August 2018

Arts & Letters

Mike Parr’s invisible performance and Tasmania’s complex past

By James Boyce

Mike Parr, Underneath the Bitumen the Artist. © Dark Mofo / Rémi Chauvin. Image courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Underneath the bitumen in Hobart, history becomes art

It is a serious handicap for a historian, but I am increasingly conscious of the limitation of words. To grapple with the broken beauty and unredeemed suffering of human history is to face the reality that even the most carefully crafted prose confines truth as much as illuminates it. How is it possible to document the complexity of the pain, injustice, compassion, self-interest and unfathomable mercy that shaped our ancestors’ engagement with life?

Those who try to convey the truth of the past are caught in the same dilemma as mystics trying to describe the Truth they reluctantly term “God”. All who do so, Augustine believed, cannot escape the contradiction that to describe the Divine is to obscure it, yet to stay silent makes truth ineffable. Meister Eckhart’s response that God is a “Word unspoken” and a “Word that speaks itself” resonates but provides limited professional help!

I now just accept that it is impossibly reductionist to forge a narrative out of the infinite body of lived personal, family and tribal experience. But I also recognise that memory is as integral to community life as it is to individual identity. Having a story of the past is a defining feature of what it means to be human.

The most creative way to live with this conundrum has been found in history’s collaboration with art. For millennia, words have been incarnated through dance, music, and drawing on sand and skin. Performance has weaved connection and meaning into the elders’ campfire stories and the written texts that replaced them. But since the Reformation (built on the separation of the words of the Bible from the rituals of peasant and priest) and the Enlightenment (premised on the unlimited potential of disembodied thought), the capacity of Western peoples to imaginatively integrate the past into contemporary culture has steadily diminished. Even those who took over the sacred mantle of “storyteller”, the empirical historians (whose insights and methods are one of the great legacies of the Enlightenment), often became cut off in a less than proverbial ivory tower. As Westerners struggle to overcome an increasingly perilous isolation from the earth and from each other, this historian suspects that only restoring the ancient partnership of history and art can reconnect us with the rich compost of memory upon which any sustainable society relies.

So it was that my ears pricked when I heard that Australia’s most famous performance artist was returning to Tasmania. It was reported that Mike Parr was to live in a container buried under one of the main streets of central Hobart for three days and nights as part of the Dark Mofo winter festival. The festival’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, announced that, to his knowledge, Parr’s performance would be “Tasmania’s first monument referencing both the Black War and the convict system”. He added, “It is a story that is not well known, but is ever-present, just beneath the surface of our contemporary culture.”

Some people subsequently assumed that Underneath the Bitumen the Artist would be about highlighting the silence around the convict stain and Aboriginal genocide in Tasmania. As someone who spent a decade of my life labouring in this field, I was huffed. This was the best-documented colonial society in the British Empire (only in a penal colony did nearly every settler have a file!) and the best-recorded frontier conflict on the Australian continent, and the abundant archive spawned a rich historiography that stretches back over 180 years. The infamous convict colony of Van Diemen’s Land (as the island was called until 1856) and the killing of its Indigenous people were probably the most notorious and well-promoted aspects of Australian colonial history on the imperial stage.

So I never believed it was a lack of written words that was being referenced in Parr’s work. (Anyone who thought that just doesn’t like reading.) Rather, I saw the artist’s proposed burial as a witness to the separation of our history from the life we live. So much has been written, but are we changed?

The early British colonisation of Australia is a bizarre tale. The determination to normalise what went on in this continent (ignorance of history being no barrier to this national project) means it remains surprisingly easy to forget that a convict was a convicted criminal and Van Diemen’s Land was a prisoner society. New South Wales was the only other colony to receive a comparable number of convicts, but after transportation there ceased, in 1840, its convict founders were quickly swamped by mass migration. By contrast, not only did Van Diemen’s Land continue to receive transported prisoners until 1853 but the number of free settlers was so limited that the convict founders and their children remained the large majority of the population throughout the 19th century.

