Paul Blackman wrote an insightful review/essay on the THIS Ensemble/GAIP performance at Rainbow in April. Very rare to have such critical attention focussed on THIS Ensemble, so I’ve republished it here (originally published as a note on Paul’s Facebook page).
An Artist Walks Through a Doorway
an approach to liminal theatre
Paul W. Blackman
Population approximately 500, situated 400 km N/W from Melbourne – Rainbow is a rural town that sits on the border between the economic regions of the Malle and Wimmera in Victoria, Australia. On Saturday 28 April 2018, Rainbow played host to “The Embodied Landscape” the inaugural MAP Rainbow – a pilot program for the development of future site-specific arts festivals. One of the groups selected to partake in this program was the artist collective THIS Ensemble, whose approach to art making dovetails neatly into the general theme of “The Embodied Landscape”. Manifesting as a public performance, using light, sound and movement (along with their combined skill sets, and poetics) THIS Ensemble set about the task of spatial/temporal mapping a designated space.
Federal Street, Rainbow’s main street, provided specific sites for various artists participating in “The Embodied Landscape” to create and experiment with a range of multi-disciplinary arts and performance outcomes. One of these specific sites was The Mecca, a memorial hall. As is the case with most memorial halls, The Mecca, has to serve a variety of community needs and functions. These needs and functions are served by the provision of a large ballroom floor space and a proscenium stage (with a sloped floor, to allow for sight lines) at one end of the hall. A projection screen installed at the back of the stage, along with stackable seating allows for the hall to be transformed into a cinema if need arises.
The Mecca is a public space, where community celebration, events and meetings take place. Deposited in its bricks and mortar are the intangible evidence of those past community engagements. This is a secular space, providing for the community a place to gather collective identity and experiences. Shortly before 2pm, on 28/04/2018, THIS Ensemble ventured into The Mecca and remained encamped for the next five hours, creating a unique place and moment in time in the life of the hall resulting in a never to be repeated living, visceral testament to being The genesis for THIS Ensemble arose from the world of sound art, but to describe what they do now as sound art would be insufficient and misleading. By incorporating other artistic disciplines they have extended sound art into pure performance art realm, resulting in an immersive holistic approach to art making. THIS Ensemble is an artist collective that pool together various disciplines and interests: drama, physical/visual theatre, dance, puppetry, costume, sound art, music, spoken word, song and visual art. Members of the collective may vary in different circumstances, in this incarnation THIS Ensemble consisted of six primary artists. They were, Ren Walters, Elnaz Sheshgelani, Clinton Green, Michael McNab, Adrian Sherriff and Simon Fisher.
With THIS Ensemble the methodology normally associated with the making of theatre becomes redundant, turned on its head. There is no acting, plot, script, choreography, rehearsal, set making or director involved in the crafting of their work. The form, durational in nature, is driven by the autonomous actions that each artist commits to throughout the performance. Actions start to slowly unfold then dissipate making room for the next action to occur. This process is repeated over and over again, creating a sustainable harmonic that unifies all of the elements that constitute the performance. The demarcation line between set up and performance dissolves, they become the one thing. The ending is not easily defined either, as the pack down and performance cross pollinate, whilst adhering to the underlying doctrine of autonomous actions by the artists. In essence this is theatre derived from an artist/s walking through a doorway and immediately engaging their poetic gaze.
