Art and revolution ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 24, 2011

Art and revolution

When Brett Sheehy, Melbourne Festival artistic director, launched his program earlier this year at a lavishly corporate event, he announced that the themes of this year's festival were "rebellion and revolution". This immediately set up a jangling dissonance: anything less revolutionary than the event which announced it is hard to imagine. This, you might justifiably conclude, is a comfortable revolution, rebellion appropriated and served up as a spicy dish for the middle classes who can afford it - one step away, maybe, from the Schweppes "Cocktail Revolution" ads, featuring faux stencil text and punching fists, that are presently plastering Southern Cross Station.

Ironies went into overload in the festival's last week when the Occupy Melbourne protest began in the City Square under the shadow of one of AES+F's giant demon babies - the signature image of the festival - and when protestors were violently and controversially removed by Victoria Police under instructions from the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle.

Suddenly AES+F's artworks accumulated a subversive frisson of strangeness and ambiguity, as the sinisterly polished gargoyles transformed into perverse graces above the action. Above the tents of the occupation, the giant striding baby seemed like a ugly but benign avatar, emblematic of the extrusion of the different into the business of the city, ambiguous promise slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. After the police raid, it stood like an ominous reproach, or a sardonic comment on the infantile impulse behind the exercise of brute power. The image above, for example, which shows one of the statues towering above a City Square newly fenced off and "returned to the people of Melbourne", is striking (click on the photo for a larger image).

The Occupy Melbourne adventure highlighted the fraught issue of the privatisation of public space, an issue dear to the heart of many contemporary performance makers. For the festival, it put pressure on its pretensions to revolution. Despite easy dismissals, such claims are not without substance: Sheehy's best performance program yet hosted events like Ilbijerri's Foley, Gary Foley's bitterly funny account of Indigenous activism, or Hofesh Shechter's obliterating Political Mother, or former Dead Kennedy and iconoclast Jello Biafra, a vocal supporter of dissent, as well as a program of talks at the Wheeler Centre which directly canvassed ideas around revolution. In the heavily corporatised context of this year's Melbourne Festival, which even included a commercial production, this seemed akin to the artistic subversion that occurred under communism: art smuggling itself into a hostile environment as metaphor.

Many of the works on show did what art does best: raising questions in profound and complex ways, pressing against the limits of received opinion. Art, after all, is not activism, and its relationship to politics is often uncomfortable and a little Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. Art deals in complexities, and - as is especially clear in performance, but is true of all artforms - it exists in the nexus between private and public experience. Artists often sup with the devil: if they're smart, using a very long spoon. Nevertheless, you have to be blind or ignorant of art history to claim that art is apolitical, whether it's the Fascism of Ezra Pound, the art/reality investigations of Rimini Protokoll or art that reinforces conservative values, as in so much of the middle-brow performance around town.

Several works justified Sheehy's theme: Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly, for instance, struck sparks with the zeitgeist by investigating notions of private and public space; Back to Back's sublime Ganesh Versus The Third Reich - for me, and many others, the pick of the festival - interrogated not only the assumptions of theatre and performance, but the profound implications of power that underlie the most trivial of human interactions. Shows like BalletLab's Aviary, Barry Dickins's Whiteley's Incredible Blue or even Roysten Abel's joyous celebration of Sufi music The Manganiyar Seduction drove into an ecstatic sublime that, as George Bataille argues in Literature and Evil, must necessarily set itself against the good order of rational society.

Other works seemed to demonstrate what happens when subversive pretensions are co-opted into the mainstream and shorn of originatory discomfort and insight. Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler took all the revolution out of Ibsen and, for all its avant garde dress, served up a mild slap to a fictitious middle class, while Pan Pan's The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane domesticated Shakespeare to an academic argument. Then there was motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love, which seemed the perfect presentation of tick-the-boxes liberal art: multiculturalism and the immigrant experience as tasting plates. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to bring an event of this kind to a city as habituated to immigration and as used to food as cultural expression as Melbourne.

It seemed to me that the festival served up enough exciting work to create a frisson of its own. Yet for me, somehow, that frisson never happened: there was not enough of the kinds of connections that happened with the AES+F statues. Perhaps this really is down to the festival context. I experienced it as a discrete series of events, some exciting, some not, rather than the dynamic cultural catalyst it might have promised. Sheehy was definitely picking up on the zeitgeist in foregrounding a theme of revolution: was this merely rebellion as consumer decoration? The answer must, broadly, be yes: that is, if you ignore the experiences of the art itself, which are - or are not - their own justification, and which work subtextually in a society in ways that are almost impossible to trace, but which can be profound. What's clear is how the collision of art and life in the final week of the festival illustrates the faultines that exist in our culture.

