FESTIVAL MUSINGS

As we head into the start of 2016 we would like to share some thoughts on last years Festival at the Art Gallery of WA from our Writer in Residence Bec Dean with you.

To read the full blog visit proximatetales.
Photos by Matt Sav.

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Alright, Mr Demille. I’m ready for my cavity inspection.
After | Phillip Adams (VIC)

I have to start by disclosing my adoration for the work of Phillip Adams and his company, Balletlab. If I lived in Melbourne I might become something of an art-pest/stalker. When I went to see their work “And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow” in Melbourne a few years ago, I totally wanted to get my gear off and join the dancers. There is a combination of absurdity, terror and physical flamboyance in his work that just leaves me feeling a giddy sense of fear and exhilaration. It’s a rare thing for me to feel elated after watching other people’s virtuosity. Like a rollercoaster ride, experienced at one remove.

So when the first instruction of “After” was to take my day clothes off and dress in a silver mumu, I barely hesitated to strip.

To be continued…

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Utopia for one
Micronational | Tom Blake (WA)

By the time my family migrated to Perth from Birmingham in the UK in 1989, the Hutt River Province in Western Australia had claimed itself a separate nation for almost 20 years. At the time of our arrival I don’t think my family had given a lot of thought to Australian independence, or to the the idea of an Australian Republic, further still from our thoughts was the fact that Australia had never been ceded in the first place. I reckon my parents were hoping that the weather would be better and that the cost of living would be cheaper, which it was back then. Basically for us, the idea of Australia as a colony of the UK was still strong – an idea that seemed to evaporate from the moment we arrived.

I remember a couple of news stories about Hutt River from the 90s detailing its various legal battles for recognition. It wasn’t until 2013 that I thought about the province again. An exhibition by Holly Williams and Adam Jasper at the University of Technology Sydney Gallery called Living in the Ruins of the 20th Century displayed a collection of Hutt River commemorative medals, as well as currency among a whole range of other art and artefacts. In the same year, I went to a gathering organised by Tess de Quincey of artists, environmentalists, scientists, lawyers and Aboriginal elders about Earth Jurisprudence – which in layman’s terms is about a recognition of the rights of nature. Among this gathering were members of the Murrawarri Republic.

To be continued….

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Death and the other
Deadline | Jo Bannon (UK)

I’ve participated in a previous iteration of Jo Bannon’s Dead Line before, at the In Between Time festival in Bristol back in 2012. It’s a conversation held over an analogue telephone in a quiet room. It’s confidential and undocumented by the artist. There are no disclaimers about “recording for training purposes, only”, quite the opposite actually. Bannon’s work engages with one of the more prickly taboo subjects of western culture – death.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately, as I’m working on a long-term exhibition and research project called The Patient which considers medical patient experience, disease, the extension of life and the medicalised body from the perspective of artists-as-patients and artists working very closely with patient communities. I am working with living artists making collaborative work with scientists and also researching the work of influential, seemingly fearless artists such as performance artist Bob Flanagan and photographer, Jo Spence who died of their illnesses many years ago.

While I’m up to my neck in theoretical texts on disease and embodiment, somaesthetics and ethics, I was gobbling-up the thriller, Hannibal by Thomas Harris last week (don’t tell my supervisor!) and a sentence in towards the end struck me as one of the clearest indictments of our relationship to death and human frailty I’ve come across.

“What do you look at while you’re making up your mind? Ours is not a reflective culture, we do no raise our eyes up to the hills. Most of the time we decide the critical things while looking at the linoleum floor of an institutional corridor, or whispering hurriedly in a waiting room with a television blatting nonsense.”

It’s true. There are such strong psychological barriers around discussing death and organ donation in Australia that our state and federal governments spend millions on advertising to address the issue of having these kinds of discussions. I have also learned from the Australian death activist, Victoria Spence that when people lose loved-ones, they are in such a profound, adrenalised state of shock that it makes it almost impossible for them to make clear or rational decisions. On top of this, the funeral industry in Australia is a monopoly held by one company which can only stand to benefit from these heightened, knee-jerk reactions.

