Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 7

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA 

The Gift of Presence: A Post-Christmas Meditation

The only theatre I’ve seen in Perth over the last couple of weeks has been taking place around me on the streets, in the shops, around the dinner table and at various venues, family-friendly or otherwise. Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night (or What You Will) have come and gone. In fact ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ might be more apt. Expectations and anxieties have run high, performances have been true to form, children have been entertained, and adults less so, if we’re honest with each other.

The world has been turned upside down (even here in Perth at the height of antipodean midsummer) and the Lord of Misrule has once more presided over the Feast of Fools – which certainly describes my family Christmas, not to mention the alcohol-and-amphetamine-fuelled antics around Fremantle and the surrounding suburbs I call home. There’s a darkness at the edge of town here at this time of year; my neighbourhood of Hamilton Hill has resounded nightly with the howls of the walking dead – and I’m not just talking about the TV series, the first season of which I watched avidly on SBS2 after it began screening in November. In fact a visiting ex-Perthian friend recently suggested I post a blog about the series as a metaphor for the city, with particular reference to the desolate, hostile post-apocalyptic glass-and-concrete urban wasteland of the CBD – which indeed bears a striking resemblance to the zombie-infested streets of Atlanta, especially in the run-up (or shuffle-up) to the saturnalian frenzy of shopping and feasting.

Now that some semblance of order has been restored – at least for the time being – I’m driven to reflect on the absurdity of it all: Christmas, seasons, festivities, festivals, theatre and performance in general, here and elsewhere – but especially here in Perth. Between ourselvesso to speak – my wife and I have been thinking about celebrating the winter solstice in June next year with our immediate kith and kin, and absconding for Christmas and New Year – perhaps somewhere a bit cooler down south, like Albany, or further afield, like Tassie or NZ.

As for theatre and performance in a more (or less) conventional sense: the seasonal interval gives me pause to reflect on what it is and why we make or go and see it, especially here at the edge of world. Once again those questions from Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia resound: ‘Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing? What do we want?’

According to local WA hero Tim Winton – in a recent speech at the Royal Academy in London to accompany the Australia exhibition on show there (and reprinted a couple of weeks ago in the ‘Review’ section of The Weekend Australian) – such questions are essentially geographical and unique to his native island-continent. For ex-pat Tassie critic Peter Conrad on the other hand (in his review of the same exhibition for the Christmas issue of The Monthly) such questions are cultural rather than geographical, and the confusion between the two categories betrays the naivety of the exhibition’s curators, together with much of the landscape art they’ve chosen. For me, however, Shaun Tan’s questions are existential. As such, I don’t have any answers, but they resonate all the more profoundly, especially here across the void at Christmas-tide.

Meanwhile there’s a truckload of live performance coming up in February with Perth Festival and Fringe World – not to mention Big Day Out at Claremont Showgrounds and Laneway Festival in Fremantle, followed by West Coast Blues ’n’ Roots in April (with Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age thrown in for good measure at Perth Arena across Feb–March). I mention these music acts because for my money there’s a lot more theatre in rock’n’roll – indie or stadium-sized, classic or contemporary – than many a play, well-staged or otherwise. The prospect (if not necessarily the reality) of seeing Leonard Cohen or The Boss at the Arena gives me a similar thrill to the one I felt seeing Ian McKellen at The National (the theatre, not the band) as Coriolanus in 1984, or Willem Dafoe in The Hairy Ape at The Malthouse for the 2001 Melbourne Festival; and I was as transfixed by Nick Cave the first time I saw him – when he was just a caterwauling pup with The Boys Next Door at the Crystal Ballroom in 1980 – as I was by Julie Forsyth the first time I saw her in Kids Stuff at Anthill in 1984. So I’m still asking my daughters who’s worth catching live at Laneway or the Bakery; and I’m still dragging one or other of them to see a show I think will be hot (or cool) at Fringe World or The Blue Room – even if expectations aren’t born out, or we don’t ultimately agree.


What is it we’re hoping to find in the fleeting experience of live performance?

