MONA FOMA 2013 or Why Theroy
Before we start I must say that I am a political person. I have a strong left wing bent to my politics, and this of course colours many of my opinions and much in my daily life. More than that I am of an old school of left wing politics. If someone held a gun to my child's head and I was forced to give myself a label, I guess it would be some sort of anarcho-communist, in that the end goal of all political activity would have to be the classless society. Many people throw up their hands in despair as to what is left and what is right, to me it is fairly simple. Each and every day we reproduce our daily life. This is done in the work place. If you think that the socially produced goods should be appropriated by the few, than you are what I like to call right wing, if on the other hand you think socially produced wealth should be shared socially than you are what we can call left wing. Much flows from where one stands on this issue. Art and culture have a special interest for me, as they are of vital importance in the formation of opinion and of ideology.
So moving along...
Had a busy weekend of art. Starting innocently enough on Saturday morning. The day was like most others. A morning I spent making breakfast and getting the children organised. After lunch I jumped into the car and drove...
Over cast with a whipping mirthless wind over hill and over dale whistling past overrun with wild thistle sheep paddocks faded golden and brown and wild dishevelled competing with mown grown fields of irrigation complex spray wasting water in every direction. A man made rain shower on a field of rising green shootings surrounded on all sides by the dry cracking brown blown on the wind broken grass and dirty dust. Cliche of a sugar loaf shaped mountain of childlike scrawling landscape and weirs roistering in the whippy cautioned wind along the cool coal river vineyard valley.
Cottages and old timey signs over butcher and baker and video and petrol shops.
Cold blow rode.
Everybody's talking about bagism.
And fundraising Dunnalley skool lemon aid. Stately fowl march rowed tortured vines swelling bunches green and hard.
Headed up to the Museum of Old and New Art Saturday afternoon markets. In many ways the drive up to the MONA is a thrilling as the museum itself. As much as I love the artificial, even so do I love the natural. I effortlessly killed an hour or two as I strolled the grounds and stalls and spoke to some locals about this and that and a bit of the other thing. And the goal of standing on ones head. Far off, on the wind, I could hear the finger style playing of Richard Gillewitz. A guitarist from Florida. Sadly due to time constraining realities and the social blather I was not able to pay as close attention as I would have liked. Which is a shame as it is always pleasant to listen to someone who is able to skilfully finger play the guitar. This style seems to my untrained ear to bring out sounds and rhythms that are often overlooked in much guitar work, or used only sparingly. What I could hear blowing across the cloud chasing lawn wind was delicate and made me want to hear more. Which is the result that any artist wants, to leave the audience wanting more. And a man in a tent painted green and lounging and posing as a half man half amphibian beast. Between two worlds. Artifice and nature. Town and city. Male and Female.
So after whiling away some time at the markets I drove down to the Hobart waterfront. The clouds of the beach and the morning had been chased away, as if thousands of children sang sunny day rhymes all at the same time. And the warming sun was balanced by the cool damp wind off the river.
I don't like driving at the best of times, it strikes me as terribly unnatural, and so with police cars about and roads changed and rerouted I took the cowards way out and rather than hunt for the perfect spot I retreated to where I knew there were ample car parks and waked the five minutes or so to Princes Wharf Plaza.
An apocalypse, an uncovering. Slogans on the pavement and on walls. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Forgetting the parallel and equal Nothing is permitted, everything is true. Natural disaster settings and seats made of sand bags and old tractor tyres. A giant theremin made by Melbourne artist Robin Fox. And children ran about and up to and behind and giggled and ran some more as the pyramid installation made it's many strange noises. This amusing piece which allowed, even forced, the audience to participate was a big hit with this reviewer as well as many members of the general public. A piece originally commissioned by City of Melbourne. Later in the evening as the drink and drugs took their grip it was amusing to watch the midnight creepers and staggerers wander past the theremin and be surprised by the songs created. And once they understood what the happening the drunks and druggies (or as I like to call them my people) took to flying airplanes around, onto, and into the machine.