On arrival to site, The Mecca, after a brief greeting of each other and very little small talk, each artist sets about at their task at hand. Equipment and relevant objects/props were brought into the hall, unpacked and placed in situ. This process occurred by autonomous actions of the individual artists, working along side with each other without the need of discussion, negotiation or a set direction. The core disciplines that each artist possessed, determined how they occupied the space. The process was facilitated by the initial laying out of a basic performance space skeleton.The hall was divided into four quarters, with the careful placement of two intersecting lines of black plastic bin liners on the floor. A portable stairway was positioned in front of centre stage, connecting the proscenium stage to the auditorium, unifying the hall and stage as a singular performance space. With a basic skeleton in place a process of embellishment or fleshing out of the space commenced. These embellishments included: black pebbles forming the outline of a circle that was approximately two metres in diameter, divided in half by one of the lines of black plastic bin liners and the placement of numerous objects such as seed heads, rope, brass goblets throughout the hall. Simultaneously, the artists started to bring in their equipment, creating for themselves the necessary ‘work stations’ or performance zones they needed to do their work. The siting of these areas was determined by very practical considerations relating to technological requirements or performance needs. Whilst all of this was occurring there was never really any consultation between the artists, it was unnecessary as a culture of generosity and respect underpinned the human dynamics within the group. The set-up and performance were never quite separated, every action of practicality lead on to the next action of practicality until those actions morphed into performance. As the space in the hall started to be colonised by the artists and their equipment, the performance simultaneously started to unfold; sound, light, image, object, ritual and movement emerged.
The Mecca, as previously described, is a large community hall. Even during daylight the hall is dimly lit, light emitted through small windows situated highly on the side walls and through the opened double doors that connected the hall to the foyer. The common practice of those preparing for an event is to switch on the overhead lighting, but in this case that didn’t occur. Instead the artists just set about with their tasks at hand working with the given conditions. However, this lighting state was short lived as the performance started to unfold.
Two of the artists, Simon Fisher and Clinton Green, work with data projectors, that are linked to iPads. As their set-ups came online the hall transformed, illuminated by content rich light. Unlike most theatre where light is externally applied, the light in this case was internal to the performance. It is fraught to think of these data projections as just another example of videomapping or eye-candy, to put it simply, they were not. These projections were in a way, another type of performer, sharing equal footing with performers made of flesh and blood. This was achieved in essence, by employing the data projections not only as a means of illumination, but also as a type of puppet that constantly engaged and interacted with the other performers. Throughout the performance the imagery emitting from the projectors (3 in total) and surfaces that were projected on to, were in a state of flux; never settling, demanding acknowledgement. At certain times, the proscenium stage and associated cinema screen may be employed to frame the projections. Then at other times, the projections might be directed onto side walls, objects or performers. Every decision made to change the imagery and surface on which it was projected, was informed by the keen observation of the operator (Simon Fisher), responding in real time to what was occurring throughout the space. The clever usage and adroit operating of iPads allowed for quick responses to constantly unfolding scenarios, was a technique that drew parallels to techniques associated with traditions of puppetry.
The imagery created for these data projections, basically fall into two camps. Clinton Green’s projections were video loops of domestic or prosaic scenes, not unlike home movies of family and friends gathering. Whereas Simon Fisher’s imagery was crafted using the technology of the iPad the same way a painter uses paint. Rich in content and subject, Fisher’s imagery continually morphed. Distorted photographic images of people, melting into painterly expressions of the artist’s hand, snippets of video footage of the artist paying homage to neutral-mask and puppetry. This eclectic mix of images were always weaving in and out, melding together then separating, crossing over between projectors, never quite sitting still. The affect of these oscillating images was mesmerising, akin to being inside a contemporary interpretation of a world that Bruegel might have created if he was on acid. On face value, these two different approaches (Green’s and Fisher’s) to image generation might seem to be incompatible. But that was not the case, at certain times the projections were in juxtaposition and other times they overlapped or blended together; generating an open ended meta-narrative that was hard to pin down or define. The key to finding meaning or sense to this onslaught of imagery was to let it wash over you, become immersed in the meta-narrative that was unfolding before your eyes.
As with the other major elements (movement and light), sound provided another tool for mapping the site; a type of aural survey. With its roots deeply planted in the sound art scene one would expect from THIS Ensemble a soundscape of the highest calibre. To put it simply, this expectation was fully met. Digital machines, analogue machines, radio transmitter/receivers, music instruments, junk working as musical instruments, contraptions, objects, voice and the human body all combined to create a richly layered soundscape. Performers Ren Walters, Clinton Green, Michael McNab and Adrian Sherriff all come from a music/sound art background. With their expertise, histories, mutual respect and ingenious minds working in collaboration, they set about creating an aural world that was so complex and inviting that it is hard to find the words to describe it.