I had a conversation about this on New Year’s Eve with a man I’d never met before (but like me a friend of our mutual host) who was sitting at the dinner table opposite me and my wife. In fact the conversation itself – and indeed the whole evening, like New Years’ Eves generally – was something of a performance, and my wife and I were relieved when we could finally sing Auld Laing Syne and go home. In the meantime, our dinner companion wanted to talk to us about being performers (as non-performers invariably do) and I indulged his speculations for a while before turning the tables and asking him about himself (which is usually more interesting for everyone).

He turned out to be a software designer who worked for the mining industry (as most people seem to in Perth, one way or another – at least if they want to earn any money at all). Nevertheless he was anxious to communicate his own artistic and even environmentalist leanings – although both seemed currently unfulfilled, at least in terms of his work for the mining industry. In fact, like Gertrude in Hamlet, his heart seemed veritably cleft in twain by the apparent conflict between his aesthetic, moral and practical inclinations. He soothed himself by being a patron of the arts, and described how he found himself drawn to the stage-presence of performers he admired (our host and Leonard Cohen among them). I suggested he try resolving the conflict more actively by applying his (literal and figurative) software to environmental conservation rather than destruction. However it struck me that artistic patronage had more immediate allure for him: partly because it enabling him to continue speculating and investing his resources more profitably in digging money out of the ground, so to speak; but also because of the aura which certain performers and performances evidently held for him.


This ‘aura’ is a constituent element in all ‘original’, ‘unique’ or ‘authentic’ art – as famously described by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1936 essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (an essay which is itself ironically one of the most mechanically reproduced works in the annals of cultural theory and criticism).

I myself here ‘reproduce’ the terms ‘aura’, ‘original’, ‘unique’, ‘authentic’ (and even ‘reproduction’ itself) in quotes, partly because they’re Benjamin’s terms, but also because I’m uneasy about them. Partly my uneasiness stems from the fact that they’re often used as terms of aesthetic, moral and even spiritual evaluation (or devaluation, as the case may be); but I’m also uneasy about their application to performance.

Unlike the work of art considered as an object (for example a Rembrandt painting), terms like ‘original’, ‘unique’ and ‘authentic’ seem problematic when applied to acts of creative interpretation (by actors, singers, musicians, dancers, directors, designers, choreographers, etc) – especially to existing works (like plays, scores, librettos, scenarios). Such performances are at least in principle capable of rehearsal and repetition – and hence can’t be described as original, unique or authentic (at least not in the same sense as the Rembrandt painting) – notwithstanding claims regarding the use of ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ instruments or practices by the Academy of Ancient Music or Shakespeare’s Globe. In fact such terms are even problematic in the realm of visual art – for example when applied to works by Warhol, as recent legal disputes testify.

Benjamin however applies these terms primarily to works of art considered from a strictly historical, sociological and economic standpoint as objects and commodities. He also applies the concept of aura to the work of performers – both onstage and off. In particular, he describes the 'shrivelling of aura' on a film-set, which is partially compensated for by the cult of personality off-screen (I’d add to this the aura of the image on-screen, especially in close-ups).

Benjamin derives the aura of art from its original ‘cultic’ value in magic or religious rites and rituals; and he contrasts this with its ‘exhibition’ value as society becomes secularized. In both cases, he attributes the aura of artworks and artists to their ‘presence at a distance’ – which is not a bad description of a painting on gallery wall, or a performer on a theatre or concert stage. It also brings to mind the phenomenon of being ‘cool’, which implies a kind of internalized distance on the part of the subject or object in question, together with a universal extension of the concepts of art and performance (Warhol, again).

For Benjamin, however, aura– and indeed live performance itself – is in decline since the invention of photography, film and sound recording. These inventions abolish the ‘distant presence’ of the auratic object or performer, and replace it with mechanically reproduced images – which ultimately become accessible and available instantly to everyone everywhere (in this respect Benjamin’s essay strikingly anticipates the advent and impact of the internet).

According to Benjamin this process heralds the historically determined transition from capitalism to socialism (via the convulsions of fascism) and from religion to politics, both inside and outside the sphere of the arts. Indeed, he makes some revealing observations about the progressive ‘politicization of art’ under socialism, the reactionary ‘aestheticization of politics’ characteristic of fascism, and the changing nature of democracy in the age of the mass media. These observations might suggest that all may not proceed as smoothly as the dialectic of productive forces might promise – whether in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany or so-called liberal democracies.

