Monday, 10 November 2014

Postcard from Melbourne

Live Art Camp

I’m writing this Postcard from Melbourne on the return flight to Perth after a week in my original hometown. It’s over a year since I’ve been back: the longest I’ve ever been away. As usual, work was the official reason for my trip, in the perennial guise of narrating audio books for a company who’ve been remarkably loyal to me over the years. However I’ve also spend two days as one of 35 participants at Live Art Camp: an event hosted by Arts House in North Melbourne, and organised by Katerina Kokkinos Kennedy and Melanie Jame Wolf of Triage Live Art Collective, who’ve been the recipients of a slab of funding from the EU Commission and the Australia Council for a three-year international project entitled Hotel Obscura, of which this series of workshops and forums is the first stage – the second being the performance of works in hotel rooms across Europe in 2015, and the third seeing works developed for the Festival of Live Art at Arts House in 2016.

I missed the opening four days – a weekend of Open Space sessions on interdisciplinary performance followed by two days of workshops run by interstate artists (including WA’s very own PVI Collective) – because of weekend performance commitments of my own back in Perth, followed by two days of audio book recording here in Melbourne; but I was there for the forum on Monday night about developing and touring projects internationally, followed by two days of workshops facilitated by international artists. I also missed the final 24-hour group sleepover and live-art-making event, as I had to spend the last day back in the recording studio and needed what was left of my brain to be at least partially functioning. So my stay at Hotel Obscura at this stage of its construction was transient at best; more casual visitor than overnight camper. Nevertheless I found it a rich experience and came away with complex and conflicting thoughts and feelings about live art, international touring and the project itself.

It’s an immensely ambitious endeavour, and one that’s clearly consuming Katerina and Melanie Jame in their role as artist-producers in terms of time, energy and resources – a process they and other guests on the panel reflected on openly at the forum on Monday night. They spoke first about how the project had evolved, mutated and proliferated in response to funding opportunities, partnerships and the conditions attached to them – one consequence of which was the extended form of the project itself. This theme was taken up by the artists on the panel who spoke next and somewhat ironically described the serendipitous, time-energy-and-resource-intensive paths by which their own work had ended up on the international circuit, and what if anything this meant to them. The microphone then passed to Sophie Travers from the Australia Council, who’s recently returned to Melbourne from the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) in Brussels, and who was also commendably open about the options and uncertainties for Australian artists seeking to develop and tour work in Europe in a period of restructuring on the part of Ozco itself (not to mention tightening circumstances in the EU). Finally the Creative Producer of Arts House Angharad Wynn-Jones spoke about her own experiences as a presenter and facilitator of international work – including the possibilities and limits involved in rethinking the logistics of sustainable touring and collaboration in an age of digital technology and financial/environmental crisis. One tentative answer appeared to be Arts House’s forthcoming Going Nowhere festival – further details of which seemed however to revolve around making work via Skype and/or touring concepts or blueprints for shows rather than actual performers.

I couldn’t help wondering if these solutions were really the answer to environmental, economic or artistic sustainability. The internet after all relies on a massive backup of power and resources (not to mention hidden labour and exploitation) behind the scenes; while the virtual connection it offers artists – to each other and audiences – is no way comparable to their actual presence (which is surely the essence of live art, theatre and performance generally). The question loomed in my jet-lagged mind: as artists, why not literally stay home, work and make work where we live, in the context of our actual communities? The answer of course is that living and working in one place consistently or for any length of time is increasingly difficult to sustain (that word again) for artists and arts workers (not to mention those with even less means at their disposal) in order to simply survive. Here I was after all, in the rare position of being present at this very event because a (corporate) employer was paying for my (carbon-intensive) flights, accommodation and living expenses in exchange for my work in their recording studios. I duly returned to that studio the next day – weighing up the implications of narrating an audio version of a detective novel set in Kenya (complete with African accents) for CD and online distribution worldwide.


On Wednesday morning I showed up at Arts House bright-eyed and bushy tailed (albeit at least twenty years older than most of the other participants) for a one-day workshop with Rosanna Cade: a performance artist based in Glasgow whose work deals in identity, sexuality and gender politics and is based in queer theory; she’s also co-founder of Buzzcut Festival in Glasgow, which presents live art for free to the general public in traditionally working-class areas and alternative environments. There were about ten of us in the workshop, and we were relegated to a wing of Arts House with two classrooms, one somewhat alarmingly laid-out with desks in rows.

