Vitalstatistix, Waterside Workers Hall, 6–8 June 2015. Curated by Emma Webb, Jason Sweeney and Paul Gazzola.
The curators of Adhocracy – headed, during the past three years in which I’ve been writing about it, by Emma Webb, Jason Sweeney and Paul Gazzola – know a thing or two about lassoing the zeitgeist. In 2013, as the murky palaver of Labor’s leadership unrest was approaching its nadir, the national artist hothouse hummed with questions of personal and, especially, political authenticity and illusion. Artists like David Williams and Malcolm Whittaker pulled back assorted veils to reveal harsh truths (and untruths) about liberal democracy’s terminal condition in a time of radical capitalism, fiercely partisan politics and the irresistible ascension of the tycoon and spin-doctor alike.
Adhocracy 2014, meanwhile, landed as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was finalising its Fifth Assessment Report. The report’s findings? That atmospheric and ocean warming is unequivocal, that it has been occurring since the middle of last century at unprecedented rates, and that it is virtually beyond question that human beings are responsible. By the time the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, Adhocracy’s traditional timeslot, came round, a government led by one-time climate change denialist Tony Abbott had been in power for ten months and was just weeks away from repealing Australia’s eminently sensible carbon pricing scheme. A piquant admixture of hope and despair infused the numerous works-in-progress – chief among them Future Present, led by Rosie Dennis of Urban Theatre Projects – that assayed an irrevocably climate-changed future.
This year, if we are to accept the enduring adage that the personal is political, Adhocracy’s gaze turned inwards but nevertheless retained the interrogative charge of previous years. As the commentariat sparred over the merits and meanings of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, companies All the Queens Men and Applespiel investigated the fluidity of truth and identity in still-developing works rich in ambiguity and sly humour.
|Crawl Me Blood. Photo: Bryony Jackson
Perhaps contradictorily, however, I was most taken this year with a project somewhat removed from this ambit, and otherwise discrete from the rest of Adhocracy’s program on account of its scale and literary lineage. I’m talking about Crawl Me Blood, a work-in-development by Halcyon Macleod, Willoh S. Weiland (of large-scale arts project specialists Aphids), and a posse of collaborators drawn from a variety of disciplines including sound (Tristan Louth-Robins, Felix Cross, James Brennan), text (Alan Grace, Phillip Kavanagh), and performance (Ellen Steele, Josie Were).
Crawl Me Blood’s source material is Jean Rhys’ 1966 postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea, and it’s intended that the development will ultimately blossom into a radio docu-drama and a live installation experience. I attended the final showing, having been warned that it would be substantially different to the previous two, and can report that the work, whatever form or forms it eventually takes, contains an embarrassment of potential.
Its setting was not the Waterside Workers Hall that has served as Adhocracy’s base since its inception, but the newly renovated Hart’s Mill Flour Shed, a cavernous space a few hundred metres from the Hall and which we, the audience, entered with portable radios pressed against our ears, the easy lilt of reggaeton beats filling the decidedly un-Caribbean-like Port Adelaide air.
Once inside, we were gently shepherded between a series of performance sites, each one a response by one or a small group of artists to either an aspect of the novel or one of the many interviews that had earlier been conducted by Macleod and Weiland with Caribbean women and expats. These responses – loosely allied by Brennan’s woozy, swathing sound design, and light installations (including an outsize Christian cross, symbol of suffering and defeat, triumph and salvation) that seemed to flicker into life at our presence – were invariably intriguing. Almost all of the human senses were played upon in vignettes, redolent of the novel’s setting, that had us gently assailed by the Flour Shed’s massive industrial fans (the Caribbean’s famous trade winds?), handed cups of rum punch as we entered a room imbued with a tropical atmosphere, and situated us as witnesses to monologue-as-autobiography, the construction of a pineapple sculpture, and the loud, unnerving intrusion of a ute into the space. All the while, the distinctive chiming of steel drums teased the edges of our hearing, not to mention our wintered faculties with evocations of warmer climes. What a joy and a privilege to see a work of such scale and lightly worn ambition so early in its life, and at a time when economic, and, concomitantly, aesthetic austerity is the name of the game.