Enter Adorno, stage left – or stage right, depending on your sense of orientation – with a post-Marxist critique of the concept of progress, the dialectic of enlightenment and the domination of nature, as well as a modernist defence of autonomous art against the onslaught of the culture industry. In fact Adorno's friendly but critical letters to Benjamin in 1936 on the mechanical reproduction essay make for thoughtful reading on the revolutionary potential of art and technology. It's worth noting in this regard that Adorno underestimated the autonomy of jazz or rock'n'roll, just as Benjamin overestimated the progressive limits of mainstream cinema – not to mention the fusion of high and popular culture that would revolutionize both in the 60s. 

I’m largely convinced by both Benjamin’s and Adorno's critical analyses of art, culture, society and politics, but skeptical about their judgments, recommendations or prognoses. These seem to be driven by a sublimated theology – positive or negative, as the case may be – in the guise of a political and technological utopianism (in Benjamin’s case) or pessimism (in Adorno's case) which history itself hasn’t borne out.

On the one hand (as Baudrillard described from the late 60s into the new millenium) the very forces of mechanical reproduction praised as revolutionary by Benjamin have spread capitalism and consumerism around the globe – initially through the mass media and then in an accelerated, ubiquitous and hyperreal form via digital media and the internet – in a mesmerizing 'worldwide web' which Benjamin could not possibly have foreseen. This is not to say that the technology itself is to blame; that would be merely the negation of Benjamin’s utopianism (Baudrillard’s nihilism). It is simply to point out that technology in and of itself will not free us, whether in the context of politics (Facebook, Twitter, e-petitions), poverty (genetically engineered crops) or the environment (carbon sequestration, nuclear power), let alone culture (computer games, virtual realities). Freedom does not consist in the accumulation of means, but the self-legislation of ends.

On the other hand, for better or worse, ‘unique’, ‘original’, ‘authentic’ (or, to use the term preferred by Adorno, ‘autonomous’) art and performance still exist in the here and now – even if they sometimes look like becoming an endangered species. Perhaps like all such species they simply adapt or migrate – in response to changing social, economic or technological conditions – by changing forms or platforms: going underground, going mainstream, going electric, going unplugged, going digital, going back to vinyl, going into fusion or back to their roots. Or perhaps they just vanish: time’s up. Nevertheless, across media and platforms – from books and CDs to photographs, films and TV shows, from publishing or recording to broadcasting or uploading – even virtual art and entertainment still take place somewhere in ‘real’ time and space, even if it’s just between me and a small personal screen.

This is not to say either that we can reserve the claim of freedom for the enclave of autonomous art (or philosophy) alone. On the contrary: our freedom as artists (and even as thinkers) depends in the final analysis on the freedom of everyone else – and of all our faculties, including our bodies and emotions as well as our imagination and thoughts. As Adorno wrote in a letter to Benjamin on the relationship between autonomous art and popular culture: ‘both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up.’

In any case, the aura of art and artists – including live performances and performers – seems to have survived and even thrived in the catastrophe of commodification that now casts its shadow across the planet (and even into outer space, if we can credit plans for a reality-TV colonization of Mars). In fact, whether enduring, declining or fluctuating, as the case may be, aura is still what makes art and artists such eminently collectable investments, socially if not financially: ‘cultural prestige capital’ for patrons like my New Year’s Eve interlocutor (with perhaps a warm inner glow of spiritual salvation thrown in for good measure). Professional artists can’t avoid this fate, any more than their patrons or collectors can. We’re all producers, consumers and even commodities ourselves now. As I wrote in my previous Postcard, at least since the end of the Middle Ages artists have necessarily been tradesmen and businessmen as well as being craftsmen (and women); while patrons and collectors are also investors – of their money, their time, and perhaps their souls as well. Funding bodies, producers, presenters, publicists and critics meanwhile serve as cultural middle-people in what is after all a market like any other (APAM, anyone?).


