Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Review: Adhocracy 2016

Vitalstatistix, Waterside Workers Hall, 2–4 September 2016. Curated by Emma Webb, Jason Sweeney and Paul Gazzola.

Raft of the Medusa. Photo: the author.

It’s with a strange mixture of pleasure and pain that I find myself writing, once again, about Adhocracy, the national artist hothouse presented annually by Vitalstatistix at the Waterside Workers Hall in Port Adelaide. Pleasure because this festival-in-all-but-name remains a highlight of South Australia’s performing arts calendar, bringing together multidisciplinary artists from across the country to develop new works in the presence of fascinated audiences; pain because it’s impossible to forget the precariousness of it all, Vitals, along with Slingsby and Brink, having born the brunt of the Coalition’s funding cuts to the small-to-medium sector in this state (the company waits on tenterhooks while its application to Mitch Fifield’s Catalyst, the successor to George Brandis’ short-lived NPEA, is considered).

Adhocracy seems emblematic in this regard: scrappy and investigational, infused with feminist, queer, and environmental politics, it is an aesthetic light year from Brandis’ beige, unthreatening prescription for the arts: canonical, formally conservative, bound to received ideas around artistic merit. The loss of Vitals itself would leave a distinctively large hole in the state’s performance ecology: no company outside of the State Theatre Company of SA maintains such a busy and varied annual program—developments, presentations of touring work, performances, residencies, events, long-term projects, and exhibitions. While there’s no telling what the future holds, a paring back of that program seems the more likely outcome—a testament to the hard work and resilience of creative producer Emma Webb and her small staff.

This year’s Adhocracy, the sixth since its day-long format was abandoned in 2011, was held for the first time in September, having followed the sun from its traditional Queen’s Birthday long weekend berth. No doubt the move was a question of logistics rather than audience comfort—despite the welcome sunshine, the evenings were familiarly bitter—but the novelty of a sunny Port for much of the event was strangely thrilling. Perhaps Adhocracy’s rescheduling was thrown into relief by something else too—the fact that this year’s event felt to me, more so than in previous years, like a consolidation rather than an advancement; not exactly a greatest hits compilation, but something like one of those late-career albums by a veteran artist content, for once, to restate rather than innovate, to finesse an established groove instead of push at its edges.

There was, for example, Aeon, this year’s two-week residency project, which strongly echoed last year’s large-scale participatory sound work Crawl Me Blood. Both works provided audience members with personal audio devices while they navigated the area around Hart’s Mill Flour Shed, finally ending up in the Mill itself where what had been an individualised experience turned into a collective one. Whereas Crawl Me Blood used Jean Rhys’ 1966 postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea as its launching off point, Aeon (led by artists Lz Dunn, Lawrence English, Lara Thoms, and Shian Law) drew on the principles of bird flocking, in particular the three behavior types that have been identified by computer modeling since the 1980s: separation, alignment, and cohesion.

Separated into groups of about ten or so, each assigned a different starting location—mine was the Wells Street laneway beside the Waterside Workers Hall—audience members were given a small portable speaker and a business card-sized piece of paper on which was written a relevant factoid or, in my case, epigram: Everything is natural. Nothing is normal.

Thus equipped, we were left to drift as we may, informed only by the instruction that, as with birds, we were to think of ourselves as leaders as well as followers. While our speakers piped out birdsong, snatches of human voices, and drones of varying volumes, my group fanned out organically towards the river, eventually melding with the other groups where the presence of several provocateurs became more obvious, some attempting to seduce us into running or flapping our arms or, more challengingly, remove items of clothing.

Our collective destination, it becomes clear, is the cavernous Mill, where we exchange our speakers for blankets at the entrance and find a space in the semi-darkness among a floor strewn with bodies. The low lighting fades away, and a drone begins. I fight down rising panic—there’s something about the combination of near-pitch darkness and the vast, empty space that evokes the kind of existential anxiety that makes anechoic chambers so famously unendurable—as the drone builds to a chest-rattling crescendo, then dies away.

As with the rest of this work-in-development, it’s a moment that, while experienced individually, carves out a communal space at the same time. In the darkness, unlike outside the Mill when we were answerable to our smaller, more clearly defined groups, our sense of responsibly to the rest of the human beings around us—of being a part of something larger than ourselves without having our agency stripped away—diminishes, leaving us feeling adrift and cut off but not alone; a richly metaphorical provocation in the neoliberal era.

