Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Melbourne Arts Festival

I happened to be in Melbourne during the annual International Arts Festival. There were events throughout the city, both indoors and out, and most of them were free. Here are the ones I went to see. I've included their press info in italics, just because I think it is interesting to see how artists promote themselves (I might get a bit theater-geeky here, so beware).

Ride-in Movies
The days of the old Drive-In Movies may be all but gone, but the nights of the Ride-In Movies are about to begin! Put on your best pair of walking shoes, jump on your bike, catch a train, tram, bus, and join us at Federation Square every evening from 6pm to 7pm. Ride-In Movies features nightly screenings from the home movie collections of notable Australians from around Victoria, as well as the home-made, hand-spun movie-making enthusiasts, auteur hobbyists and backyard directors of the ACMI Archives.

Each day had a different theme. Here's the one for the night I went:

Soap Operatics
Social training films from the 1950s are given shiny new narratives by some great Melbourne writers.

The setting was really cool, with a projection onto the side of a building in Federation Square, right downtown. Beneath the screen was a small stage where the host and the people reading the voice-overs stood. There were folding chairs set up, plus the Square is nice and open with steps all over the place that people were sitting on.

It was a device that I had seen before, where they show one of those old films (this one was about how to find the right man to marry) and people record a new soundtrack. The films were pretty funny, though I was annoyed by the lack of precision with the voice-overs. Sometimes they would have the character keep talking when a new one on the screen had started, or they would have very long lines when visually the charater only said a few words. It threw the comic timing off and made the whole thing feel sloppy. There were some funny moments, but overall it was pretty mediocre.

Lone Twin
UK performance duo Lone Twin make work dealing playfully with ideas of travel, place, endurance, human interaction and kindness. Since 1997 Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters have worked across contemporary theatrical, live art and dance contexts to make generous, entertaining and publicly accessible work. They are now set to take Melbourne by storm.For the first time ever, four works by Lone Twin can be seen in the one place as this performance pair settle in for a Festival residency sure to be remembered. You might see them in the street, on their bikes or by the Yarra, but to really understand what Lone Twin are up to, come and share in their four incredible unique performance works.

Here's the one I saw:

To the Dogs

Armed only with two small folding bikes Lone Twin will cycle around town by day and return each evening at 7.30pm to deliver a performance-dispatch of the day’s events.

An interesting note about this is that the first night it was seven minutes long, then each subsequent night they add another seven minutes so by the end of the week of shows they have a 49 minute production. I saw it on the second to last night.

This one was also in Federation Square, and the audience sat on a staircase with the two performers at the bottom. It was getting dark when their show began, so it was lit mostly by the surrounding lights of the city, plus they were wearing reflective bicycle outfits. They looked pretty funny, but the writing was weak and they were not at all theatrical. It was a lot like two guys standing there talking about stuff they had seen that day. This photo shows the the most movement they did during the piece. Since I have a total bias toward movement and physicality on stage, this bugged me. The audience seemed to enjoy it, but I wonder if it wasn't just fun to sit out on the steps and watch something, regardless of the quality.

Theatre for One
The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera

Come inside the custom-built Theatre for One to experience a unique and very clever video-based piece performed just for you. Behind the red velvet curtain inside this single-seater theatre you can be the sole audience member for the 20-minute theatrical installation The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera. This multimedia presentation from creator Justin Harris incorporates elements of music, video and sculpture in an intimate and creative representation of a live concert.

I was totally intrigued by this idea. It some ways, it seems entirely contrary to the idea of theater since it isolates the audience member and removes the communal experience of seeing a show.

I loved the set-up, which was essentially a booth in the plaza area in front of a building. Behind that red curtain (see the picture above) is the single seat where you watch the show.

When I went around the corner to pay my $2 entry fee, I was very disappointed to discover that it was sold out. But it got me thinking, if only one person at a time can see your 20-minute show, you're really not going to reach many people. Again, what a weird thing to do for theater. I talked to the ticket guy about this, and he said that there was major corporate funding for the festival, so there wasn't a concern or even a real attempt to make any money on this. He also said that the artist was more focused on the rock opera, and that the Theatre for One idea was sort of an afterthought to get people interested in hearing his music. Well I guess it worked, since it was sold out. I think it is a cool idea, but kinda feels like you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Xu Zhen
The last few mosquitoes
From inside the body
For the Festival, Chinese artist provocateur Xu Zhen brings two installations to Spacement: The last few mosquitoes and From the body.

Finding this place was a challenge, and I actually walked past it and had to go back searching for it. The Spacement building is at the end of this alley, and around the corner to the left. Can you see the sign that says Spacement? No, me neither.

Once I finally found the building, there was a steep, dark staircase into a warehouse-style basement. On the left was a large room painted all white. When you look closely you can see several mosquitoes on the wall, about two inches long. Upon closer inspection, you discover that their bellies consist of a thin glass tube that rhythmically fills with red fluid, then drains out again. I'm guessing this was the installation called "The last few mosquitoes." It looked kinda cool, but didn't do much for me.

Next to this is another empty room. There is a wide, white wall, onto which three images are projected. Each camera is aimed at a brown couch, all identical. A man enters the left screen at the same time that a woman enters the right. The center couch remains empty. The man and woman each sit and remove their shoes and socks. As they are doing this, they start to notice a smell. It builds slowly, with just a distracted sniff as they untie their shoes, but gradually they become obsessed with finding the source of this smell. (To the theater geeks out there: it is basically a Lecoq-style minimum to maximum scene.) As they are searching for the smell, they sniff all over the room and all over themselves, removing much of their clothing in the process (they keep on tank tops and underwear).

They eventually wander off toward the center screen, and a few moments later enter and sit on the center couch together. They are being polite, but are clearly distracted by their desire to find the source of this smell. This again builds until they are climbing all over each other, sniffing and searching. (If there are any Rough & Tumblers reading this, it reminded me of the scene we did with Kristin and Michael trying to sit on the chair.)

Overall, I really liked this piece. The man was particularly good at playing the low levels, and his subtlety made it really funny. The woman had a bit of the "gosh, what is that smell?" look to her, which was annoying at times (for the Dell'Artians out there, I think Ronlin called it "playing at the thing"). My main criticism is that it built to nothing. Both endings just fizzled out (when the two left their individual screens and when they left the center screen). I kept thinking "Where is the white moment?" Or for the non-theater-geeks, "When do you realize yourself and what you are doing?" Even if they didn't go with the white moment that I've come to expect from all that wacky physical theater training, they needed some sort of completion to their journey. The build was great, but ultimately it felt like it built to nothing.

In spite of this, I really liked the piece. It was odd and kept my attention, and it is not every day that I get to sit in a dark room watching people frantically sniffing.

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