Culture

Theatre

Liveworks in review: ambitious, engrossing

By Fiona McGregor
The annual festival of experimental art energised Sydney’s Carriageworks over ten days

This year’s Liveworks fulfilled its claim to be a festival of experimental art more fully than any I’ve attended. Focused on performance and installation, prioritising artists from the region, the opulent launch seemed to indicate increased funding. With the Mardi Gras-affiliated event Day for Night shifted from February to close the festival, the gala feeling is complete.

One-on-one performances can be daunting to produce, but it’s such a valuable form that a season like this would be incomplete without one. Jen Jamieson’s Let’s Make Love travelled across the continent from Perth’s Proximity Festival. Beginning with an idea for a performance about holding hands, Jamieson refined her motivation to the production of oxytocin. This hormone isn’t, as the title suggests, exclusively associated with erotic love, but rather produced with touch, and trust.

It’s a beguiling work whose intimacy avoids the specious or exploitative that can be trip-wired into one on ones, relying on more effort from the audience than is immediately apparent. Part of its success is due to the sequence of actions. After a long hug, Jamieson leads her audience member through the venue, conversing about oxytocin. The hug is confronting, and placing it first breaks the ice. It’s extraordinary to observe your body change as the seconds pass. The site of the final action was hamstrung by OH&S, but hopefully Sydneysiders are so accustomed to restrictions that imagination prevailed.

LabAnino’s This Here. Land felt like a work in development. An ambitious amalgam of exhibit, narrative and physical performance, it didn’t quite hit the target of any. There was a lot of text and it was difficult to follow all the stories. Written initially by Paschal Daantos Berry, in response to typhoon Haiyan that wiped out parts of the Philippines, the stories have been developed to reflect different individuals in the company, almost all Filipino, or Filipino–Australian. Some deliveries were stilted, others blurred, but Valerie Berry’s monologue about South Australia was a stand-out. The ending, a memorial to the thousands slaughtered in Duterte’s war on drugs, was powerful.

There’s a moment in Lz Dunn’s Aeon that will stay with me. Having walked with a group of people from the edge of Sydney park, through a copse, we ascended a hill as other groups arrived on the crest. It was very filmic, people silhouetted against the dusk sky, milling about in surprise. We had been primed with cue cards that spoke about birds and given little bluetooth speakers to hold to our ears. For the next 40 minutes, Dunn and her dancers took the crowd through the park by ducking and weaving among us, occasionally patting us on the shoulder.

As night fell, the performers got more feral, stopping to rub their arses on tree trunks, or pull their pants down and squat in the bushes. At one stage, our group engulfed a man walking his dog; with no idea what was going on, infected by the humour, he stayed for a while. A smart, funny experiment in flocking, Aeon showed how easily we follow, and stick together. The soundtrack was an intriguing mix of bird calls and city noise, but performances that rely on technology always risk losing a key component: my speaker wouldn’t have been the only one to conk out well before the end.

Back in the black box, an artist who, according to the program, wowed audiences in Liveworks 2015. Eisa Jocson’s performative lecture Corponomy focused on the trilogy she performed then: Death of the Pole Dancer, Macho Dancer and Host. Most of the lecture consisted of research material projected onto a large screen, Jocson occasionally changing into a signature item of clothing, illustrating a point with movement. I suspect a lot would have been lost on the viewer who hadn’t seen the previous works.

Paradoxically, the only moment Corponomy came alive for me was in the last section where Jocson drew on recent works not seen here, Princess and Your Highness. Both investigate the performance of happiness, as evinced by Hong Kong’s Disneyland theme park, the largest employer of female dancers in the region who, because of their skin colour, only get supporting roles. After showing clips from the Disney animation Snow White, Jocson came through the audience making chitchat. In a cute little wig with bow, and high-pitched voice, she pretended to be “White. Snow White”. Maintaining the character for a sustained period, in a mostly white audience, was funny and discomfiting.

Geumhyung Jeong’s 7 Ways started with the question of the boundary between the body and the machine, the Korean dancer interacting with household appliances such as an electric toothbrush and a vacuum cleaner, to comic effect. Yet she spent as much if not more time with masks and mannequins. Relying on her strength, skill and the predictable visual gags an anomalously placed mask can create, the performance didn’t move far beyond technical exploration. 7 Ways was a debut and I’m sure will evolve over time; I also suspect Jeong’s other work in the festival, Oil Pressure Vibrator, is better.