What to make, for instance, of Ted Baillieu, Premier of Victoria and Minister for the Arts, promoting on the one hand the "edgy and diverse works" in the festival program, and on the other supporting the violent police action against the 100 or so campers in the City Square? Does this taint the artists who, in imagining alternative realities and exploring the possible, expand possibility themselves? Can art subvert its contexts, or is its power inevitably negated? If subversion the best that art can manage, what does that say about the contexts in which our art is made? And does that subversion matter so little in the consumerist marketplace that it may be permitted a little dance? (Up to a point, Lord Copper). But, on the other hand, should this main stage public space simply be ceded on the grounds of these contradictions?

I don't have answers to any of the questions I've raised here, but I think they need to be raised. Especially after the brutal show of reactionary conservatism on show in Melbourne this week. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, "Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was." The most interesting artists always act from principle - Back to Back being a germane example. And they can and do change "things and relations".

Plans for future festivals, after Sheehy finishes his tenure next year and moves on to helm the Melbourne Theatre Company, are deeply unclear, although the removal of "arts" from its name - it used to be officially the Melbourne International Arts Festival - could be taken as an ominous sign. New executive director Tim Jacobs, formerly the Arts Centre CEO, wants the festival to redefine the notion of an international arts festival, and to become an event as publicly notable as the Melbourne Cup. He is suggesting it should be moved to March, when it will compete with the Comedy Festival, the wine and food festival and Moomba. There's certainly a lot of room for a rethink of the arts festival model in Australia, but I wonder if this is, as Jacobs says, the "way forward". I guess we'll find out.

Pictures: Angels-Demons Parade, AES+F, above the City Square. Photo Indy Media; bottom: Back to Back's Ganesh and The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby


Born Dancin' said...

The rumoured shift to Feb/March - and those rumours have been getting louder and louder - is really quite mystifying to me, for several reasons. Putting aside the probability that the MF and Comedy Fest audiences don't really have a huge overlap, I just can't see much reason. If the festival is hoping to take advantage of the business of that period to attract new audiences, surely they'll only be audiences who can afford to pay for two festivals at once. These things aren't cheap, and if you add on the extra costs associated with festival-going (having to eat out between shows, etc) it seems the festival will actually be narrowing its audience to a more monied-up demo.
Plus the coldest snap of the year traditionally arrives on the first day of the comedy festival, so it doesn't make much more sense weather-wise, either.

Alison Croggon said...

The conflation of the various festivals does hint at consolidating a "lifestyle" idea of arts culture. For those of us who think art is more than a lifestyle, this would be a troubling dimunition of mainstream significance. Such a move, if it did work out that way, would throw all the attention of energy and vitality at the Fringe and Next Wave festivals, I think. The idea of art as an energy at the centre of private consciousness and public identity is a hard row to hoe in Australia, and always has been. On the bright side, I suspect those resistances are why Australia produces such interesting artists...

Anonymous said...

I am unclear on the reason for the move as well. Front loading four state festivals, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide into the first three months of the year defies logic. all this will do is create a mini touring circuit and reduce interstate visitation for each city. I agree with Born Dancin' people's pockets are not deep enough to support another event or festival in March. The festival should re invent itself in a model that stays ahead of the pack not carbon copy Sydney and Adelaide with outdoor extravaganzas.

Anonymous said...

Call me Anon 2:

Front loading four state festivals, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide into the first three months of the year doesn't defy logic ... it's called spreading the risk. By reducing the overheads, festivals don't need to attract interstate visitors. Arts festivals aren't money-making ventures, they're money-losing ventures. The aim is to lose less money, not make more.

The dilution of risk and loss of curatorial differentiation is something to look carefully at. Still, what's wrong with a touring circuit? What's so great about exclusivity? As long as the plurality of aesthetics and the quality is maintained, it could make for a much more sustainable practice (financially and ecologically).

Alison Croggon said...

Just a point of clarification: by "conflation", I was referring to the arts festival becoming part of a March continuum that includes the food and wine fest, the Comedy Festival and Moomba. The Perth/Adelaide?Sydney nexus is another issue. And yes, there are certainly reasons why a touring circuit is not a bad idea. It works quite well in Europe...

Anonymous said...

I'll be Anon 3...

I saw Notes from a Hard Road and Beyond on Sunday night at the Bowl. Starting with The Revolution will not be Televised, it proceeded to serve up some great music matched with some disturbing images, which raised issues of consumption of the legacy of revolution as much as the act of revolution itself. MLK's Dream is now a marketing tool as much as a call to revolution; images displayed to a passive middle-class audience are not a means of dissent. A line about the streets of Melbourne was dropped into a song and received a cheer. How many actually protest though?