For the Bristol version of the project, Bannon had engaged a host of medical and funeral professionals to take calls from audience participants in the project. So, in short, the phone would ring, and you would be hooked-up to an industry professional for a brief conversation. The person I talked to was a death councillor. We talked about my family and our relationship to spirituality (we are atheists), ageing and palliative care, and death.

Since this exchange and the conversations I’ve been able to have with Victoria Spence, there’s been a lot of talk between my family members about their deaths. I haven’t made a will myself yet, but I have power of attorney over my sister’s estate, and my sisters and my Mum have all decided that I will be the one to look after my Mum when she is frail (no signs of that happening any time soon). Most of the family want to go up in smoke. Mum wants her ashes scattered around Tintern Abbey in Wales. I’d like to be buried in the bush, but I don’t see how that could happen, except through unlawful means.

For this presentation of Dead Line, I got to speak with the artist herself. I told her about my living with depression, and that morbid thoughts were just a part of that mental landscape. I am quite used to it. I talked about my project and the work of an artist, Helen Pynor, who is examining the liminal state between life and death. We also talked about the changing state of the body post-mortem. In death, as an organism, you don’t just cease to exist, you become a whole range of other things; bacteria, gases, nutrient for other creatures. You become other.

I find this comforting.

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I never was a pianist. Only a piano player.
When you’re here I’m no where | Brett Smith (WA)

Last year the performance artist Sarah-Jane Norman put out a Facebook call for people who had a difficult relationship with the pianoforte to join her in a painful sight-reading performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which is widely held to be one of the world’s most technically complicated compositions to perform. So after much online wailing and sharing of childhood torture, a number of her friends who had been trained in and strained by the piano signed-up to perform this event.

During this exchange I remembered my own relationship with the piano. I started playing as a four year old, and was classically instructed until my late teens. On reflection, I was really fulfilling the aspirations of my parents in learning and performing – and I never fell in love with it. They expected so much more of me. As a result I could adequately express piano pieces and concertos, but I didn’t become a musician. It seemed like there was an invisible wall between me and the instrument. It was something I merely operated.

So entering and descending the darkened void of the gallery’s stairwell where the artist Brett Smith was seated, playing a baby grand piano, just for me, felt like an interrogation of this memory. Brett started with a simple refrain, singing the lyrics “When you are here, I am nowhere”. Gradually this simple progression of chords was elaborated upon with increasingly complicated jazz and blues improvisation, with the lyrics repeating and increasing in volume and emotional intensity.

To be continued…

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Brutal Resonance in a place of ones own
Raised by Brutalism | Leon Ewing (WA)

Deep, bassy sound is so comforting to me that I’ve nodded off at gigs which should have held me at the edge of my seat. Leon Ewing’s “Raised by Brutalism” created a cavern for bass in one of the security access stairwells of AGWA, that is lit only by a circular window from the roof of the building. The window cast a beam of light that reflected off the sharp, triangular edges of the stairwell’s void. The sound of the base seemed to emanate from underneath an ottoman lounge that I spread myself out on, staring face-up towards the light.

To be continued…

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Being Mish’s Mum
Sex Talk | Mish Grigor (NSW)

Out of the twelve of the Proximity performances I’ve participated in over the last few days, I’ve found Mish Grigor’s Sex Talk the most difficult to write about. Not because I’m a prude about sex, but because I feel like I know Mish quite well and I can’t be objective. I don’t, actually, know Mish that well. But I’ve been present for so many of Mish’s performances that I feel like I might know her. In the same way that you might feel like you know Carrie from Sex and the City, or Charlene from Neighbours. I don’t actually know Mish very well at all, but she makes me feel like I know her because she seems to play a version of herself that teeters on the edge of a reality that I think I know something about. Does that make any sense?