So I took my place in the long conga entry line of music hungry punters hipsters and groovers. Sucking a vanilla thick shake through a straw I waited my turn to enter into the Princes Wharf. I was ushered into this empty vast temple to a distant industrial past, into this modern temple to a technological future still be created. Banks of computer screens controlled lights, sound, images and more. Wires and lights and speakers and all array of electronic gadgets and toys hung over exposed girders and crawled along the roof.
In the first instance I was there to see Ben Walsh's Orkestra of the Underground Scores Shaun Tan's The Arrival.
Shaun Tan is an Australian artist, from Perth originally. In 2006 he made an illustrated book titled The Arrival. This wordless story won the 2007 "Book of the Year" prize as part of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.
It was by happy accident that Ben Walsh came across this evocative book. Urged on by the evocative images Ben Walsh created a score for The Arrival. The performance was a well produced production with all the various elements of sound, rhythm, image, light and motion working seamlessly. To the outsider who is not privy to the minor errors introduced in any live performance, the production seem to flow flawlessly.
One of the key aspects of this performance was the inclusion of a series of illustrations from the book projected onto screens behind the Orkestra. These dreamy, lovely drawings of half forgotten times was filled with strange amphibian like creatures and indecipherable swiggles and markings meant to be the foreign language refugees must learn. Amphi being a Greek word, and having at the root of the word the idea of 'on both sides.' (According to my (online) Liddell & Scott Greek–English Lexicon.) Whether by another happy accident or prior planning these strange creatures in a single simple image encapsulated the real life of the immigrant. That is the fact of being caught between two worlds, being on both sides of a cultural divide. Even the venue had echoes of this idea of being between two worlds. The old passing into nothingness Hobart and the new Hobart coming into being.
The crowd gathered and chatted and doodled with mobile phones and took photos and texted envious friends some sitting on recently installed bleacher seats some on giant hot pink bean bags some stood in the centre of the hall surrounded on both sides. The rising din echoed off the hard walls and was at the same time muffled by the soft humid crowd. Phones flashing children laughing. Out the open door the blue blue of the river. Warehouses along the waterfront and the low foothills retreating to infinity. And then the hushing anticipation as the musician took the stage and noddled here and there with their instruments warming up and calming nerves.
The lights fall and rise, eyes appear and fade away, rapid changes and snatches of folk music and others snippets of sound and sense swirl and build to a frenzy of faces and drums and horns and a take your breath away galloping flow. The music flows images fade and now we see fearful children under covers. A clatter of drums, wail of horns. Mystery and Threat. After the rapids a slow cool eddy. It is easy enough to make a hash of electronic or found sounds into a piece such as this, but here I am happy to say that the various sounds added fit together fluidly. The gulls overhead and the waves splashing the immigrant ship only added to the soundscape, slowly fading away and I looked away to see the heaving river and could almost smell the salt air. Further into the maelstrom of emotions the hero of the book came into the city with a discordant resonating click clack series of sounds. And looking out the window of his railroad flat window, a fractal wall looking the same from any dimension, one could sense his isolation. A feeling of alienation and vulnerability. A longing for return and reuniting.
As well as the images projected on screen the lighting and effects for this piece were all very supportive and added to, rather than subtracted from or overwhelmed, the primacy. Which in this case was the music. Flashing red as things fell apart to wide spans of thin smoke glowing purple in the light, and the menace of blue as runaway children held hands amid the clatter of drums, the popping of hand slapping skins and wailing and crying of horns. All moved together as one relentless flow of music and art and technology and space and coincidence to tell a sparse tale which forced the individual observer to fill in gaps with their own life experience.