The sponsorship of the night by Foxtel was laced with irony. This bit of revolution may not have been televised, but it was recorded for later dissemination on a channel part owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose investment in revolution is a canny one, surely.

That said, music has always been a tool for change, but the gap between powerful song and commodified ad background noise seems ever shorter. The ability of the ruling culture to reduce thought processes through spectacle is the only thing that increases...

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anons, for so carefully differentiating yourselves. I wish I'd opted for Notes From A Hard Road, Anon 3. I was elsewhere. It sounds kind of paradigmatic of the tensions and questions I'm talking about.

Richard Pettifer said...

great commentary Alison

I totally didn't buy the theme from the outset and thought it was complete bull even before I saw any shows. To have a predominantly state-funded with heavy corporate funding festival branding with the concept of revolution is at best just a mistake and at worst a containing of dissent (not outside the realm of possibility if you are suspicious that Australian culture merely hides its politics behind wide grins and sandy beaches). Revolution by definition belongs to the people, it is anti-institutional, and the Devil-baby irony you pointed out is a prime example of this contradiction, whether or not you sympathise with the protest.

I don't know who came up with it and I kind of don't care, it was a mistake to ever brand it this way. I had to choose between getting angry at it or ignoring it, mostly I just ignored it.

The biggest revolution I have seen in the theatre was this show in hamburg where 20 unemployed people dressed as bums read in unison a list of Hamburg's 50 richest people and their Euro value as part of a performance of Marat/Sade that had a set made out of giant mattresses sporting the Aldi logo. That contained high risk and some of the people on the list complained because they were donors to the theatre (their names had to be replaced with "anonymous"), even though the list had been published 6 months earlier and was simply being repeated. Lots of egg on face for the Schauspielhaus, a small public scandal, and the conscious creation of a worthy political moment.

Where has that "revolution" gone from the festival? It took outsiders to make a revolution, there sure as hell wasn't one on stage or in the gallery, and there was never going to be.

I just think what a joke to title the festival that. Why not combine it with the Comedy Festival and complete the compliance - laughter is the best medicine etc

again great commentary thanks for this Alison I have found this festival impossible to get into and now I realise why I think

Anonymous said...

Anon Insider.

I can tell you now this program theme was applied as an afterthought once the shopping had been done. The program was most certainly not composed with any particular theme in mind.

Anonymous said...

That doesn't surprise me at all, Anon Insider.

What did surprise me this year - in fact it shocked me - was that the festival's publicists has to pay for their own tickets for events. And yes, this is straight from the horse's mouth, not idle gossip, though admittedly was part of a conversation I eavesdropped on rather than took part in...

Richard Pettifer said...

Thanks for sharing A.I that info doesn't surprise me either, but also doesn't do anything to ease the pain.

You can not theme something so politically and not follow through with it, I think. I have something against tacked-on themes, but it's a small gripe compared to institutions occupying a political space that should be reserved for people. If this had been a festival that really took art to the streets and gave it back to the people I could have supported the theme.

Publicists had to pay for their tickets?!! P.R REVOLUTION!!!

anonymous 100 said...

In terms of touring networks, excellent idea. This also serves to bring overseas guests/buyers to Australia.
The weather in Feb/March is probably warmer in Feb/March - plus it's coming onto Autumn.

The Edinburgh fest(ivals) combine to create the largest festival on earth, Melbourne would likely take that cake.

I would like to see that happen and that awful car race thing shoved out to sea, and sent back with Bernie E to some hellhole.

Oh yeah, and revolution? Whatever.

And thanks for the pic Alison, does that dude bottom right have an ear piece? Is he one of them spook type dudes? Is the government afraid of the scum rising up and having one of them london riots type things? And how much cash does street art (I mean vandalism) bring into the city coffers?

I mean, revolution is only what you make of it. I chose not to attend any fest events, less from choice, more cos of bucks. That was my personal revolution.


Alison Croggon said...

Revolution means ... all sorts of things, including (as Camus pointed out) going around in circles. It's a word with meaning(s), right? Right.

And the fact is, if you missed the festival, you would have missed some good art. People like Back to Back, who are hardly the epitome of corporate ideology. The ticket price question is absolutely moot. I couldn't afford to go if I had to pay. I only pay for my kids' tickets, but luckily they're students: for most shows, $25. Otherwise, yes, it's expensive.

Yes, the dude has an earpiece. What is the government afraid of? Good question.