So when Mish asks me to read from a script that she has unethically reproduced from a conversation with her Mum, I said “Yes!” and “Does she have an accent?” No question of whether airing a personal conversation in the context of a state gallery might be the right thing to do. The nuance of her vocabulary is the only thing I ask about.

To be continued…

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Vaccumed-packed Culture
Beings-unlike-us Caroline Garcia (NSW)

Caroline Garcia swept the gallery floor with a short-handled broom made of grasses. She looked nonplussed. Not tired, but just going about a banal task with just the amount of effort it deserved. I watched from a seat in the gallery, waiting to be invited into her raised, bamboo hut. Gallery visitors walked around her, perhaps taking some notice of the dark blue triangle of paint covering her mouth and chin.

Garcia’s performance was proximate to the gallery entrance and in sight of it’s gift shop which was at the time focused on selling books and giftware related to the exhibition, “Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices” which was the AGWA’s major draw-card for the season. As the exhibition focused on imperialism and trade, Garcia’s performance perhaps provided an (unintentional?) post-colonial critique from the perspective of the looted and colonised.

To be continued…

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Playing the horror show as a comedy
Monopolly | Chloe Flockart (WA)

I feel like I walked into Chloe Flockart’s work Monopolly like a clown with massive prosthetic feet, stomping over everything that was delicate or nuanced in the work and then making metaphorical fart noises with my armpits. It was certainly a work involving body parts (not mine) and their respective functions, but I chose to play the horror show that Chloe was trying to reveal, as a comedy.

My insensitive turn started with a request for information. Chloe – dressed as an office worker – approached me in a hallway of the administration part of the gallery building, and asked that I fill-out a form for personal information including my date of birth, gender, mother’s maiden name and contact details. Being over-exposed to the ethical minefield that is private data collection – particularly material that could give someone easy access to my bank account  – I accepted (I am polite) and proceeded to fill out my form with utter bullshit while making a mental note that artists wearing suits don’t usually look like business people, but like artists wearing suits.

What happened here? I hadn’t even entered the space with Chloe yet and I was already feeling indignant, mischievous.

To be continued…

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Rooftop Chemistry
You will always be wanted by me | Emily Parsons-Lord (NSW)

You can’t get your hands on fireworks very easily in this country (with the exception of the Northern Territory on it’s “cracker night”). Up to a few years ago some friends would drive over the border to Canberra and buy them from there, but even the nation’s capital is now off-limits. They have become illicit to the point where people only seem to engage in completely reckless and life-threatening acts when they do get their hands on them.

So when I began mixing the chemistry for a much gentler form of firework with Emily Parsons-Lord on the rooftop of the Art Gallery of WA, some of my excitement was born of a sense of the forbidden.

To be continued…

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The Safety of Digital Distance
Current Mood | Jackson Eaton (VIC)

I was a Snapchat virgin until yesterday. Sure, I am not its target market. But for this short fling, it was fun. Sort of. I have no regrets. If we believe its marketing, the record of my transaction with Jackson Eaton has been erased. It is forever lost to the digital ether.

This performance was a conversation in images and pithy one-liners played out over distance. Jackson in red pants and blue t-shirt with fringe cut straight like a male emoji, roamed the exhibitions of the gallery’s ground floor levels like an avatar on an automated pace sequence. I could just see him from the corner of my eye – over there and never too close. We snap-chatted pictures of the collection, augmenting them with emojis and graffiti and animating objects in brief videos. The tone of our exchange ranged between juvenile to silly, while maintaining an outward appearance of gallery-visitor decorum – at least for my own part. And then the atmosphere shifted. I got the creeps.

To be continued…

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Gag Reflex
One of twice daily | Malcolm Whittaker (NSW)

It’s a strange thing being back in Perth this time. I don’t often come home – perhaps once a year. But this year I’ve returned at least three times, maybe four. On every other occasion I have been running between appointments over a ridiculously truncated schedule, but now I am more actively paying attention. I am contracted to pay attention to the works in the Proximity Festival, but my awareness is creeping out of the Art Gallery of WA and resting its senses over everything.