Any criticisms I could make would be only the quibbles of one with neither the talent nor the drive to make such an event happen. A few minutes knocked off here and there to make the piece shorter. A wider range of instruments could have allowed more texture and nuance of emotion to come through. As the number of makers in the Orkestra was only a cricket team the emotional range was limited by the tonal range of the instruments. I admit to feeling a bit churlish even typing these words as the piece worked so effectively, and opened another door of discussion in the topic of how we treat newcomers to our sun burnt land. So I will say that it is a shame that this piece is not performed more often. It would be a useful activity to film the concert for viewing on one of the sensible stations, either ABC or SBS, followed by discussion with various people involved in the immigration debate. For all the joyful, liberating power of music, speech is often required to fine tune the discussion. But again this is just my opinion, and opinions as well all know are like assholes, in that everyone has one.
If I had the power of Orpheus, O Father, to bewitch the rocks to dance with me by my song...
Iphigenia in Aulis 1212 - Euripides
After this show ended I waddled my self over to the Peacock theatre to see a chamber opera starchild by Tasmanian composer Dylan Sheridan. Knowing nothing of the composer, or of the piece, I had high hopes. In many ways it is best to know very little about the artist. Like the rest of us, artists are often selfish little jerks, and too know too much about them only opens a series of doors into rooms of doubt, fear and envy.
The Peacock Theatre was a very different venue from the Princes Wharf. The Peacock Theatre was small, Princes Wharf was huge. The Peacock is intimate, the Wharf is one of those spaces that makes one think of old 1950's tropes of the post Atomic Age, the lonely battlefield and the individual lost in the crowd. Coming into the cosy space from the late afternoon angle of natural street sunlight, it took a few moments for my vision to settle into the gloom of the theatre. As I adjusted to the light the stage and the many details came into view. This was a small simple piece, with only four musicians plus some electronics controlled by the composer. One singer and a child who sings a song at the end of the opera.
It was of interest to see how this could be done. The conceptual idea of the opera is in the idea of the 'far-off song' carried on the wind. The endless song of crying far off, unable to be touched or to even heard properly. Is this a better way to think about this thought, is there a better way to discuss the ephemeral and the ineffable, than by using the structure of the dream?
Three loud claps a drum beat, a woman's scream. And here recalling Finnegans Wake we fall; not however into shame and disgrace, but into a dream.
Like some dreams the scene was sparse, alien, with few objects and interactions. The small space of the theatre was used to maximum effect. The musicians were a part of the stage set. Obvious when one looked, but with a turned head the musicians seemed to fade away to became Satie's famous furniture, or like the Silence in recent episodes of Doctor Who.
Opera is in many ways the greatest of all art forms, in that it using all other art forms. Music, dance, gesture, speech, painting and more. This is not to rank types of art, but merely to point out the unifying aspect of opera. In this production the scenery was sparse, but effective in all ways. A small table, a floor of artificial grass, the netted and muted coverts for the musicians to play. But all of this fitted into the dream state of the work. With a small, empty arena for performing the action it is important for the lighting to 'do more work.' In this case the lighting was able to texture the simplicity of the set design, revealing and concealing in turn, imparting a dream quality to the commonplace A thin aerosol filled the stage so the lights could fell like solid cubist rays of pure fiery light onto the dancing place. This misty, obscuring light did much to reveal the mental state of the singer and to add a solidity to the nebulous world of the dream.
Like a dream the opera moved from a lighthearted confusion to moments of terror and panic. Internal questions unknowable seeped into the dream story. External stimuli imposed themselves on and were incorporated into the dream nature, be it the whistling wind in the background, the abrupt alarm clock, a far off laughing transforming into crying and back again into laughter, the branches tap tap tapping on the window.
And the 'heroine' sang of her and our confusion, like Gaugain, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Soprano Allison Farrow used her voice to tell the story to move along from one scene to the next. Her voice became another instrument, an extra layering onto the simple yet complex music created.
After a day of listening to male bands and male artists it was more than nice to hear a woman's voice being brought to the fore.
This was a lovely little piece and one I would happily recommend. I can understand some not enjoying the work, but to my mind it was a success. This simple short chamber opera was enjoyed so much that the audience seemed surprised and a little disappointed when it somewhat abruptly, ended. But this seems a good thing, surely it is much better to leave the audience wanting more rather than saying you have gone on too long.
