Postcard from Perth Festival 2018: 1
I begin writing this, my first blog post as Festival Navigator, while on the long haul back to Perth from Minneapolis: 7.5 hours across the US, the Atlantic and the British Isles to Paris; a 7-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle; then another 6.5 hours across Europe and Turkey to the Middle East; another 3 hours at Doha; and then the final 11.5 hour flight across the Indian Ocean. The long, broken route is for artistic and personal reasons; I’ve been away for almost 3 months. On the flights I alternate between reading, napping, gazing down at the clouds, the ocean or the changing land, and reflecting on the journey I’ve been on, and the one ahead.
Fifteen years ago I drove to Perth from Melbourne in 6 days and nights. I was moving to a new home, and I wanted to experience the transition at ground-level, in my body, so to speak (or at least the body of my battered old car). Then 3 years ago I’d gone overseas for 5 months – for professional development reasons, I thought at the time, but the trip turned out to be life-changing. The 3-month trip I’ve just been on is a kind of coda to the previous one, in some ways a kind of closing of the circle. I’m coming home again, but a new apartment, and a new (if temporary) job; more deeply, I’m coming back to myself, but also emerging from something, like someone waking up from a long sleep.
I feel a familiar thrill seeing the landscape below, the desert, the salt-lakes, the hills, the gleaming towers of the city by the yawning river, the wild blue ocean. When I emerge from the airport, the sky is as huge as ever. I spend the night in the Perth hills with family, sleep fitfully, and wake early to the shrieking birds, the dazzling light, and towering eucalypts outside the window.
I think about the grand title of ‘festival navigator’ that’s been bestowed on me, and the words jostle in my head. I think about the Latin word festa, meaning ‘feast’, and religious festivals and feasts, and saints’ days, and the Dionysiad, the ancient Greek festival in honour of the god of theatre, and wine, and excess. I think about the art of navigation in the era of cars and planes, and the great seafaring navigators of the past, and the Latin navis, meaning ‘ship’. I think about festivals as celebrations of place, and cities like Athens, and Adelaide, and Perth, and the gathering of multitudes at a regular time and place to honour something, or somewhere, or someone, as in the Latin celebrare, meaning ‘frequented’ or ‘honoured’. I think about festivals as interruptions or suspensions of normality in time, too, and of normal relationships with time and place: bingeing on shows and events, the onslaught of visiting artists and audiences, and the transformation of a city, making it visible in a different light. I think about time as an arrow and time as a cycle, and the cycles of nature and the seasons, on which the cycles of life, and history, and culture are based.
How am I going to navigate this Festival – to navigate myself and others through the next four weeks? How have I navigated myself through other festivals, or tasks, or times in my life? Perhaps beyond navigation in space there’s a navigation of time, a kind of personal dramaturgy, that we all do, in certain periods of our lives, and even eras in history, like the current era of crisis we’re all living through, regardless of our age or generation. (I think about Strauss and Howe’s theory of generations and ‘turnings’, so beloved by the egregious Steve Bannon, and how according to them I’m a member of Gen X, an aptly named ‘nomad’ generation, like the ‘lost generation’ of Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway before me.) Perhaps being a Festival Navigator means being a kind of dramaturg, accompanying others into unknown terrain, pointing out and mapping certain known or at least familiar landmarks or features, observing and recording others yet unknown.
An overview, then: hunched in my passenger seat somewhere over the Indian Ocean, I peer into my laptop, toggling between my densely packed Festival Navigator itinerary of events over the coming days, nights and weeks, and the pages of the Festival website. There are the familiar categories: theatre, dance, music, exhibitions, opening ceremonies, free events, the Writers Festival and Lottery West Film Festival; and there are the less obvious, more entangled, interconnected programs offering audiences and local artists opportunities to participate in the Festival more actively, like the schools and education programs, guest artist residencies and workshops (I’ll be participating in one of these), making guest appearances in shows (I’ll be doing three of these), assisting in the installation of guest visual artists’ works, attending pre-and-post-show chats and thematic weekend conversations with artists (I’ll be hosting two of these), local project development workshops and showings supported by the Festival, the Museum of Water program, various themed walks hosted by artists and scientists, the Young Creatives and Lab programs for local teenage and emerging artists, and the Industry Pass offering discount tickets to shows and other events.