The picture looks grim, but all is not lost. ‘Pessimism of the intellect,’ as Gramsci wrote (admittedly from prison), ‘but optimism of the will.’ Perhaps Adorno’s distinction between the ‘function’ (Funktion) and ‘content’ (Gehalt) of art can help us here – based on Marx’s analysis of the difference between the use-value of labour and the exchange-value of the commodity-form in which it congeals under capitalism. Whether as artists, patrons, collectors, critics or audiences, we must learn to distinguish between the economic and social function of art (in Marx’s terms, its exchange value) and its content (or use value) as an irreducible form of experience.

This irreducibility is perhaps what Adorno called the ‘non-identical’, in order to designate its resistance to conceptualization or exchange. As such it resembles Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ (the ‘supersensory substratum’ of things beyond the categories of perception we ascribe to them) or Lacan’s ‘objet petit a’ (the ‘lost object’ of desire). To return to my guiding question: it’s what we’re seeking in the theatre or the concert venue, on the page, the canvas, or the screen – or more precisely though them, because it never actually appears in or on them as such.

Reading Benjamin in this light, the aura of art has both a nostalgic and redemptive ‘content’ (in the Adornian sense), above and beyond either the ‘cultic’ function from which it derives or the ‘exhibition value’ that appears to be its bourgeois destiny. In fact, there’s a paradoxical ‘distance’ (to use Benjamin’s word) – or even a ‘deferral’ or ‘difference’ (Derrida) – at the heart of presence itself, which is revealed in the experience of aura: the ‘crack in everything’ though which ‘the light gets in’ (Leonard Cohen).

In an otherwise somewhat anomalous passage in the essay on mechanical reproduction, Benjamin describes the appearance of aura more closely (so to speak) as ‘the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be’ (my italics). This implies that an ‘internal distance’ may lie at the heart of presence itself (as in Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence in general). The image Benjamin gives of this ‘phenomenon’ is located in the natural rather than the artificial world: specifically, when contemplating a line of hills or the shape of an overhanging branch ‘while resting on a summer afternoon’. To be sure, the hills or branch are presumably (to a greater or lesser degree) out of reach, so that the phenomenon is more precisely one of ‘distant closeness’. Moreover, the ‘unique’ time, place and reality (or otherwise) of the experience– ‘on a summer afternoon’ – are all located ‘out of reach’ by the indeterminacy of the image itself. Even the act of contemplation at its core – ‘while resting’ – is situated ‘out of reach’ in terms of its social function or value for the workaday world. However (by extension, so to speak) this phenomenon also applies to any object or person so contemplated, ‘however close’. Perhaps it’s what gives rise to what Hegel calls the ‘beautiful illusion’, ‘seeming’ or ‘semblance’ (die schöne Schein) of art – and of everything that ‘shines’ when viewed from the standpoint of aesthetic contemplation.

Indeed I’d argue that – in the realm of art at least – it’s always only a small step from contemplation to action, or from recreation to creation: in short, from the role of spectator or audience to that of artist or performer. To extend Benjamin’s image of aura in nature and ‘set it in motion’, so to speak: imagine raising one’s hand to trace the line of those hills or that branch with one’s finger. The extension from eye to hand in this imaginary gesture of tracing is already a ‘reproduction’ of the object by means of a mimetic act on the part of the subject’s own body, in a manner at once resembling drawing, writing and dance. The imaginary nature of the gesture also suggests that contemplation or creation (even in the mind’s eye) involves the production and reception of images, without or without the aid of technology. In other words (to deconstruct a central proposition of Benjamin’s essay): the process of reproduction is already at work in the phenomenon of aura itself. Proximity and distance, production and reception, object and image, presence and absence – all interpenetrate in the dialectic of aesthetic experience. Adorno writes in his Aesthetic Theory: ‘As Benjamin pointed out, the aura of art works is not only their here and now, but also their content insofar as it points beyond the work’s givenness’ (my italics). Adorno’s figurative use of the word ‘point’ – to indicate both the content of art and  (again by extension, so to speak) the writing of Benjamin himself – is itself an example of this gestural mimesis, which is prototypical of all art.

Notwithstanding the force of Benjamin’s critique of aura (or Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence), I’d maintain that – in theatre and performance at least – the quality of presence is ‘twice blessed’ (as Portia says of mercy in The Merchant) because ‘it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ – in this case, performer and audience alike. This notion of a ‘double blessing’ in the context of performance crucially involves the co-presence of both parties (performer and audience) in a transaction that is not simply one-way, but involves a process of mutual ‘give-and-take’. Indeed, we might even call this mutual presence the 'medium' of performance, in the sense that paint or words are 'media' in the context of art or literature. 