Another artist using the plain white mask ubiquitous in theatre is Justin Shoulder. Carrion shows a decade’s worth of peregrinations across performance, sculpture and costume design. From the underground queer scene just over ten years ago, Shoulder emerged as an artist brimming with vitality, his sensibility rooted in animism, his flair for costumes developed over this period with partner Matt Stegh. The carrion character has had early outings, like all Shoulder’s work, in the alternative queer parties and performance nights Stegh and he produce. This multi-platform maturation has enabled Shoulder to eschew the sentimental and didactic that often bedevil art concerned with the environment, while keeping it punchy and visually arresting. At the same time, as the costumes have become more ingenious, some performances, including for a previous Liveworks Festival, have resorted to formalism and lacked depth, as though the artist was hiding inside his costume. Carrion, perhaps in stripping back, often to nudity, brought Shoulder out of his shell. It’s the first time I’ve seen him make eye contact, albeit through a mask.

Most astonishing was how Shoulder’s movement skills have blossomed, due no doubt to training with choreographer and dancer Victoria Hunt, whose practice is rooted in indigeneity, stillness, ceremony and law. The Carrion character is part avian, part machine, his shiny white mask covered in long tendrils, with a sinister long slit for a mouth. Birthed from a huge maggot-like costume, attaching bones to his limbs to create a sort of exoskeleton, the carrion then prowled around the stage setting up little wind-up toy parrots, prancing, contorting and chattering, at once human-monkey-bird-machine.

The attention to detail made every action engrossing. The costume and set changes were effected by Shoulder, skittering around in a state of increasing excitement, most memorably collapsing the backdrop, a sort of puffy glaucous thundercloud, with a mischievous yank of the cord. He then activated it into a giant inflatable. This grotesque organism designed and fabricated by Stegh, Shoulder and Marty Jay reflected the maggot the carrion began inside of, its nodules opening and closing like an anemone. There are so many images I’ll retain from this work: Shoulder is at the top of his game as a performances and costume artist. It may be that the political motivation behind this long engagement with environmental decline is now less visible beneath such prowess, and an even more developed, complex performance lies in the future. The hour passed in a flash.

I wonder how many artists, students and club kids, familiar with Shoulder’s work from the party scene, could have afforded Carrion, whose concession prices of $25 would get even a waged person into the six-hour-long dance parties he performs at. Inflated ticketing is still the festival’s biggest mistake. Offsetting it with freebies for friends is good for us, but does nothing for others on low incomes. It’s an affliction not particular to Liveworks: Sydney’s entire art industry is crippled by elitism. If prices were lower, more people would come.

It’s a pertinent point because Liveworks filled Carriageworks with an energy over ten days that was infectious: the place deserves it more often. Jeff Khan and his team at Performance Space must be commended for popularising experimental performative modes; people were blown away, after wandering in from the Saturday food market to the second day of Nat Randall’s 24-hour theatre work The Second Woman. This wasn’t just a case of good programming; the masterstroke of Randall and collaborators’ cheap cash entry can take credit. Perhaps Liveworks, and Carriageworks more broadly, could learn from this.

While the festival was curiously apolitical overall, unease prevails among those of us who know that Carriageworks awarded the cafe bar tender years ago to a business run by Hillsong pastor Peter McCloskey. First Catering runs almost every other cafe bar in this city’s principal cultural institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Sydney and Sydney Theatre Company. Over every event I see at Carriageworks and these other places, no matter how marvellous, is this cloud: that if we need refreshments, our money goes to a corporate Christian sect that openly opposes homosexuality and abortion, advocates gay conversion therapy, and whose failure to pay tax has been the subject of investigative journalism. There are patrons who refuse to eat at Cornerstone at Carriageworks for this reason. Female and queer artists were well represented in this year’s festival. What bitter irony. Fodder for a future performance at Liveworks, perhaps?

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Justin Shoulder, Carrion. Photograph by Alex Davies

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