We began by sitting in a circle on the floor in the other room and introducing ourselves; Rosanna described her own work; and then invited us to spend five minutes writing something beginning ‘the performance I want to make today is…’ I wrote a long list of adjectives and phrases and then a short list of unimaginative ideas, most of which were things I’d seen or done before. She then asked us to choose one of our previous sentences or phrases and write it on a new page; I chose ‘non-fictional’, because it seemed to describe the opposite of what I normally do working in theatre.

We then trouped into the classroom with the desks, each of which now had an envelope on it, face-down. I chose a random desk, turned over the envelope and was pleased to discover it had my name on it. Inside was a note with a series of instructions about using the next hour to create a 5-minute performance for one audience-member using the phrase we’d chosen as the title and involving a moment of physical contact. We could also use the table and 2 chairs, along with anything else we had with us. The most interesting instruction was ‘the audience member must be required for the performance to happen’. Alongside these general instructions was a specific message for each of us. Mine was ‘an orgasm’. I wondered briefly if she’d written this specifically with me in mind.

I went off to make myself a cup of tea and eat an orange I’d brought with me. We then split up into smaller groups and developed our performances with each other. I won’t describe the performance I made, except to say that the orange was involved. Suffice to say that the other two in my group made works that involved language and were much more courageous and revealing personally than mine was. Or perhaps not.

After lunch we collectively regrouped for a discussion about the notion of documentation. This raised an interesting paradox for me: how to document something – whether for archival, promotional or acquittal purposes – that’s inherently a transitory live experience between two people. It’s like Schrödinger’s cat in quantum theory: you can’t observe or measure the outcome without effecting or changing it. The only answer seemed to be to make a new work in another medium as a kind of response to or residue of the first one.

Before the advent of photography or sound recording, the most obvious example of this was the script of a play, or a musical or choreographic score, together with printed materials like posters, handbills and programs or verbal descriptions such as reviews. Since the advent of digital technology in particular, the notion of documentation has radically extended and intervened at every stage in the creation, production, reception and distribution of artworks, including pre-production, funding and promotion. It’s a fact of life, but something I struggle with. Perhaps I’m nostalgic for what Benjamin called the aura of the traditional artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction. Or perhaps I’m just scared of the internet, in the same way people were once scared of railways.

We split up into our sub-groups again to investigate ways of documenting our performances. In my case, perhaps perversely, I felt I wanted this to involve sound only, while the others wanted to capture things on camera as well. However, we began by recording our verbal recollections of participating in each other’s work. I found this process immensely rewarding, though I had no desire to keep a copy of the recording or listen back to it. We then somewhat quickly and mechanically documented our performances, visually or in my case audio only.

We reconvened and showed our efforts to the group. In the event, everyone else had documented their work visually, and I was struck by how inventive and tech-savvy they were, and how inadequately I felt mine represented my performance. On the other hand, I felt I had no idea what theirs were like either ‘in the flesh’. I finished the afternoon feeling frustrated, and a little anxious about my work being understood or judged, but with much to ponder about the relationship between ‘live’ and ‘digital’ art, presence and representation. The morning’s work, on the other hand, left me hungry to make more one-on-one performances.


That night a friend and I went to the old art deco Astor Theatre in St Kilda for a farewell double-bill before the cinema closes at the end of the year. I’ve been going to the Astor since it started programming cult and art-house films in the early 80s, and it’s remained a regular pilgrimage for me whenever I come back to Melbourne from Perth. I took my children there to see ET and Poltergeist (which terrified them) – and my second wife to see Les Enfants du Paradis and Death in Venice (which she left bored after the first five minutes). On Wednesday night, my friend and I had seen neither film before, but Locke and Only Lovers Left Alive seemed like the perfect way to say goodbye.


The following morning began with a half-day workshop led by Emma Paintin from the UK collaborative duo Action Hero, who make performances based on material drawn from the inherently theatrical aspects of popular culture. This time, I was part of a much larger group, in a much larger space in the central Meat Market Main Pavillion; and we were invited to pair off and make work based on a karaoke YouTube of the original video clip for Queen’s I Want to Break Free. Again, I found myself swimming against the current, by devising a piece that didn’t involve either the video or the original track, and that referred to politics (or at least Tony Abbott) rather than sex (with Freddie Mercury or anyone else). This time I felt a lot happier about finding a way to present it to the group too, using indirect representation, live performance and neither video nor recorded sound.