Conversely (as Benjamin acknowledges) in film (and by implication in the recording industry) the subject (or object) is present only for the camera (and/or the microphone) rather than for the spectator or listener. The latter receives a mechanically reproduced visual or sonic image via a screen and/or speakers – large or small, depending on the size of the apparatus and the shared or private nature of the experience. Benjamin describes the destruction of aura by mechanical reproduction in positive terms as ‘prying an object from its shell’; but I wonder if it’s the really the object or merely the shell that’s left. In fact I’d argue that as image-producers and image-consumers we too risk becoming psychologically absent from our bodies, companions and surroundings. To a certain extent, this is the risk of all art, but it’s a condition vastly exacerbated by technology, especially in the digital age of hand-held devices – a veritable mirror-stage by which our entire species now seems to be captivated.

Zombies staggering down the streets, anyone?

Perhaps the co-presence of live performance can provide an antidote.

There’s no question that the availability of personal, interactive multimedia devices – from laptops to smart-phones and tablets – has challenged the primacy of cinema, TV and radio as platforms of content delivery, if not in terms of content itself. Am I being optimistic though in also detecting – by way of counterpoint perhaps – a renewed hunger for live performance as a form of collective experience? In contemporary music and theatre, since the end of the nineties I've detected an upsurge of renewed activity in venues and on stages large and small – perhaps all the more so, the larger or smaller the venue or stage (and even, correspondingly, the higher or lower the budget and ticket-price), whereas the middle-ground or 'small-to-medium sector' has struggled to maintain itself. To be more precise, I’ve noticed this upsurge less in conventional purpose-built concert halls or theatres than in multi-purpose, alternative, ‘found’ or pop-up venues, spaces and facilities – from stadiums, wineries and parks to warehouses, garages and lofts – and less in the form of conventional seasons or subscriptions than in short runs or one-off events. Among other things, this suggests a change in the economics of live performance (at either end of the scale) – and perhaps business generally (from the closure of specialist and corner shops to the rise of markets, laneways, stalls and booths). There's also been a change in the function, form and content of live shows, now that so much conventional entertainment (from TV shows to porn) is downloadable ubiquitously on demand. We want the shared experience of performance to be – to use Benjamin’s terms ‘against the grain’, so to speak – 'original, unique and authentic' in ways that electronic and digital media can’t provide. We’re hungry for unclassifiable, unpredictable and unrepeatable performances that mix technologies and traditions in real time and space; and above all, we want the performers themselves to be real as well.

For both artists and fans, the unpredictable nature of the pursuit is what makes it addictive. You never know when you’re going to score, whether the hit will be pure – or even a hit. I can count them on two hands, the shows and nights I’ll remember – from either side of the lights.

At the risk of sounding a bit theological myself, I’d even venture to say that the ‘cultic’ function of art is still an essential part of live performance, as fans of bands and DJs can readily attest. This ‘cultic’ function is evidenced as much in so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ rites and festivals as it is in modern, contemporary or even ‘postmodern’ works, acts and events – however ‘advanced’ the technology deployed in order to produce, distribute or even consume them. In short: performing artists – in this respect not unlike shamans, priests, teachers and healers – know (in addition to the skills specific to their individual practice) how to channel, intensify and shape their own presence in interaction with that of their audience, congregation, students or patients, as the case may be. Rather than subsuming art in a reactionary way beneath the rubric of religion or magic (or for that matter beneath the ‘progressive’ banners of education or therapy), I would argue conversely that religion itself is an expression of the artistic – and indeed existential – urge to be (or make) present, an urge which can be (but is not necessarily) facilitated in communion with others.


The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally end on January 6 (when I resumed writing this blog) with the Feast of the Epiphany (or Theophany), which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men bearing gifts to celebrate the birth of Christ.

In Greek, epi-phaneia means ‘striking appearance’ or ‘manifestation’, and refers among other things to the natural phenomenon of dawn – as well as the appearance or manifestation of a God (theo-phaneia).

Hard acts to follow, but we keep trying. 

Happy New Year.

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