Peter Alwast’s conceptual video piece At the Rotunda was originally made for inclusion in a 2005 installation work entilted Delivery. The video shows footage of a sincerely gestured local community forum and sausage sizzle on the Gold Coast, occasioned to celebrate the construction of a new rotunda and corporate park sponsored by the local Colgate Palmolive factory. Under erected outdoor floodlights, and into a temporary PA system, a man who introduces himself as the area’s elected parliamentary representative sincerely welcomes the crowd and invokes a certain kind of public sphere by thanking everyone for their attendance at their new local park. He mentions he has been “asked to speak a bit about democracy” and his involvement in the local area—by which power, or event organiser, or video director, the viewer is not told. He relays his longstanding commitment to the democratic process as a “humble backbencher”, and his early interest in the Australian capital cities’ now obsolete traditions of mass public forums. Such traditions of “free speech” he laments now only take place elsewhere, irregularly in “Hyde Park for example (Chicago), Times Square (New York), and ‘London’,” and have been gradually impinged upon by the global mass-media, especially television, and newer converged media landscapes, depleting face to face experiences of public political speech and process.
His presentation is discomforting because his nostalgia seems normative within the social order in which it is performed. In fact, the politician was asked to “speak in some way” about democracy and his involvement in politics by Alwast himself. This stands out as a very peculiar license given by the artist to a specific orating subject to give a direct improvised reading of the regimes of governmentality at work in the bounds of the depicted scenario. The politician thus sounds out his own affective take on the specific public sphere in which he imagines himself to be performing. Most fascinatingly, forms of rhetoric and oral tradition that can be seen to inform the order of this live public event that the artist has essentially constructed, is what actually makes the event come together and ‘work’ quite sincerely for the performing subjects. The scene thus magically unfolds in precarious resemblance to verite’ footage without any need for the usual supports of constructed scenarios—direction, choreography, rehearsal etcetera. The event is able to act itself with its subjects, perform itself, because of the established strength of what Agamben would call, invoking Hippolyte, the “historical religion” shared between participants. To invoke Alwast’s title: it delivers.
At the Rotunda in fact delivers itself in three acts, divided by their distinct enunciative registers. The second is marked by the performance of a young suited woman from the Colgate Palmolive Company who speaks for far too long about the many ways in which Colgate Palmolive have become a part of the local community through their business success and donations, and inspired the nation’s hygiene practices with their now well known innovations in soaps, toothpastes, and toothbrushes. Sincere but ridiculous, she shifts the viewer between states of empathy, embarrassment, and depression regarding the teleological narrative (from democracy to hygiene products) that her performance seems to trope.
There is canny rhetorical use made of media references in At the Rotunda. The politician laments the role of television in short-circuiting the face-to-face processes of democratic representativeness, and diminishing the attraction of public assembly. Yet the unnervingly long takes of this rather un-newsworthy community event footage doubles as a kind of surveillance image. Post-production was funded by Alwast, and by Queensland Government grant money, spent incidentally on camera hire equipment, marquees, and sausages. The camera itself—the usually invisible component of the televisual or cinematic dispositif—is visible in the actual scene of capture, and it is this co-incidence that marks the“climax of a logic of public representation” (Paini 30). The work presents in this way a fairly ambitious dialogue between the representation of a local, intimate public sphere, and that event’s overexposure to virtuality and spectacle, in a world “not filmable but one already filmed, already representation, already projection” (Paini 35).
Children in fancy dress realise the video’s dénouement by confidently performing a series of nonsensical language ditties about the speech patterns of insects and other animals in to the microphone. Embraced (more weirdly) just as warmly by the plodding historical codes of traditional public assembly the event has set up, but taking over its regimes of sensibility with a completely idiosyncratic use of language, they invert the regimes of sense-making from an inside position. Arguably, they point to the subjectivised distance of the artist – what Boris Groys calls the “heterotopic” relationship of the artist to the community that he films, which is also the community in which he grew up. Such a register of artistic agency in overdetermined aesthetic circumstances is characteristic of Alwast’s work. Here, the vocalised narrative elements that remain in the work after the gaze-like deconstruction of its events, push against the limits of our attention and destabilize any sense of hope for an aesthetic redemption of the ordinary that is invoked.
*Adapted from an unpublished essay ‘Peter Alwast and Peculiar Positivity’ by Rachel O’Reilly
Agamben, Giorgio. “What is a Dispositor?” (lecture transcript by Jason Michael Adams, 2005), http://www.zoepolitics.com/transcript.html
Groys, Boris. “Politics of Installation.” e-flux journal, 2008.
Kessler, Frank. “Notes on Dispositif” (work in progress, Utrecht Media Seminar http://www.let.uu.nl/~Frank.Kessler/personal/notes%20on%20dispositif.PDF
Paini, Dominique. “Should we put an end to Projection” (Rosalind E. Krauss trans.) October Fall 2004, No. 110: 23–48.