Following the pattern of set-up melding into performance, the soundscape came into being by piecemeal. There was none of the business of soundcheck or technical crew rushing about that is usually involved with public performance. Each of the artist took autonomous responsibility for their part of the whole, identifying where they would work, what devices would be used to produce the sound and what the content of their contribution to the soundscape would be. All of the sound artists engaged in physical performance, moving throughout the space, reacting to and engaging with each other. Slipping into moments where the line between physical theatre and sound art were blurred. Each artist had a different skill set and approach to creating sound. Some adopted a musical approach, others generated purely aural sensations or produced sound via somatic experience. Though it should be clarified that these lines of demarcation were not fully set, as there were crossovers and varying configurations of these approaches to making sound. With such diversity amongst the artists and without a central point of direction, there is a degree of risk that the outcome could be a mess resulting in a cacophony. However this did not occur, instead what was produce was a seductive work of sonic beauty.
Acting like the pulse of a slumbering beast, an electronic score was the first layer of sound entering the space. This was the work of Adrian Sherriff, a sound artist and musician who was masterful in his craft. Running off a laptop and tablet, connected to small a speaker tower placed just off centre in the space, this score remained continuously playing throughout the performance. One way to understand how it worked is to view it is as a type of ecology, sustaining a meter that simultaneously drives and counters the performance. At times the score would shift, depending upon what else was occurring within the space. At no point did this score dominate or detract from the performance, a state of balance remained a constant, determined by the astute eye and ear of Sherriff. It became self evident that this was a performer and musician who knew his stuff. At one stage Sherriff pulled out a trombone, improvising in response to visual tableaus being formed by other performers, creating an extraordinary moment of the sublime. Another moment that showed his versatility and astuteness was when he hopped onto a piano (that was part of the hall’s infrastructure), playing free-form in counter to some spoken word that was being booming through the soundscape.
To describe or label Clinton Green and his work is difficult as he is an akin to a renaissance-man or polymath. Inventor, environmental sound artist, musician, spoken word artist and physical/visual theatre maker, are all fields of endeavour he investigates. With this breadth of knowledge and interests, he infused into the soundscape strands of complexity which ranged from the small and intimate, to the large and attention grabbing. Weaving in and out of the performance, his soundscapes where generated by a variety of means. A combination of physical engagement with objects, sound making contraptions (that sat in various sites throughout the hall), iPods or other such similar devices, handheld radio transmitter/receivers, musical instruments and the spoken word. At times his contributions would meld into an ambient sphere, dwelling in the background, making their presence felt through sounds that you couldn’t quite grasp or make sense of. At other times his contributions were like punctuation marks, bringing a sense of order to the world swirling around him. One element of his soundscapes, that reflected the idea of punctuation mark, was the use of handheld radio transmitter/receivers, that he used as a performance device. (Often in the production of contemporary theatre, the production crew will use handheld radio transmitter/receivers to communicate with each other to stage manage a show. Usually this done out of sight and earshot of the public.) At random intervals he and Michael McNab would talk to each other or just speak to dead air using the devices. The content of these conversations and utterances were often banal or nonsensical. At the end of each transmission the word “over” would be spoken, followed by a split second of hissing white noise produced by switching off the transmitter. Simple in conception but as a performance skill it was powerful, pointing to the internal world inside the performance whilst simultaneously referring to the world outside. What became evident by his performances is that Green is an artist who tinkers, appearing never to let his enquiring mind rest. He is continually engaged in a dialectic conversation between himself and the world that surrounds him, his art is a product of that conversation.
