the table has intensified, and now we’re all talking about the lack of accessible venues and cultural infrastructure generally in Perth, in glaring contrast with Brisbane. I say I suspect the problem is that Perth is a mining town, and no-one who works in the mining industry actually lives there.
The team from It’s Dark Outside has turned up, and Tim Watts and I start talking about apocalypse movies, the history of quicksand as a cultural signifier, and how we’re going to start a performance venue in Northbridge called The End of the World. The humidity has broken, it’s starting to rain, and we head to the bar to get more drinks, even though I suspect I’ve had enough and am starting to rave.
After that it’s all a bit of a blur. At the bar, another presenter from a regional arts centre finds me and says how much he liked my pitch. I start raving to him about how audiences and communities aren’t the same thing, and how an artist (like me) can build a long-term relationship with a community (like his) for a presenter (like him). He looks amazed and offers to buy me another drink, as the Australia Council funding’s dried up and they’ve stopped serving free ones.
Somehow I’ve lost Tim, and Minneapolis has materialized instead. I start explaining about quicksand and the End of the World, and she nods encouragingly in the direction of the regional presenter who’s gone off to buy me a drink. I’m starting to feel like I’m in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, or possibly Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The next thing I know we’re back inside the tent with Keng Sen and the Mohawk from West Kowloon, and there’s some kind of cabaret about to start, or perhaps that was last night. I need to go home and get some sleep.
On my way out, I run into my arts-funding-body observer-delegate friend. He gleefully announces, ‘We’re playing swapsies!’, grabs my red delegate pass from around my neck and hands me someone else’s identity, which I retain for the rest of APAM. Fleetingly I wonder how Tim and the other Dark Outside artists managed to penetrate Hub security despite only having blue artist passes. Perhaps it involved masks or puppets. I must remember to ask him.
The last thing I recall is being walked through the streets of New Farm in the direction of my backpackers by the independent artist from Melbourne who was on the panel at Metro Arts last night and her partner (the ones who tour site-specific interactive promenade theatre using iPhones internationally). I’m still raving to them about something when we arrive at their guesthouse and say goodnight.
Somehow I find my way back alone to what I hope is my backpackers, eventually crack the front door code, followed (eventually) by what (I hope) is my bedroom door code, and finally pass out on what (I hope) is my bed.