At the Rotunda (2005), Peter Alwast*

Peter Alwast’s conceptual video piece At the Rotunda was originally made for inclusion in a 2005 installation work entilted Delivery.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

References

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.

http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/31

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.

Pacific Washup 2003, Rachael Rakena et al.

There are more than 26,000 Maori and 43,000 Pacific Islanders living in Sydney, Australia. Lured as young adults by the large urban capital, its greater employment prospects, and the hope of a brighter future, this rich and diverse community creatively negotiates narrative and affective ties to Pacific culture and community to account for identity and belonging at home in the diaspora. Pacific Washup, a 2003 video piece by Maori new media artist Rachael Rakena, and Fez Fa’anana and Brian Fuata, Australian performers with Samoan heritage, presents a performative allegorical take upon this history of migration, of personal significance to the artists. Co-produced by Sydney’s Performance Space (the artists had never met each other prior to their coming together to create the piece) the work playfully conjoins documentary tropes with affecting and contemporary Pacifika styled dance choreography to re-enact the journey of migrating bodies washed up on a foreign Australian shore. The piece captures the doubt, uncertainty, optimism and wonder that comes with arrival, and new beginnings signified. It also taps into the traditional and continuing importance of the sea in narrating identity, where for Pacific people, lineage is traced along ocean currents, through historic connections to specific island homelands.

The artists’ re-enactment of a ‘Pacific washup’ in 2003 was a purposive and timely artistic intervention, internationally projected during a decade of xenophobic policy manouvres and manipulative populist politics by the Australian Howard government of the period. Rakena openly discusses the work’s creation in the wake of the Tampa incident, a most significant turning point in Australian and regional politics which, post-September 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, saw John Howard’s conservative coalition ride an image of being tough on asylum seekers and refugees direct to Federal election success in 2002. The Australian Senate inquiry into the Children Overboard Affair revealed the moral bankruptcy of a re-elected Howard government, whose public statements that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard in order to secure rescuing and passage to Australia were not only revealed to be false, but were also supported by images taken only after the shift had sunk, and reinforced internally by orders to government photographers, to not take or circulate “humanising” pictures of asylum seekers during the 2002 election campaign.

Pacific Washup’s subtle, hand-held, durational engagement with the politics and possibilities of arrival – the sense of caution articulated by Fa’anana and Fuata’s dancers’ understated, choreographed steps, tip-toing along Sydney’s beautiful Bondi Beach on a hazy overcast dawn – in many ways continued to dialogue with the nation’s cultural politics post-Tampa. Rakena points out that following the later Cronulla riots, a period of intense racially motivated mob violence across Sydney’s beach suburbs in December 2005, she was affirmed by the appearance of banners promoted by community groups, which delivered slogans such as “Paddington Welcomes Refugees” to local streets and media.

The artwork engages quite beautifully with this terrain through a number of formal and compositional choices as well as through attention to choreography. The opening hand-held (waterproofed) camerawork  immediately places the viewer into the mind’s eye of the washed up arrival. Bubbling salt water whips at and dunks the view-finder, limiting perspective, and emphasising the labour involved in this long journey to an under-articulated shore. We are then brought uncertainly into allegory through the slow, stylized movements of the one, three, and many more bodies that emerge alongside our camera-view, and similarly struggle to stand and find their way out of the ocean waves to the shoreline. But it is the dressing of the dancers’ bodies – in plastic blue and red stripy travel bags – through which the artists’ playful sense of commentary really shines through. ‘Every Maori who turns up in Sydney stuffs all their brought belongings in to one or two of those 2 big dollar bags as their luggage’. The bag reference, she says, is something that Pacific Islander audiences of the work instantly identify with and constantly joke about; it touches on the modest economic beginnings and also the shared sense of precarity of the new arrivals in their search for belonging, adventure, and work. Arguably it is this sense of modest tribute and abstracted affirmation in the work which holds the viewer’s attention to the last. There is something about the incoming bodies’ real time dialogue with the patterning of the joggers’ steps across the beach that half-speaks something of the situation. The ‘locals’ seem to take the strange arrivals in their stride, not stopping to gawk and only altering their path slightly to avoid collisions; the exhausted bodies wander up the beach together-alone in some kind of choreographed rhythm, generating an unfolding sense of local time.