Don't know if I should feel vindicated in my view of this opera, or should I think I am completely wrong. Seems the Mercury and I are on the same page, as it were.
Back to the Princes Wharf dark Satanic mill. A piece entitled No input by Scot Cotterell. This was pretty much what the title promised. The artist engineer created a no-input system. Or to quote the artist 'Outputs taken from an audio mixer are fed back into the inputs of the same mixer, creating a contained, semi-controllable feedback system,' he says. Like a snake eating its own tail. Sort of.
A flat out experiment in questioning music, an attempt to find new ways to make music. With the smallest amount of input Scott was able to create beats and sounds which filled the Princes Wharf and vibrated into the space between the diaphragm and lungs. With the limitations of the task Scot set himself it was difficult to create more in depth fields of emotion or discussion. What was apparent was the deep evocation of the memory of the industrial proletariat. The deep rumble and machine like rhythm brought me back into the many production line jobs were I spent many mind numbing, soul destroying days of my youth. Speaking to a random concert goer the image that she had was of being within the bowels of a great ocean going ship with the massive engine burning and churning through the water.
Unfortunately for me, hunger over came me and I had to sneak away to find myself some food and a cooling soda water.
Graveyard Train are self described as six men playing men's instruments just as men were born to do. They played a frantic, powerful sort of foot stomping, hand clapping, sing along music. Which the crowd enjoyed immensely. The use of the screen to project film of the band playing was a nice touch, but it made me think of Dylan's comment about how he should not be on MTV, because people make horrible faces when they sing. Passion and the power, as it were.
The projecting onto the screen allowed the audience to get close and to see how the band played and smashed the nine pound hammer all night long. In an age of mounting catastrophe, of ever rising tensions and threats, it does seem to me that Graveyard Train would be the perfect band to make a new protest music. With their relentless driving rhythm and ability to involve the crowd with their singable lyrics they have the perfect engine to play as men were born to do, that is to break the chains. Rather than singing of werewolves and ghosts why not change a bit and sing about hunting down the bosses and the landlords and bankers who work to keep us down. With the poor boy look and sound rather than whistling past the graveyard, why not attempt to storm the gates of heaven?
This type of music would fit nicely into a more political stance. Why sing about fanciful zombie apocalypse, when we have one facing us in the prospect of the Tony Abbott led LNP government?
And so being one of the ones who the state government likes to call the toxic dump opposing uneducated hillbilly mobs I wandered my way back to my home in the bush fire ravaged Southern Beaches district. High beamed driving tailgaters followed me from the airport roundabout to the roundabout at Midway Point, where I was able to make a discrete turn to free myself from the great white 4WD that turned the cabin of my car into a scene from Close Encounters. Dark roads and a half moon, car headlights flashing the shiny gold green eyes of feral and native animals. Possums and pademelons (Thylogale billardierii: the smallest of the macropods), feral or domestic cats attempting to cross the road, or attempting apparent suicide. Slaughtered animals on the verge.
After a fitful sleep I was able to spend a good part of the day at the local beach playing in the relentless, powerful mosh pit of the cranky waves of Frederick Henry Bay. This, while leaving me battered and bruised put me in good stead for the David Byrne & St Vincent mosh pit. Which was more a happy go lucky ball of humid bodies eager to dance and catch a glimpse of their heroes than the life threatening mosh pits of the mainland festival circuit.
The band made less use of the feast of visual tools and toys at their disposal. Rather than projecting onto the screen behind the band, they seemed more interested in using their bodies for visual excitement of the audience. After each song the lights would fade and the band would rearrange themselves and change instruments. The lights would come up and the band would waltz or square dance or quadrille themselves around the stage. This gave an odd feeling to the show and turned the band into a mixture of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, an old timey revival meeting all overlain with hyper-American marching band styles. The various influences and styles were all tied together in the slightly stand offish manner of the artistic professional observer.
With a very horn heavy sound the band played something that was not rock and roll and not quite jazz or funk either. Something old, something borrowed, something as usual in the career of David Byrne unique.