After lunch we had to choose a final half-day workshop. I decided to face my fears, and cast my lot with Georges Jacotey, a young Greek visual and performance artist who uses the internet as his primary medium to explore gender identity, including his own. The workship was entitled ‘Videos of Affinity’, and we were expected to bring our own video and editing software, props and costumes. I had an iPhone, and decided to borrow anything else I needed. The first thing I told Georges was that I was afraid of the internet. He was amazed; for him the internet was liberating; if anything it was real life that terrified him. He looked about twenty, and was wearing a dress. I decided I had much to learn from him.

Our small group of about ten convened in one of the dressing-room annexes off to one side of the performance space where I’d spent the morning. Georges had set the room up with a couple of comfortable old sofas and a pot plant. Instead of introducing ourselves verbally, we were sent off to find somewhere private and make an improvised two-minute introduction on our devices that might or might not involve words but that he would be able to ‘recognize us by’. I found another empty dressing room and made a messy hand-held video of myself surrounded by mirrors explaining that I was afraid of the internet and felt more comfortable here preparing to get into character or onstage in front of a live audience than online or in person.

We reconvened and showed our videos on our various devices. Then Georges showed a couple of examples of video works by artists online that had interested him; he called them ‘friends’, although I got the impression he hadn’t actually met or communicated with them in the flesh. It struck me that both videos were self-referential – that is to say, that they were explicitly ‘about’ the artists, the works and the medium itself – and that both expressed the same kind of frustration and anxiety that I’d experienced trying to document my work yesterday, only this time directed towards their capacity to communicate their thoughts and feelings. I found this sobering: perhaps I wasn’t alone after all, at least in my sense of fear and inadequacy. I also couldn’t help thinking of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.

Then Georges sent us off for an hour to make a more considered ‘work’ on our devices that we would then show to the group – and afterwards potentially upload and share as a virtual community. I got another cup of tea, went and sat outside with my iPhone and quickly found my subject. I wrote the script in about ten minutes, but it took me the rest of the hour to frame and compose the shot – a fixed shot which required no editing, but for which I eventually had to borrow someone else’s miniature iPhone tripod. I wasn’t in it myself, just my voice, but I still found it astoundingly difficult to shoot. The voiceover on the other hand was easy – after narrating in a recording studio six hours a day for two days, I recorded it ‘live’ into the phone as part of the shot, in a single take.

We spend the last hour back in the dressing room, sitting on the sofas and the floor, watching the videos one by one, projected onto the wall. I was nervous again when mine was screened, but I felt like it said what I wanted it to say, and didn’t look as bad as I’d feared. The others were clever, touching, witty, honest and – some of them – visually skilful and even beautiful. They were all without exception thoroughly watchable.

It was the perfect way to end my experience of Live Art Camp. I’d faced my fear of the internet, and didn’t feel frustrated or anxious; but I think this was at least partly to do with the fact that Georges had created a space in that dressing room – with its sofas and pot plant and cracked wall that served as a screen – where we could share a live experience together, and talk about it afterwards, in the flesh, there and then, as an actual community.


That night I went back to my accommodation in the city and spent the evening on my own, thinking about live art, the internet, travelling and working interstate and abroad. The following day I spent back in the studio recording the last hundred pages of the novel about the Kenyan detective. Afterwards I met up with the same friend, and saw a play I didn’t enjoy. I spent Saturday in my one-bedroom apartment, and started writing a new theatre work, which I’d been putting off, but quickly became absorbed in. Saturday evening I met up with another friend, and saw another play, which I liked more than the first one. And on Sunday, I had breakfast with a third friend at The European on Spring St (another Melbourne ritual), immersed myself in a matinee screening of Interstellar at the IMAX in the Exhibition Gardens, and then flew back to Perth. I started writing this Postcard on the plane, and I finished it when I got home.

So what have we learned? For me, live art is an opportunity to venture outside my comfort-zone as a performer and an audience member. It’s interdisciplinary, intimate, immersive, participatory, real, happens outside of conventional spaces and erases conventional boundaries and definitions. I’m still not sure what role digital technology has to play here, or in the context of live performance, or art generally. Perhaps that’s because I’m still not sure about the role digital technology plays in my life, or the world. Or perhaps that has more to do with how I feel about images and words than the internet per se. As another friend in another city pointed out on the phone that night in my one-bedroom apartment: I’m comfortable posting these words, and putting them out there, but images are another story.

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