South Pacific (2007), Stella Brennan

The term South Pacific encircles widely scattered Pacific Islands; is a notion of place constructed by trade routes, colonial fantasy, and of course the events of World War 2 which connected the Islands physically and imaginatively. Framed by grainy footage of the Pacific Ocean and overlaid with subtitles which flow across the screen in the rhythm of a net chat, Stella Brennan’s South Pacific explores the historical conjunction of visual imaging technologies with specific narratives about place that have impacted upon the region she describes as home.

The evocative imagery of South Pacific layers a number of materially linked sources, continuing Brennan’s ongoing interest in antiquated technologies – their revelation and precise dating of utopian thought, the effect of their re-presentation in exploring persistently operative modernist frameworks for seeing and reading places, histories, artifacts. Footage captured from the nose camera of a passenger jet, as videoed off the plane’s inflight entertainment system, is juxtaposed against images from an antiquated harbour radar machine at the Auckland maritime museum. The work’s seeming underwater battle footage is composed from a series of ultrasound images achieved by immersing a model B-29 bomber in water. The Bockscar, the particular aircraft depicted, is the plane that bombed Nagasaki, and came to the artist replete with a model atomic bomb. The water creates images resembling sonar pictures, the explosions are handfuls of sand being dropped in front of the probe – a suggestion from Brennan’s husband and collaborator David Perry, a practicing radiologist.

I love the effect of the poetic teletext that writes across the work at bottom of screen – switching from one kind of omniscient narrator position to another (plane passenger, Islander, the non-human landscape) in different ways sympathetic and sensitive to a diverse set of actors, observers, and ecologies involved in the periods and events invoked. Brennan dedicated South Pacific to her neighbour, who was an aerial photographer with Australian forces in Rabaul during WW2 and who showed her the photos he took of the Japanese surrender there. While of only ten minutes duration, South Pacific took 18 months to create. Brennan struggled with the aesthetic challenge of retaining the integrity of the factual information her researches revealed, while avoiding the project becoming primarily a social history project. The text that remains is a gathering of fragments, stories people have told her about the war, including Clyde Steward, the former aerial photographer, and Bill Sevisi, a famous Samoan/NZ Hawaiian Steel guitarist who described his wartime dance band learning tunes off the shortwave radio. Also drawn drawn into the work is image and document research such as the translated U-boat log Brennan found in the New Plymouth Library collection and examination of personally puzzling artifacts from the period, such as the unexploded sea mine displayed at Mokau, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island and the radio station at Auckland’s Musick point. All are linked by narrative and language play that have been extended or interpolated for poetic effect. The simple, “fairly obvious” (Brennan’s words) device of a dream sequence successfully ties these many voices, histories and imaginings together; the plane passenger traverses South Pacific space in an episodic, fitful temporality of dreaming and waking.

Thanks to Stella for speaking about the work with me. There are two great essays on Stella Brennan’s practice by Robert Leonard and Sean Cubbit in the monograph O—-10. Robert’s essay, ‘History Curator’ is available here.

Divide (2006), John Gillies

John Gillies’ Divide 2006 quickly orients the viewer in to a sensory rendering of the Australian bush: the dry airborne scuffle and scaled peeling tones of eucalyptus branches and hard grasses, and these images and sounds in ghostly dialogue with a diverse set of almost-recognisable landscape narratives conjured from key works of Australian film and literature. In time, the work’s specific enactment of the story of the call of Abraham and his chosen “ flock” to the promised land becomes more clear.

The passage of Genesis 12 that provides the work’s voiceover is the originary possession doctrine in the Judeo-Christian worldview. The passage evokes the promised land as the call to hardship; the summons to the evangelist campaign requires the sacrifice of identity (from home, from family) for a land unknown; the call to colonise is the call to a  wisdom that is for the world’s sake – the fresh religious start of the human race on new soil, under new conditions.