Yesterday I had to walk to the King Street Arts Centre to sign some employment forms, taking a totally different route to the one my body knows on a fleshly, instinctual level. The bridge from the Busport to Raine Square is gone. It was a fragment the last time I was here, with a remnant archway suspended like a portal to the past. This time it was completely vanquished, along with Raine Square and the bus port itself, which were toppled a while back. I found myself caught in a memory of holding hands with my year-eleven boyfriend, Mick Hender – both of us wearing black jeans and white band t-shirts, crossing the bridge, totally embarrassed by our unintended sartorial match.

Matching red faces.

I would have visited the Art Gallery’s collection of early settler and nineteenth century art with Mick and the rest of my classmates back in 1992. Unlike the Perth skyline and a lot of its 70s and 80s developments, this part of the gallery remains unchanged from that time. Or it seems unchanged to me.

Malcolm Whittaker was standing in there looking like another one of the many friendly invigilators in the building. He was hovering around McCubbin’s “Down On His Luck” from 1889. We struck up a conversation immediately about my past association with this space, learning as a schoolgirl about the Heidelberg School of artists and authentic representations of the Australian context. Malcolm reminded me that “Down On His Luck” was a set-up. We talked about national mythology and misreadings and the disruption of widely-held truths and the teenage proclivity to disparage the art of the recent past (old, dead men). I don’t remember how he segued to asking if he could brush my teeth right there in the gallery. It must have been some sleight of hand. Sleight of tongue, perhaps?

There was a porcelain sink installed by Malcolm on a plinth in the middle of the space. An obvious tip of the hat to Duchamp in an unlikely setting, but also tuned-in to our contemporary acceptance of industrial design alongside art objects of a similar era. No one visiting seemed to bat an eyelid at this incursion. I launched into a graphic account of my gag reflex and how the twice-daily ritual of brushing my teeth caused me to vomit…just a little bit. With the McCubbin and Longstaff paintings of my formative art years looking on, Malcolm brushed my teeth gently, and I kept my gag in check.

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Archeology of the Ephemeral
Meditations on Water | Mei Saraswati (WA)

A couple of days ago, while taking a break from Proximity Festival and the writing of it, I bumped into two friends I hadn’t seen for at least ten years. Christina and Beth were watching over Christina’s two small children as they explored the remediated wetlands adjacent to the Art Gallery of WA. After overcoming our surprise of each other we talked about the wetland’s previous incarnation as a rather scungy fountain. Beth remembered it in the summertimes of the late 1990s, crawling with cockroaches.

The wetland of course is a tiny and totally human-dependent semblance of the actual wetlands that ranged across the entire expanse of Perth city. But as testament to the possibilities of environmental remediation, it is thriving. You can sit outside and hear the frogs croaking. It creates a micro-climate of coolness in the otherwise unpleasantly exposed area of the cultural centre. The sensorial, olfactory and sonic intervention in the cells of the gallery, Meditations on Water by Mai Saraswati engaged with this site and its natural history.

I love the bushland, forests, rainforests, mountains and marine reserves of Australia. My partner and I are practically committed to each other through this shared love of the Australian bush in all of its difference and complexity. I particularly love rivers, billabongs and freshwater streams. There’s nothing quite like the ecstatic, total-body pleasure of plunging into cool, fresh water after a long day of walking in the heat. Meditations on Water made my body yearn for this feeling.

Over the years, I’ve done a bit of work with artists that are interested in ephemeral archaeologies – especially sonic ecologies or the reinstatement of lost sounds to an environment. Sydney-based artist Nigel Helyer is particularly focussed on Australia’s industrial heritage and the lost sounds of industry. But this work by Mai was designed to take me back to pre-colonial times, where nothing we recognise of Perth as a city would have existed.

To be continued…

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