Postcard from Perth 48
Nicola Gunn, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster; James Berlyn, I Know You’re There
Perth International Arts Festival and Fringe World 2015 have come to an end, and the city settles back into the torpid pleasures of late summer. Shortly the regular seasons of local theatre companies, venues and arts organisations will grind back into gear, but for now it’s time to sit back and take stock of the past few weeks (ideally at the beach, in a park, or with a glass of wine in hand).
PIAF’s unoffical theme this year was ‘empathy’. According to incoming director Wendy Martin (in an interview on Radio National) it’s not one she chose in advance, or even thinks is necessarily part of the current zeitgeist. Nevertheless one can’t help feeling that it reflects her artistic personality and preferences; and it was certainly reflected in the shows I chose to see (and enjoyed the most) during Festival time.
Perhaps there’s something about empathy (Aristotle’s ‘pity and terror’) that’s fundamental to aesthetic experience; if so, it’s something that art has uniquely to offer us, in the form of a collective imagining of the lives of others, forms of otherness, and other possible forms of existence. Whatever the case, a festival is a timely opportunity to step outside our habitual selves – a time of ek-stasis – and imaginatively (or literally, in the case of one of the works on offer at PIAF) ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’.
Melbourne-based Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster was programmed by PICA in the last week of Fringe World and the first week of the PIAF. Athough it wasn’t officially part of the main Festival, it unquestionably deserved to be in terms of artistic finesse, content and significance. Indeed it arguably spoke to the topic of ‘empathy’ more directly (and more subversively) than any other Festival work I saw.
Nicola is one of the most original and distinctive devisor-performers in the country. Her last work to visit Perth, Hello My Name Is, had a season at The Blue Room as part of Fringe World two years ago. I saw it there, and subsequently at APAM in Brisbane, and loved its anarchic and deliberately clumsy interactive style. Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is a considerably more refined work and the satire has a much sharper edge. Once again, Nicola makes herself the primary target, but this time instead of playing the role of a fictitious community-centre facilitator ineptly hosting and sharing a series of half-baked activities with the audience, she plays herself as a performance artist, reflecting on a recent experience she had while out jogging in a park in Ghent.
This reflection takes the form of a monologue, delivered while doing a highly choreographed physical exercise routine accompanied by the eponymous ghetto-blaster, which remains on the floor downstage throughout the show. The audience is directly addressed – and even during one delirious sequence climbed into, over and on top of – but for the most part the relationship and space between us is rigidly demarcated.
This is a work about the role of the artist (or indeed any of us) as a member of society, and in particular about the ethics of intervention – whether as a personal, political, social or artistic tactic. Specifically it’s about what to do when you see someone throwing stones at a duck; apparently that someone is another stranger in a strange land, although this appearance and the assumptions behind it are progressively undermined. It’s also very funny (Nicola’s clown-persona is irrepressible, even when playing herself), but also surprisingly challenging, especially when the layers of self-reflexive irony become more morally compromising.
What were Nicola or the stone-thrower really doing in that park in Ghent? Is any of this true, or is is a kind of parable – or even meta-parable on the venerable theme of ‘throwing stones’? And if so, what or who is cryptic aim of its parabolic ‘throw’? Like Ibsen’s wild duck, the one in Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is also (if you’ll forgive the pun) a kind of floating signifier, hinting that more than one character in the play may be ‘sitting ducks’ – including the audience as well as Nicola herself. This is made gloriously manifest in the final image of the show, when ‘the duck itself’ makes an elaborately costumed appearance surrounded by a spectacular sound-and-light display.
My only reservation was the extent to which the whole piece seemed to hover for me between a genuine ethical inquiry and a (somewhat gratuitous) satire on the pretensions of performance art. I felt this most in the closing sequence, which (enjoyable as it was) felt like the ending to another (and for me less interesting) show. However, it’s also perfectly possible that I was missing the point, distracted by the spectacle and drifting away on the river of my own reflections.
Nicola’s work has clearly evolved into a formidable and multidisciplinary critique of society, art and performance itself – including the ‘performance’ of everyday life and its rituals. Mention should also be made of her collaborators: Jo Lloyd’s choreography, a mostly abstract aerobic workout with movements or gestures that fleetingly and almost coincidentally seem to align with the text; Kelly Ryall’s minimal, deadpan ghetto-blaster soundtrack; and the combination of Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Martyn Coutts’s AV design, which together slowly saturate the piece with colour and transform it into something increasingly heightened and intense. Nevertheless, all are harnessed to a singular artistic vision and form of self-experimentation. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Local Perth-based devisor-performer James Berlyn’s I Know You’re There is a much more direct, open and intimate ‘intervention’ by an artist into his own life, the life of his family, and by implication our lives as well. Kudos-points are due here to Wendy Martin for taking on and commissioning this as a PIAF show after seeing a creative development showing when she arrived in Perth a year ago.
James has a background in dance, education and community work as well as participatory, solo and one-on-one performance, and brings a wealth of wisdom, experience and self-knowledge to bear on everything he does. He also has a wonderfully warm, direct and unassuming performance style, which is very different from Nicola Gunn’s cooler, more ironic and confrontational stage persona. I’m tempted to make a generalisation about the difference between Perth and Melbourne, but I won’t go there, except to say that (as James suggests in the show itself) perhaps it’s no accident that his artistic and personal temperament has found a home here.
I Know You’re There was performed in the upstairs rehearsal room of the State Theatre Centre for a small audience seated around a table. We were surrounded by four semi-translucent screens made of crumpled and taped brown paper – which also served as the predominant design material for the show. James greeted us personally one by one on entry, maintained continuous contact with us throughout the show, invited us at various points to participate and even collaborate, and to remain and chat afterwards while he served us tea and biscuits (a homely interaction ritual which interestingly was also employed by PIAF artist-in-residence Claire Cunningham at the end of her show Guide Dogs).
The substance of the work is the discovery of events that occurred in James’s family two generations ago, and their possible implications for him and his father, who as James says had to perform that role by more or less making it up as he went along. It’s also the story of an artist’s journey, as a performer and as a man. More specifically, it’s about the impact and reverberations of war, separation, loss, death and illness (however defined) on that family and that artist. As such it’s an enactment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis or realisation – and perhaps an act of acceptance as well.
The beauty of the work lies in its delicate form, as fragile and malleable as the materials from which it’s made – brown paper, family history, artist’s body and soul. This form consists of words and reflections, making things out of paper, moving and dancing. Crucially, the work is made collaboratively between James and ourselves; and ultimately its substance is shared too, because we are continually invited to let it resonate with us, in terms of our own lives.
Credit should also be given to the rest of the creative team: director Jim Hughes, design consultant Zoe Atkinson, script consultant Alison Croggan, sound designers Late Night Shopping, and (crucially) recordings made by James’s father of himself playing Beethoven and Bach on the guitar – recordings which he made and sent home to his family while he was at sea. Once again, there’s a sense that I Know You’re There is profoundly collaborative – and that the title itself has many meanings, and acknowledges many senses of ‘being there’ on the part of its collaborators.
This is a courageous work that crosses traditional boundaries between art and life, performer and audience, performance and performance-making. In every sense, I knew I was there.
Humph’s reviews more Perth Festival shows in his next Postcard.