It sounds callous, but in one way I am thankful for this brutal founding. How much harder it must be to live with the self-righteousness of the Pilgrim Fathers. Even South Australia’s proud free men seem a burden I could do without. The essential humility embodied in the convict creation story carries with it the potential to crack the imperial hubris just enough to allow some light in (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen).

Convict settlers provide a paradoxical source of hope. One of the great social experiments of the 19th century turned out to work better than expected. Despite the emancipists’ exclusion from institutional power, and the barbarity of the penal system and the self-rule that replaced it, Tasmania’s generous environment provided a comparative degree of dignity and freedom for most of its population.

What this convict home-making hides is the depth of the wound that came with state-sanctioned exile. As any visitor to a Tasmanian convict heritage site knows, punishment could be extremely cruel. Less than one in six convicts ever went to Port Arthur, but the danger of being sent there hung over every one. A surprising number of convicts did abscond from prisons and assigned workplaces, but generally they and their descendants internalised the lesson that the most effective way to preserve freedom was not to confront authorities directly but to establish independent lives away from the gaze of magistrates and masters. I have great respect for this form of protest, but it did mean that much of the convict experience was left unspoken. And when combined with the ruling elite’s determination to rebrand the notorious penal colony as the respectable “Tasmania”, there was an intergenerational cost. The pain of Van Diemen’s Land went underground, and while it can still be accessed, it takes some digging.

Another form of paradoxically well-documented silence enveloped the infamous war of extermination with the island’s Indigenous people. The fight for Van Diemen’s Land was not defined as a law-and-order issue for the police to sort out (as later conflicts on the mainland would mostly be) but from the 1820s was explicitly named as a “war” overseen by the lieutenant-governor as “commander in chief”, employing the British Army and the autocratic powers that came with the declaration of martial law. Careful records were maintained to justify the state-sanctioned violence. Some of the extensive dispatches between London and Hobart that outline the progress of the war were published (by order of the House of Commons) in the early 1830s. Henry Melville’s 1835 book The History of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land, 1824–1835 openly talked of “invasion” and “guerrilla war”. A number of other texts in the 19th century made use of the rich archive, their authors’ labour encouraged by the fact that the fate of the Tasmanians resonated deeply in England because of the evangelical revival and later Social Darwinist ideas. Eventually, the colonisation of Tasmania was considered an exemplar of the wiping out of an entire race. Awareness of Aboriginal issues in Tasmania declined in the first half of the 20th century (as in the rest of Australia) but so entrenched had the Tasmanian story become in Western consciousness that the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin used it as a case study in framing the new crime of “genocide”.

At least at the notoriety level, then, “The Great Australian Silence” described by W.H. Stanner in the late 1960s was less prevalent in Tasmania. The work of Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds in the 1980s and 1990s took frontier historiography to a new level, but the past decade has produced perhaps the richest collection of scholarly and accessible texts, with another significant tome on the conflict with the Aboriginal people added almost every year.

However, after being so long submerged in these documents and books, I find that an anxious question has come to keep my own research a safe distance from home. What if all these words (mine included) were actually obscuring hidden truths of Van Diemen’s Land?

Until the late 1970s, the killing of Tasmanian Aboriginal people was acknowledged largely because there were no contemporary implications in doing so, as the “race” was assumed to be “extinct” (despite some awareness that the descendants of Aboriginal people lived on the Bass Strait islands). But even in the more enlightened decades since then, almost all the written words have focused on the best-documented aspect of the conflict: the official war between 1827 and 1832. What can be said about the unofficial killing that occurred before martial law was declared, of which only documentary whispers remain? There are also few records and thus little research on the tragedy of the removal of Aboriginal people that continued after the fighting had concluded. The bias to state-sanctioned war, characteristic of so much Western history, can hide violence as much as reveal it.

But the most disturbing dimension of Tasmanian and wider Australian history remains the failure of the research on the post-settlement tragedy to lead to change. The millions of words locked away in library and archive seem largely irrelevant to our identity as a community, state and nation. Could they even be providing false absolution, as facing the truth of our history is conflated with reading a book?