Out of all of the artists, it was perhaps Michael McNab who used somatic experience to its greatest extent in generating soundscape. With McNab’s work the border between sound art and physical/visual theatre simply doesn’t exist, it is a seamless union of the two disciplines. Observing him and his work was like watching a visitor from another plane. Throughout the whole performance he sustained a pure state of reverence, every action was considered and committed to. Wearing a full head stocking, throughout the performance, imposed for him a given where his sight was compromised. This compelled him to rely on touch, sound and muscle memory to navigate his way, both physical and conceptually, through the performance. He had as performance tools a small collection of random objects, such as sheets of clear plastic, rope/string, drum sticks, a small snare drum (minus the snare wires and placed on its side), plastic orbs, plastic laundry basket, cloth, styrofoam panels and other items. If there was any common dominator between these items it was that they were primarily white in colour. Initially in the performance he created what could loosely be described as a type of nest out of the items, designating a performance zone that he took occupancy of. Over time this performance zone expanded, encompassing the whole space. Thought the performance he would engage with and explore in unexpected ways the potentialities of these items, sometimes sound resulted, other times the affect was purely somatic in nature or visual in outcome. McNab’s work was a synergy of somatic experience coupled with a high degree of intelligence, that revealed the physical world in a configuration that we are not used to seeing.
Artist Ren Walters is like a fantastical hybrid creature, consisting of equal parts; artist, impresario and shaman. His presence was always felt, fostering and nurturing the event. If he were to be given a title, the closest description would be ‘The Keeper’. His performance mode was continually in flux, effortlessly shifting in and out role and function; it was as though he was wishing the whole thing up. Depending upon the immediate circumstance, he would engage through sound/music, physical theatre, costume, ritual or spoken word. One minute he maybe involved in rigorous physical movement/dance with Elnaz Sheshgelani, then the next minute he may pick up an acoustic guitar and play gently melody. At other times, he would use digital equipment or simple percussion, using whatever was available, to feed into the soundscape. Techniques drawn from visual and ritual theatre, along with free-form spoken word and song, were summoned by him as a means to give clarity to a particular moment or circumstance. No area was off limits to him, the physical space and human dynamics were his to explore. Acting as conduit, his embodied performance mode linked the physical and metaphysical worlds. He had the capacity to transform the space into a living and breathing intangible realm, a place where we were all invited to dwell.
The role and function of movement in THIS Ensemble’s work is paramount, it is the tie that binds all the other elements together. In one way or another, every member of the collective employs aspects of movement in their work. It is through movement and somatic experience that the artists are enabled to express their individual and collective poetics. In turn this provides the artists with the ideal tool and capacity to enact a form of embodied mapping.
The laws of physics tells that in order for an object to move, perform work or to heat, there must be a quantitive property transferred to that object; we know this quantitive property as energy. In addition, the law of conservation of energy states that energy can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed. These basic laws of physics come to mind when reviewing the work and role of Elnaz Sheshgelani, she is like a human dynamo. Channeling an imagined metaphysical energy source and converting that energy source into the physical realm. This source of energy is not only converted by her, but simultaneously transmitted to the public and her colleagues, driving the performance as a whole.
Sheshgelani’s work is grounded in physical theatre, but extends into ritual, mask, puppetry and dance. Her body is her tool, fashioning and expressing her poetic gaze. The hall became a domain of her making, in which she held a benevolent type of governance. Faced with an ever changing given, she would respond by slipping into differing performance modes. Vigorous dance movement, designed to seek out spatial desire lines, would meld into quite intimate engagement with objects such as black pebbles, brass goblets or pieces of rope. At certain points snippets of narrative driven puppetry and mask would emerge, using random or objects or simply made but elegant cardboard constructions. Vocal exclamations, utterances, song and conversation would make their way into the overall soundscape reminding us that the voice is our primal agent to announce our presence in the world. Reminiscent of theatre making from the early to mid 18th century Europe, her direct engagement with the other performers and the public would totally dismantle the fourth wall, creating a congregation of souls. Never resting, Sheshgelani’s task was to be the personification of the ties that bind.