|Crawl Me Blood. Photo: Bryony Jackson
As to the theme alluded to earlier – namely, the unfixedness of identity – Applespiel’s Jarrod Duffy Is Not Dead and All the Queens Men’s Versions of Truth staked out the territory. In the first, the titular Jarrod is revealed to be the ninth member of the company who supposedly vanished without trace in 2010, a mere fortnight before he was due to appear in an Honours show (the company is made up of graduates from the University of Wollongong’s Creative Arts program). In this second stage creative development, the story of Jarrod’s disappearance and the subsequent attempts by the rest of the company to find him takes the form of a sort of live podcast, Appelspiel’s members gathered behind assorted laptops and microphones at a desk.
Laced with irony, Jarrod Duffy amusingly deploys tropes that will be familiar to anyone who has listened to podcasts such as This American Life (part of the joke, I suppose, is that Serial, This American Life’s popular spinoff, is about a real-life murder case whereas the mystery around Jarrod Duffy turns out to be, shall we say, rather more prosaic). The work, as I saw it, finds itself on less sure ground with an excessive conclusion during which, among other things, a wheelchair-bound Jarrod in a wig is pushed onstage to the tune of Rodgers and Hammersteins’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It may be that this is the company’s preemptive response to the question the work in its present form will inevitably face from audiences – why not simply make an actual podcast? – but the effect is jarring, and serves to detract attention from the other, more important questions the work opens up – about the nature of truth, the ethics of appropriating other people’s stories for public consumption, and about how possible it is to know someone, even a cherished friend and colleague, truly.
More puzzling again is Versions of Truth by All the Queens Men, a company better known for large-scale participatory projects than the intimate, audition room-set work presented here. Beginning with the premise that ‘our lives are built on made-up versions of ourselves’, performer Tristan Meecham guides two participants (one, I think, was a plant) through an acting audition that includes a screen test. The auditionees are variously challenged and humiliated by Meecham, who also weaves throughout the work stories (presumably, though not explicitly, drawn from his own experiences) about life in the acting business. These stories, which include Meecham’s successful audition for the role of the Young Collector in a Melbourne Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire, are sinisterly undercut by allusions to some terrible event that is never revealed.
Versions of Truth situates itself within the current wave of ‘confessional’ performance art but Meecham’s performance is far too slippery for the fit to be a snug one. The work gets stranger as it goes – ‘down a rabbit hole of deceit’, as the program, not inaccurately, puts it – and winds up, confusingly, with an almost wholesale recreation of the Fiery Hawk Comic Relief skit that went viral a few years ago. I was not alone in being unable to discern the purpose of the skit’s inclusion/imitation; was it an homage, a parody of a parody, some wily comment on artistic pilfering or something else? I couldn’t believe for a moment that it was a guileless rip-off – and, who knows, maybe that in itself was the point.
|Future Turf. Photo: Heath Britton and Jennifer Greer-Holmes
Finally, it is worth mentioning, if only briefly, two works that enjoyed first stage creative developments during Adhocracy 2015, Awkward Sex Scenes and Future Turf. Both are embryonic but, growing out of clear, fertile ideas – the often uncomfortable relationship between artistic representations of sex and audiences in the case of the former, and the intersections between the built environment and the human form in the latter – show great promise. Awkward Sex Scenes, concerned with a seemingly universal but often unspoken experience, will find ready audiences wherever it goes, and it would do well to retain the interactive element whereby audience members are invited onto the stage to recount their own awkward experiences with sex scenes as the creative team of Ahmarnya Price, Dan Koerner and Ingrid Voorendt shuffle elements of the set around them to evoke those sites, mostly lounge rooms, of occasional but supreme discomfort.
I gather that Future Turf underwent radical transformations between its three showings, but the work’s underlying hybridity – a meeting of text by poet Emily Stewart, sculpture by Henry Wood, performance art by Emma Hall, and choreography by Rachel Heller-Wagner – looks as though it will be carried through to subsequent developments. This will be no bad thing; Future Turf is cross-disciplinary practice with the brakes on, a meditation on the politics of both home and land ownership that may find one of its great strengths is its open-hearted and open-minded search, if not for any kind of truth, then at least for poetic, meaningful resonance.