So when I ventured out on the evening of June 14, 2018 to witness a 73-year-old performance artist take a few short steps from the one-time centre of storytelling in Hobart, the old Mercury building, into one of the middle lanes of Macquarie Street, it was this silence, rooted in cultural detachment and documentary privilege, that I saw Mike Parr to be confronting. I knew that no Australian artist has done more to dispel the enduring myth that we can safely separate who we are from what we know. On so many occasions, Parr has offered his own body to be pierced and plucked – whatever it takes to bring us back to earth. Was it possible that he could perform the same miracle here?

About 3000 people waited for the artist to appear that rainy Thursday night, an enormous number given that there was so little to see. With onlookers kept to the outer lanes by perimeter fencing, even the container residence was largely hidden from view. Men in fluoro shirts provided the main entertainment. Under spotlights, encircled by people with nothing to look at except them, the workers diligently dug out the bitumen.

Another brightly coloured group near the centre of the gathering was displaying the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) flag. The sizeable media pack shared my assumption that this was a dignified protest. Heather Sculthorpe, CEO of the TAC, had said that she “wouldn’t have known [the performance] had anything to do with the Black War … we should have Aboriginal people involved … not just Dark Mofo deciding … We have a lot of great storytellers, and some old fella under the road is not the way to do it.”

Festival organisers had subsequently clarified that “this work is NOT a representation of Tasmania’s history of colonial violence in particular, but the global experience … This work is about the NULL of the image – there is no artist, there is no performance, there is no artwork.” But it turned out that although the Aboriginal gathering still believed Parr to be directly referencing the Black War, they had come along in support of him doing so. Michael Mansell (the man whose presentation of a land rights petition to the Queen in 1977 symbolises the public emergence of modern Tasmanian Aboriginal activism) explained that this was because “Tasmania has a blood-stained history, and one it prefers to forget”.

After Parr had taken his few steps into confinement, the hole-covering proceeded even more efficiently than the digging, and by about 10.30pm traffic was allowed back on the main artery of Hobart. The interregnum now began.

The fact that Parr was to follow Jesus in being buried for “three days and three nights”, combined with the inverted crosses lining the waterfront, the billing of Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast event as the Last Supper, and the “Night Mass” events at surrounding venues, gave an Easter Saturday feel to the interment. The burial had occurred but what were we meant to do now? Was it just a matter of waiting for the resurrection? As one observer would later say, it was precisely this absence that gave her an unhindered capacity to make the art her own. The artist had surrendered the image, but there was a responsibility, even a burden, that came with this gift.

My own quiet meditation on the performance was disrupted after I found out that Parr was living with more than the sketch pad, meditation stool, bedding and water that the initial media reports had described. Parr also had with him a history book.

I envy the late Robert Hughes’s ability to write and sell books, and am grateful for how The Fatal Shore made so many people aware of Australian colonial history for the first time. Hughes’s compassion for the convicts and skill in communicating the horror many endured has ensured that the book deservedly continues to sell well 30 years after it was first published.

But this is a complicated book for me because of how it treats my island home.

In its approach to Van Diemen’s Land, The Fatal Shore stands in the tradition of Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life – by far the most influential work on Tasmania ever written. The words penned by the Melbourne journalist in the 1870s (despite or perhaps because they are fiction) have become embedded in culture through a century and a half of reading, theatre, song and, notably, film.

What was being sold was not the complex human story of convict colonisation but the horror of penal station life. In this story, Van Diemen’s Land is always a prison and never a home. While the local Royal Society, the Bishop of Tasmania and an outraged senator fussed about reputational damage caused by the 1927 movie blockbuster (by far the most expensive film ever made in Australia to that time), I suspect that is not why local people never fully embraced the tale. I like to think that the children and grandchildren of convicts knew there was more to their ancestors’ lives than just being brutalised victims of the imperial state.