Underpinning every performers approach to their work was a state of play. Regardless of whether a performer used light, sound or movement as their medium, it was their ability of playing which made it work. Play became the catalyst that bound together the autonomous decisions and actions of the performers, it allowed for interaction and response. By only being in a state of play was it possible to create a type of economy where chance acts as currency between the artist and by extension the public.
Play provided a structure that could support a performance of such duration (five hours). That same structure allowed for the inclusion of others, drawn from the public, into the performance. An example of this inclusion was the ‘intrusion’ of a young pre-school aged child, named Carlos Evertsz. Carlos was the child of one of the performers, Elnaz Sheshgelani and photographer of the event Rick Evertz. Being of such a young age, Carlos, wasn’t entrapped in the social conventions of behaviour that we as adults find ourselves subject to. He didn’t have an understanding of separation of his world and the business of art making, for him it was one giant playground, a theatrum mundi of his own design. With no restriction imposed by parents, or others, Carlos was free to engage in what ever took his fancy. The performers became his playmates, objects or props became his playthings and the entire space of the hall became his playground. None of his playfulness was done in silence either. Squeals and laughter, along with childish conversation and jabberings all feed into the soundscape without being detrimental to the overall quality of the soundscape. When the need arose the artists would respond to his enquiries or include him in whatever task they were doing. With most theatre or performances that we are used to seeing, the ‘intrusion’ of a Carlos would be understood as a disaster. However, with THIS Ensemble’s structure of play his ‘intrusion’ was incorporated into the performance, adding a rich layer that only enhanced the overall outcome of the performance. Just like his son, Rick Evertsz (photographer) used his sense of play as a means of doing his job. His documentation wasn’t from the outside looking in, he was fully enmeshed in the performance. Able to move when and where he so desired, meant that at times he would become part of an unfolding tableau that would be formed by the performers. At other times he would be swept up in vigorous movement pieces, forced by circumstance to physical respond lest he wound up in dire straits.
The structure of play also granted licence for members of the public to be involved. A couple of dancers from other projects that were happening in the MAP-Rainbow program, made unscripted cameos. On impulse they joined in on the performance, each of them finding a space to work and contribute in their own way. Members of the general public, including myself, found themselves grafted into the work when given black plastic bags to play with. At other times members of the general public were given simple tasks to do, such as moving items from one place to another, or lighting incense.
The work of THIS Ensemble inherently challenges and reconfigures performance models that we are normally familiar with. Open ended, durational in nature, decentralised in authority and a reliance on the autonomy of the artists, are all facets of this reconfiguration. Similarly, their work also imposes a reconfiguration on the relationship between artist/performance and the public. To describe that relationship in terms of a performance having an audience is insufficient. Instead a better way of understanding the relationship is that the public bear witness to the performance, bestowing on it a form of legitimacy, testifying that it does indeed exists and is true.
An audience is an assemblage of spectators or listeners at a public event such as a play, film, concert, or meeting. By definition an audience sits outside of a presentation, excluded from its production, separated by a conceptual barrier between artist/presenter and public. As an audience member your role and function has been predetermined, you are there as spectator or listener, consuming what has been laid down in front of you. The way you behave as an audience member is also predetermined, usually you sit or stand in silence, then at the appropriate time you are expected to gesticulate, laugh or clap in approval. Similarly, the space you are allotted as an audience member is subject to predetermination, restricted to an auditorium, allocated seating or standing room, physically separated from the performer. Without being aware an audience member is a subject, a subordinate to a regime of manners and etiquette, designated a role and function that reinforces power structures inherent in much of contemporary social settings.