The author, during Aeon. Photo: Jennifer Greer Holmes.
Also responsive to place was Pony Express’ Raft of the Medusa, another participatory work featuring an intersection of natural and anthropogenic worlds. Intended by its creative team of Ian Sinclair and Loren Kronemyer to finally be performed on a life raft, the blackly humorous work is a commentary on rising sea levels, the titular watercraft—inspired by Théodore Géricault’s infamous depiction of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse—pitted against a dilapidated yacht in a “mid-apocalyptic” contest. Not much of this, admittedly, was in evidence during the artist talk I attended on the Saturday evening, but its on-water potential is beyond doubt: the kayak we lugged from the Workers Hall shop front to portside proved eminently seaworthy, Sinclair delivering his artist talk through a loudhailer while an alarmingly multiplying group of seagulls swooped at the hot chips covering his body, and Kronemyer successfully rowed in a loop around the Port River. According to Sinclair, Port Adelaide is second only to Bangladesh in terms of its vulnerability to climate change-induced sea level rise. True or not, Raft of the Medusa was a welcome complement to Vitals’ ongoing Climate Century project—a five-year series of commissioned artworks, projects, and events speculating on how we might commemorate this dangerous historical moment—making us complicit in its response to potentially catastrophic environmental change without sacrificing the playfulness that Pony Express have come to be known for (see, for example, reports of their recent Next Wave work, Ecosexual Bathhouse).

It’s difficult in a single piece of reasonable length to do justice to Adhocracy’s richness—eight works in various stages of development led by a total of 33 artists—but I do want to briefly mention three more projects (unfortunately, due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to engage with Angela Goh’s Uncanny Valley, Girl or the equally intriguing Lady Example by Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride). The Lost Art of Listening, a collaboration between two South Australian artists, Zephyr Quartet’s Hilary Kleinig and “conversationalist” Emma Beech, is shaping up to be a fascinating meditation on an essay by pianist and memoirist Anna Goldsworthy on whether classical music has lost its relevance as technologised distractions multiply, and our relationship to music becomes increasingly passive.

In an intimate, leveling exchange of a kind typical of Adhocracy, Kleinig engaged us with a series of questions that functioned as an exchange between audience and performer, rather than a one-sided presentation of her discoveries so far. We were invited to share our recollections of times music had made us cry, and to attach our answers written on tags to small trees steeped, so we were told, in the tears of those who had come before us. (My recollection? Hearing Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for the first time, in a state of total unpreparedness, while splayed on the couch one slow-burning Sunday afternoon. The wrong piece of music can move you to tears if you happen to hear it at the right time—while grieving, or in the middle of a breakup say—but some require no special circumstances to open up a world of feeling.) It looks as though the final work will build on Kleinig’s previous explorations of incorporating electronic elements into democratised sound works, including mobile phones operated by the audience.

Two final works rounded out my experience of this year’s Adhocracy: The Tension of Opposites, by newly-formed multidisciplinary collective Capture the Flag (Hew Parham, Meg Wilson, Nick Bennett, Paulo Castro, and Sascha Budimski), and Dirty Pieces, a highly embryonic attempt by dancer/choreographer Rebecca Jensen and Adhocracy regular Malcolm Whittaker to unpack the difficulties associated with understanding contemporary dance. I saw two showings of The Tension of Opposites, though not much changed. It’s an unusually developed work for Adhocracy, the two performers, Parham and Bennett, using an established text—Austrian writer Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation—to explore notions of dictatorship and conflict within Wilson’s highly detailed apartment room set. The audience were divided from the performers by a wall, some panels cut out, others covered with obscuring gauze. By removing the two rows of seating that had been in place during the first showing, the audience were able in the second to move from panel to panel, in a sense editing their own film by “framing” different parts of the action from moment to moment. Such filmic gestures, as well as a distinctly political-European sensibility, are typical of Castro’s body of work, with which The Tension of Opposites feels strongly of a piece.

As for Dirty Pieces, a work that recalls the quip, attributed to Elvis Costello and others, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it’s difficult to know what to say. “This work is about…” Whittaker repeated over and over again, before exhausting his own struggle for interpretation, for meaning-making, and handing the microphone over to various members of the audience. “This work is about everything,” one of them said. “This work is about nothing,” responded another.


  1. Such a descriptive piece of writing; I enjoyed reading it. I participated as an audience member in Aeon and thoroughly connected with the environment along the river leading to the mass meeting of other groups. I didn't last long during the darkness or crescendo but I loved being part of the performance. Long live Vitals!

  2. Such a descriptive piece of writing; I enjoyed reading it. I participated as an audience member in Aeon and thoroughly connected with the environment along the river leading to the mass meeting of other groups. I didn't last long during the darkness or crescendo but I loved being part of the performance. Long live Vitals!

  3. Thanks, Shaz! Writing about works in development is always a pleasure and a privilege - it's nice sometimes to take off the critical hat and play the part of pure historian. Good to know, too, that I wasn't the only one who struggled with Aeon's darkness! And yes - long live Vitals. We're lucky to have them, not that you'd know from the philistines pulling the purse strings these days.