 Gillies’ choices in conceptualising this work, the artist acknowledges, are made in the wake of a decade of debates over Australian historiography, and within local contexts of exhibition that have become tired, shy and suspicious of local traditions of politically inflected aesthetics. The authority of the biblical voiceover and the narrative it delivers is differently rendered ambivalent, malevolent, arrogant, through the men’s performed gestures, and through interventions from the landscape of their new world. The men disturb the fragile structures of an ant’s nest at the very beginning of the work; a set of uncanny, additional hands and an associated laugh appear briefly, as a possible momentary and knowing indigenous presence interior to the land. The four men’s fixation upon stock numbers equivalences their anxious, opportunistic modes of occupation; their tearing and scattering of the pages from the bible, tend to cover, but are further decomposed by, their inhospitable landscape, resistant to possession. Divide steps in to allegorical time in this way – in to a singular reduced formal rendition of the colonizers’ actions and intentions – to construct an alternative means of re-experiencing and re-exploring historicized trauma and discomfort with renewed sensory awareness.

A more local reception of Divide, and the work that it does, recognises Gillies’ long term engagement with the Sydney performance scene, the cultural influences and performance traditions that are local to that, and that communities’ motivations in participating in this work, making strange and ambiguous certain signs of national identity through signature detourning gestures and techniques. The four actors are all renowned figures; the appearance of Sydney-based Chinese opera singer Xu-Fengshan who performs a Kunqu, a rare Chinese drama tradition, further upsets the male journey narrative with temporal and sexual ambiguity. Local audiences then, decipher a work with these additional markers that speaks to and from a renowned performance community with deep concerns about narrative, representation, and national identity at the time of the work’s production. In the work’s final scene, the men and their journey falls away in to blurred images of sheep, whirring and circling (as colonizing sheep requiring constant guidance tend to do), within a seemingly more present moment of famished and deforested land. A more imaginative title for this exploration of Gillies’ work might have been titled, with full respect, ‘How to make another work about colonisation’. It’s achievements in this sense are quite profound.

Whitefellanormal (2002), Vernon Ah Kee

The core of Vernon Ah Kee’s work in photography, text, drawing and more recently video is the cutting exploration of conceptual misinterpretation–characteristic and longstanding–of indigenous experience, including misinterpretations resulting from benevolent efforts at making indigenous experience public through various language and media practices.

In this work selected for Video Ground, Whitefellanormal 2002, Ah Kee interrogates the exposure of his Palm Island ancestors to the damaging formalism of colonial photography: the problems of representation that connect portraits to maps. I have written about Whitefellanormal previously as part of my work with the Pacific Rim New Media Summit 2006. What I guess is important to note when viewing in the context of this curated program are the work’s links to Vernon’s work in other media, particularly the 2004 exhbiition, Fantasies of the Good, in which Ah Kee created intricate portraits in pencil from photographs of his relatives taken on Palm Island in North Queensland.

Palm Island was, essentially, a penal colony for Pacific Islanders and Indigenous people from various tribes all over Queensland who resisted being compulsorily moved on to ‘reserves’. Anthropologist Norman Tindale travelled to Palm Island in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s as part of his project to map the boundaries of Australian indigenous tribal lands and language groups. The map which resulted from this was the first to present a continent-wide cartographic representation of Indigenous nations and language groups to a white Australian public. In their contentious allocation of fixed territories to diverse tribal groups, the maps presented key evidence in countering the doctrine of terra nullius.

The convincing formal argument that the drawings in Fantasies of the Good made, is that the photographs in Tindale’s archive betray a clinical distance in the gaze through which this project of turning grounded histories into mapped data is achieved. Ah Kee’s relatives (Mick Miller and George Sibley), dressed smartly for their picture, held just a catalogue card with only a number on it to represent and distinguish themselves from every other numbered Indigenous identity. Subsequent copies of these troubling images were ‘formally’ censored by the government of Queensland in so far as they were heavily cropped: only the heads and shoulders of his relatives remained, neatly centered, as if to overcompensate for their original exposure of Palm Island as an outpost of strategic dispossession.

For Fantasies of the Good (2004) Ah Kee isolated and re-routed this notion of a photographic compensation. He re-drew the Tindale portraits by hand, but purposefully off-centre—as a protest against the ways in which the clippings, and the formal qualities of portraiture more generally, framed subjects outside of history. Whitefellanormal can be seen to continue with this work of destabilizing this photographic style that also contributed to strategic dispossion. In front of a white background, similarly removed from contextual references to (that very specific) place, Ah Kee reenacts the moment of ethnographic documentation, but ensures his forehead, one side of his face or his shoulder is always outside the shot, defying full representation.

30mins

Vernon Ah Kee (AUS), 2002 DVD, colour, sound, 0:30mins