Robert Hughes tells a far more scholarly and comprehensive story than Clarke does. But when it comes to Van Diemen’s Land, the focus of The Fatal Shore remains the most gruesome aspects of the penal system. Headline horror has the same limits as headline war. Just as the early descriptions of frontier violence presented the Aboriginal people as being without agency, Hughes’s Van Diemonians are largely reduced to being victims. The multifaceted forms of resistance, accommodation, encounter and adaptation of ordinary working men and women of the colony (for that is what the convicts also were) disappear as profoundly as they do in the celebratory histories promoted by the establishment.

There is also the danger that the sort of history told by Clarke and Hughes obscures the deepest wound. Brutal punishments and floggings left an obvious scar, but, as in the case of removed children in the awful institutions of yesteryear, focusing on visible abuse can obscure the less accessible anguish associated with forced removal from home, family, identity, relationships and country that was the consequence of exile to a faraway land.

My troubled relationship with the book meant I resented The Fatal Shore invading my idealised image of Parr’s empty tomb. I wanted the space to contain nothing more than a proverbial candle and a meditating artist. I longed for the container to be a refuge from words, but in reality it was full of them.

I knew that the performance was a response to universal suffering (and, to be fair, Marcus Clarke also wanted his work to be about the wider human struggle). As Aboriginal scholar Greg Lehman has observed, Underneath the Bitumen the Artist is so powerful because it could be performed anywhere. There is no denying that every region and country has its history of hidden injustice, but, as Parr’s life’s work reveals, universal experience only deepens the grounded truth of the land we are buried in.

On Sunday, June 17, 2018, I watched Mike Parr rise from the earth. Over a thousand people quietly shivered until 9.36pm – when the artist’s full 72-hour interment was done.

Such had been the intense interest in the invisible performance that the media were now present in even greater numbers. There was some frustration among those desperate for Sunday night copy when Parr quickly exited the site. The following morning The Mercury carried the large (and unintentionally apt) front-page headline of “NOTHING TO SEE HERE”, accompanied by a photograph of the artist emerging “from his under-street chamber before scurrying wordlessly away”.

Mike Parr had always planned to talk to the community, and he did so at a packed-out public forum two days later. He spoke of how the work was originally conceived in 2011 for the forthcoming Documenta in Kassel. In Parr’s original proposal, there would be no audience (except online). I still felt nostalgia for the performance that the risk-obsessed Germans had vetoed. The freedom from conversation inherent in Parr’s original dream was a frayed historian’s fantasy. Surely an undisclosed hole would have provided the safe space where the truth contained in silence might be revealed?

Instead, the actual performance had proved to be a crowded space. It was not just the number of observers, the media interest, the level of public debate and Hughes’s voluminous tome that made it seem uncomfortably full. Even the physical container had proved to provide no retreat. Parr described how he was soon able to see actual cars speeding overhead as the bitumen subsided, was disturbed by “ferals” jumping on top of him for late-night thrills, and was regularly shaken up by trucks. My imagined meditation hall sounded like hell!

I learnt in the post-performance talk that the art was not what had been intended or planned but that no performance art work ever should be. Such work always develops its own democratic direction because something that does not materially exist can never be privately owned. Not even the artist (let alone the rich collector or “expert” historian!) has a greater claim. Since there is no image or object created, the absent art and the meaning attributed to it belong equally to all. Parr said he was relieved by this truth: “If the work is a kind of profound absence, then I am included, and it is a relief to know that.”

I was clingier than the artist, but I came to share in the liberation and learning that came with letting go.

I wonder now if the crowded clamour I struggle with actually represents a more honest engagement with the past than my longed-for silence. While it is necessary and good to sit quietly in the bush remembering those who have celebrated and suffered in this land over countless generations, what Parr bequeathed was more than this. He went underneath the bitumen and so created a memorial space where an encounter occurred in the very midst of our fragmented and fast-journeying lives. How likely is it that the place where the congested past meets the chaotic present will prove to be one of quiet resolution? As every empirical historian knows, our ancestors’ lives need to be looked at as they were, not what we think they should be. And if the same respect is given to the living as the dead, some shouting should be expected when the two truly meet up.