I do not have the album Love This Giant, but have heard several tracks on Radio National, so I was anticipating a good show, and I was not in the least disappointed. I greatly enjoyed the way that the band worked and moved on stage. I have always liked my art to be ritualised and this show fit into my conceptions of what art could be very nicely. David Byrne had always been an artist who relies on gesture and movement to both conceal and reveal what he is saying. This was true when I saw him way back in the late 70's with the Talking Heads, all the way to this most recent work. The band also seemed to bring to life the idea of Andre Breton that if you are going to do some strange things, it is best to wear a suit and tie. I assume on the theory that it would make it seem stranger.
So happily and with wort cunning I was lightly tripping, wrapped up in my own cocoon while the speakers pounded and every stomp on the bass drum threatened to lift me off the ground, while the each breath into the trumpet was amplified by electronics until it blew across the sweaty heaving mass like a crossfire hurricane. Shadows jumped and jived as the lights pulsed and the shadow of the trumpet player glowed golden yellow like the apparition of an angel on the wide white wall.
And then in this ever rising tide of bliss Annie Clark introduced the band members, 12 or so talented musicians. One of the horn players was a young woman. And as she was introduced some lads felt the need to wolf whistle.
And like the poet who notices a mote in his eye, notices the minor inconvenience which changes and deflates their mood; in a flash the two days of music and art crystallised in my mind. It was a big old sausage festival. Of the dozens or scores of artists I saw and heard in the two days only a handful were women. This may or may not be the fault of the festival organisers. To my mind it goes deeper than the tastes and desires of the organisers, it seems to be a deep seated problem across all the various forms of art these days.
This is why Guerrilla Girls ran a bus advertisement noting that only 3% of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC were women while some 83% of the nudes were of women.
This is why in England there was the need to set up the Orange Prize and here in Australia, after the 2011 Miles Franklin Award had no women short listed there was a need to set up the Stella Prize.
To my old fashioned mind this directly comes from the fact that the people who run the large museums, that run the publishing houses and recording studios are in the main men. Sexist or not I will leave it to you to judge, but we can at least say that like goes with like, and if men run things they will obviously see things from a male point of view and will agree with what their other male friends think.
Some may say that for music and art it does not matter, what matters is the art produced. But of course in this situation we are not only not getting women artists and musicians in the fore front, but we are not even able to understand what we are missing with so few women. For like all things art is political, as we must agree with the old feminist slogan that the personal is political, here we must agree that art while maybe not political on it's own, and much of what is art deals with issues not often found in the mainstream of political debate, we also have to see the importance of art in the creation of opinion and taste and the way that we look at and interact with the world.
While on the one hand we have to congratulate the organisers and staff and al involved in creating a rich and full program that ran over several days with few hiccups to upset the punter, we can on the other hand ask them to look a bit deeper and maybe even think about having another festival, maybe a MONA FEMA (Female Extravaganza of Music and Art) festival, or setting one day aside for only women musicians. For I am not one of those who think that a special festival for women artists would be a bad thing. While we live in an era of gender separation we must do all we can to overcome this divide.
Others may this is not needed, we have a female PM these issues are in the past. Other may say that a day set aside for women artists would be no more than a token effort. Some might even say that it goes against ideas of equality. I would say that we are already in a situation of inequality. This was highlighted by the annual Australian of the Year awards. The award has been awarded every year since 1960, meaning there have been 53 recipients, 11 of which have been women or some 20%. Including joint winners and the Seekers (who won in 1967) it is more like 60 winners of which 12 were women, or 48 have been men.
As women hold up half the sky it is rather glaring that only twenty percent have been so awarded.
To me this shows that gender issues are still important, and then the problems are systemic. This is not to specifically criticise the organisers of MONA FOMA, as they did a great job with the logistics and organising the event. There is much that happens away from the public eye, and the most important limiting factor would have to be availability of artists. But on the other hand it seemed to me a topic that had to be raised.