The afore mentioned definition and criteria of an audience simply doesn’t apply to how THIS Ensemble engage with the public. Their work is not spectacle or concert; serving up a cultural product for the masses to consume. Neither is their work an exercise in manners that places social expectations on the public. THIS Ensemble’s public engagement is by immersion, simultaneously immersing the public sphere in the work and the work in the public sphere. With the durational nature of the work, there was no set time frame for the public to adhere to. Much like a Wagnerian ring cycle, the public is free to come and go when they liked. Whether they stayed within the space for a few minutes or the whole five hours (as l did) was up to them. The work was not dependant on a lineal timeframe to make sense, it was almost cyclic in form, able to be picked up at any point and still provide the opportunity to find meaning. Gone were the notions of spatial allocation for the public. They didn’t have to sit or stand on the outside looking in. The public had full access to the performance space, free to move when and wherever they so desired. This was clearly evident when a large group or family entered the space, they had no cues or signals dictating where they should be. So without even thinking they happily walked into the centre of the performance space, interacting with the artists, somatically experiencing the work that was unfolding around them. This form of public engagement that THIS Ensemble use in their work, facilitates the dismantling of the power structures we are use to seeing in theatre making. In this way, it is evolutionary in providing a reimagining of how people gather in public to tell and hear stories.
On the surface, or at a casual glance, the intrinsic reliance upon technology and new uses of that technology by THIS Ensemble in their work, could be viewed as experimental art. However, to describe the work as experimental is misleading. To qualify as experimental requires a new or repackaged idea/theory to be posited, then a process of evidence gathering to test the validity or soundness of that idea/theory is enacted (in art terms this evidence gathering is usually manifested as the resulting artwork). Putting aside the technology, what THIS Ensemble did was engage in a form that is ancient. This was a simple gathering of storytellers in a public space, using sound, light and movement to reveal hidden truths associated with the who, what, how, when and where of being. The technologies were just updates of previous technologies. For example, data projections replaced the technology of the campfire, acting as both a source of illumination and as an agent for reimagining the world in which we live. Digital generated sound is in sense an update of the clapping stick, a type of instrument or voice that allows for expressive gestures that denote and proclaim who we are. Aside from the technology, the movement / dance / drama elements of the work could hardly be described as experimental either, due to its reliance on mask – an ancient dramatic form that intersects across all cultures. To make it clear when using the term mask l am not referring to a face mask, but rather to a performance mode were the performer’s personality is hidden and becomes redundant in the dramatical setting. The cleverness and beauty of mask as a performance mode is that it eliminates the particular in favour of the universal. Operating as a bridge between the private and the public selves, mask, allows for pure expression as opposed to self-expression by the performer. In doing so what is avoided is the tendency for the performer to use the setting to impose their personality or by proxy articulating a personal treatise, in other words it dismantles the movie or rock star model. Thus with the personality of the performer made redundant, what comes to the forefront is pure expression that both connects with and empowers the audience. Rather than the performer dictating or proscribing a set point of view or meaning, it is the audience that imposes meaning by projecting narrative, meaning or cultural signal on to the mask. Mask is dependant on our ability to empathise with each other. We all feel hurt, joy, pain, pleasure, love, hate, fear, seduction, terror, and bliss and have the capacity to see it in others; through mask’s ability to hide the personality of the performer, we are able to experience and bear witness to our shared humanity.
So much of contemporary art making places content first, with the artist positing an idea then searching for a means or form to express that idea (art as idea). Often the result of such an approach is that the art produced mirrors propaganda or journalism and in doing so dictates a set intention and message. What separates THIS Ensemble from many of their peers is that their approach to art making is the triumph of form over content. This is not to suggest that the work is devoid of content, on the contrary, it is in fact a cornucopia filled with an abundance of ideas, imaginings and stories. What they have cottoned on to, is that form precedes content. By getting the form right it allows for a free flow of information, expression and exploration. THIS Ensemble’s approach to art is not concerned with representation or symbolism generating meaning, instead meaning is revealed through the form and the consequential poetic gestures that arise.
THIS Ensemble’s participation in “The Embodied Landscape” provided an opportunity to realise a work of such complexity and richness, that points to unlimited potentialities for future outcomes. Whether by intention or by chance, they have been successful in the creation of an approach to liminal theatre. Through their work they pull back the veil of preconceptions, exposing the metaphysical truths that dwell in a present here and now. Their art is what occurs when, an artist walks through a doorway.
Written by: Paul W. Blackman, 3/05/2018