I now drive regularly over the still-buried container. (Everything in it has been left behind as a time capsule.) Marked out by new bitumen, Mike Parr’s hidden home has become a permanent marker for me. The power of what Greg Lehman termed an “anti-monument” was that in the end it was a place where history became art but without either an artist or a historian to mediate the encounter. Parr created a space that belongs to everyone, and the enormous interest in his project suggests that in doing so he spoke to an ache in us all.

I haven’t written any public words on Tasmanian colonial history since my book Van Diemen’s Land was published a decade ago. Even informal chat on the subject since then has usually left me with a vague sense of unease and a longing to return to a troubled but contained quiet. Mike Parr’s Underneath the Bitumen the Artist became my vehicle of re-entry. As these words witness, my own Easter Saturday interregnum has now come to an end. Parr didn’t reveal the truth contained within silence, but his performance was the Living Word, or at least the Embodied Shout, that has liberated me to speak.

From Mike Parr to James Boyce

The container was very carefully equipped. It included three video cameras angled to continually record every moment of my 72 hours of occupation. One of these cameras was an infra-red camera which was trained on the mattress where I slept at night. There was also a small screen linked to an external CCTV camera that enabled me to see from a high angle a portion of Macquarie Street and for long periods I was absorbed by the traffic flow outside and the way pedestrians would wander up to the edge of the road, stand, stare and arrange for “selfies” to be taken. At night and in the early hours of the morning gangs of youths would rush out into the road to jump up and down on the bitumen-covered lid of the box. Neither I nor the technicians who had constructed the box had anticipated the level of noise that was to be transmitted into the interior of the steel box. The steel lid had been put in place without being bolted down to enable immediate uplift in case of emergency evacuation. This inevitably meant that the constant impact of the traffic, in particular the weight of the semi-trailers, caused some rocking of the steel plate, which produced an increasingly fearful din in the space below as wear and tear continued, but at no point did the surface fully give way. Noise together with confinement were the most difficult aspects of doing this performance. Only now, three weeks on, is my headache beginning to subside. Inside the box I attempted to manage the increasing strain of incarceration by a constant program of activities. Every morning I would walk five paces forward and five paces back at increasing speed to try to induce a walking meditation state. I would keep this up for around one hour in the morning and again for another hour in the afternoon. Time keeping was very important because I know from experience the mental confusion that can come from losing one’s place in the passage of time. The videos of the 72 hours in the box that I am now reviewing are very interesting. The rigid repetition of my activities is disturbing to watch. I am seen crouching over a small shelf-table attached to the wall of the box. I am writing in red ink in a notebook. The writing goes on and on with crab-like mechanical absorption. I look up. I am lost in thought for several minutes. I begin writing again. Then I am drawing. Staring hard at a mirror, struggling to force my image into a manageable stasis. I’m reading. Sometimes The Fatal Shore induces a kind of paroxysm and I begin reading aloud with increasingly violent vehemence. Then I’m staring for long periods at nothing, because the cameras can’t see the screen high in the corner of the box. Greg Lehman’s suggestion that the work draws its power of effect from being an anti-monument is very apposite in a double sense, because what is extraordinarily salient I think about the video documentation taken from inside the box is the way task-performance breaks down the dangerous notion of the artist-hero. I am fully revealed, much to my consternation, as an old man struggling to keep his mental equilibrium in a cell of increasing claustrophobia. The oblivion of the road as the blank screen of modernity brings into tension two buried subjectivities: the mental turmoil of the historian above and beyond and the buried pressure of the performer below struggling to mentally introject increasingly Procrustean limits. I think that it is this structure of blocked transmission that is so sensitively imagined by your own account. You’ll excuse, I hope, this very detailed account of the occupied box which need not deflect your text at all because only small changes are needed, but I felt that I owed you a full disclosure before you went to print. Finally, this documentation of the 72 hours of my habitation of the box together with the footage from a video camera angled down to look at the road [fixed angle and area of view] from the top of the Mercury building will become a new work for public exhibition. This exposure induced by documentation is crucial for my work as a performance artist, because it comes to show the deep realism of the event, a realism now that is increasingly lost to us, as virtuality, mediation, the seduction of the digital and the media everywhere constitute the degradation of the hyper-real.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

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