Beyond the obvious jewels in the programming, this more hidden agenda of grass-roots seeding and responsiveness to Perth itself - this sense of place – seems to me to be the most distinctive feature of Wendy Martin’s Perth Festival (renamed this year after previously being Perth International Festival of the Arts). Artistically there’s also a readiness to cross boundaries and build bridges between artists and audiences, companies and art-forms, traditions, cultures, communities and places beyond Perth – especially in the region we share around the Indian Ocean rim – which seems all the more vital in an era of increasing social divisiveness and identity politics. I find myself thinking of the slogan of the airline I’m flying with, ‘there are no borders in the sky, only horizons’ – perhaps a response to the current embargo and isolation of their home country by neighbouring states, but inescapably reminding me also of global mass migration in response to war, oppression, poverty and climate change.
Perhaps artists themselves are a kind of navigators, inventing navigation tools and landscapes to navigate their (and our) lives and times. Perhaps producers, curators, artistic and even festival directors can be navigators too, supporting artists, works and programs that provide imaginary maps for us to lose and find ourselves in, navigating journeys through time and space, outer as well as inner journeys - personal, artistic, political and spiritual, sacred and profane.
I look more closely at the Festival artist-navigators from here and overseas, and note a few at random. Yeung Fai (Festival Artist-in-Residence), a Paris-based fifth-generation master of traditional glove puppetry who left China during the Cultural Revolution navigates the journey of his family, his art-form and his country using a mixture of traditional and contemporary puppetry in Handstories; he’s also reviving and touring The Puppet Show Man, a show he created in Bolivia, to local schools and community groups, and running a workshop for local artists in collaboration with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. Russian writer and performer Evgeny Grishkovets navigates a world from which actual letters and maps (the traditional tools of navigation) are disappearing in Farewell to Paper; inspired by the show, the Festival is also inviting local students to submit letters responding to the question ‘What will I miss?’ in a program entitled Letters of Farewell. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour navigates his way across physical borders and language-barriers in Nassim, a task-based theatre work involving guest appearances by local performers. In the work of these artists and others it seems to me navigation provides both the form and substance of their works. Convenient metaphor, sign of the times, or serendipitous insight into one of the functions of art and perhaps the Festival itself?
A couple of days later, still groggy with jet-lag, I meet up with Festival Director Wendy Martin and her team. They welcome me and fill me in on their roles, and I become aware of how under the radar the Festival is already underway. Program Manager Jess Darlow tells the story of how last week she took some of the African-British actors from visiting UK production The Barbershop Chronicles to run a workshop with Sudanese students at the Edmund Rice Centre in the Perth suburb of Mirabooka.
The following night I’m at the opening of The Museum of Water at Fremantle Arts Centre on a balmy evening a world away from wintry Minnesota. In her opening speech, Wendy goes off script and tells the story of how one of the first donors to the collection was Mahin Nowbakht, an Iranian immigrant to Australia who brought in her suitcase a vial of purified water and a packet of dessicated damask-rose petals as her most precious possession. A bottle of rosewater was her gift to the collection; she’s giving a workshop on distilling rosewater entitled ‘The Art of Memory’ as part of the Museum events this weekend; and damask rose is this year’s Festival scent.
The following night I’m at the Festival’s pop-up outdoor live-music venue the Chevron Gardens beside the Swan River on Festival Eve. Overhead a helicopter is ‘rehearsing’ for Sirens: Melbourne sound-artist Byron J Scullin and curatorial team Supple Fox will be broadcasting the sound of women’s voices singing from speakers mounted beneath the helicopter as it navigates the skies of Perth above the CBD every dawn and dusk for the first ten days of the Festival as people arrive at work and leaving again at the end of the day. The first performance will be at dawn tomorrow after a welcome-to-country ceremony by local Noongar women elders.
There’s a sense of anticipation in the air.