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PA REVIEWS: Four travelling works, by Quinoa / Chris Kirk

The Performance Arcade 2024 ran from 21 to 25 February on Wellington Waterfront, encompassing performance art, installations, live music, and craft beer.  It attracted many people and caught the attention of many more who just happened to be passing.

You can't beat Wellington... on a good day.  Wednesday and Thursday were warm and sunny and the waterfront was bustling.  Pedestrian Guiiiiidance was a performance by Kosta Bogoievski and Josie Archer best enjoyed by uncomprehending passersby.  Five performers dressed in red overalls, hats and sunglasses with stiff bodies and serious expressions roamed the waterfront around the PA hub and performed the interruption of public works without the actual work.  They all wore retractable barrier belts on their chests that could be attached to city infrastructure via magnets to form a useless barrier to obstruct innocent pedestrians.  Sometimes they stood tall and guided people around the barrier, receiving total compliance.  Their obstructions could have been mistaken by the inattentive as actual public works, but they also subverted their own spectacle by climbing on top of things, dancing, spiralling fluidly and laying on the ground in incongruous poses.  During a rush hour moment at dusk they staged their greatest interruption: blocking off the whole thoroughfare and redirecting the many passersby, including fast-moving cyclists.  

Pedestrian Guiiiidance, by Kosta Bogoievski and Josie Archer. Photo: Phillip Merry

It was a very amusing satire of public behaviour usually taken very seriously.  The absurdity of their interactions with the public space and the people of Wellington was entirely coherent even to those who didn't pause long enough to comprehend the context.  Their moments of dance added to the colour and vibrancy of the space as simply as a  flower growing in the cracks of the pavement.  The simplicity was ideal for a public context, art as a gentle subversion of expected behaviour, making the streets slightly less banal.

Noel Meek and Elliot Vaughan performed Walking Scores, four days of commissioned performance scores.  I spoke to Elliot: “There is a history of artworks that centre walking which I find really appealing: Francis Alÿs, Hildegard Westerkamp, Nam Jun Paik, and Richard Long...  Walking is a way to spend time with a thought.  Walking is a direct interaction with the whenua.  Walking, framed as art, allows for pieces with big size and minimal impact.”

“John Vea's Walking Score,” Elliot told me, “is pragmatic, very clear and task-based, with a rigidly kept schedule. The poetry of the artwork really exists in the doing of the task.”  John Vea is an artist I recently saw at the opening night of Performance Art Week Aotearoa in November 2023 continuously building and dismantling a small wall by stacking bricks.  Here he continued his dissemination of the aesthetics of work.  The two performers, armed with three planks of wood, proceeded to walk through the well-populated public space of the waterfront only on the planks, standing on two as they carefully and co-operatively moved the third, extending their bridge.  Reminiscent of the popular kids' game “the ground is lava” but with a serious, adult, working tone, they were focussed and hardworking as they performed their visibly futile task, leaving passersby to reach their own conclusions about what was going on.  Halfway through, they spread out a little blue tarp and took a lunch break, chatting amiably with people who had been observing.

John Vea's Walking Score, performed by Noel Meek and Elliott Harris. Photo: Sam Trubridge

Friday's score was Rauru Tī Kōuka by Louie Zalk-Neale.  “Louie wanted a friendly, conversational openness,” Elliot told me.  We walked to the little strip of bush on the Te Papa wall, Louie followed with their small child and we were invited to find dead fallen tī kōuka leaves.  We carried them back to the little stony beach, soaked them in the water and attempted to weave them into ropes.  With a kete of charcoal Elliot and I recreated Louie's drawing of a bird-human creature on the concrete while Noel blew his trumpet and the wind blew our coal dust away.  Finally Elliot and I washed our charcoaly hands in the harbour.  “Your pito was once a rope held by your tūpuna, let them hold it,” Louie's poetic score suggested.  We were in our own world for the enactment of this score.  Surrounded by concrete and busy people we had, as a group, an experience of Te Aro as a natural place, connected to the land and our ancestors.

For Sunday's intimate score (as if walking was not sleeping as if breathing as if copperzincironmagnesium) by Sonya Lacey we walked up to a secluded shady plateau behind the PA2024 hub.  The performers held a collection of obscure objects that looked to me like brass Tibetan artefacts.  From 3.30 to 4pm they made gentle, subtle sounds with the objects while police sirens, helicopters and cicadas aurally intruded upon the space.  I leaned in, the music was brought gently to my ears in the performers' hands.  I became very present as I focussed.  My mind drifted away and I drew it back, as if meditating.  Elliot danced with tinkling in his pocket.  Noel breathed rhythmically and heavily.  Elliot played one object against another like the scratching of a violin.  At the end Elliot announced that the objects were an alloy of four metals commonly found in pharmaceutical sleeping aids; copper, zinc, iron and magnesium.  The score, thin golden lines and dots on thick paper, was biometric data of breathing and movement recorded during a restless night between 3.30 and 4am.

Elliot: “I work with musical scores daily.  That is a standard part of the European lineage of composition I normally deal in.  There are many aspects of that tradition that I criticise and challenge within my own practice...  I don't like the power structures, or the economics, or the rigid edges we impose on what a concert is...  So my practice has gradually been shifting and trying to respond to these issues while retaining what I love and value about music: community and togetherness, curiosity and exploration, experiencing time, enjoying the sorcery.  Walking Scores is informed by all of these criticisms.  I think the project sits very neatly within my musical practice.”

Stephen Bain and Jen McArthur performed The Drifting Room four times a day for four days.  Each performance invited up to eight people into a light, portable theatre which we carried around, experiencing a different perspective on the city and attracting amused attention.  “The city itself is a great theatre,” Stephen told me.  “The idea behind The Drifting Room is to create an environment where the public can be both performer and audience simultaneously.”  We could see out but they couldn't see in, so we were able to traverse the city in this ridiculous way, drifting, with the pleasure of anonymity.  “‘Drifting’ as a concept was adopted by Situationist International artists in the 1950s and '60s as a way of changing the narrative that cities normally adhere to; there is an authority that city streets, architecture and traffic all instil in its citizens, so ‘drifting’ (wandering around without a clear destination) is a way of imposing your own will onto that authority.”

Drifting Room, by Stephen Bain. Photo: Sam Trubridge

We periodically stopped with the theatre in “stealth mode”, squatting and huddling for Stephen to make some insightful and silly comments, always in the same thoughtful tone.  The waterfront, we were informed, is reclaimed; part of the harbour that was filled in to make more land.  In the Te Papa carpark we were shown bollards with kiwis printed on top, perhaps placed to protect wildlife from walking into traffic.  The Museum Hotel used to be where Te Papa is now and was moved across the road on train tracks, commemorated in the mural high on its wall.  Two adjacent black doors were the entrance and exit to the underworld.  The wetlands on the waterfront was a successful attempt to restore some of the eco-system and wildlife natural to the area, because Te Aro, now central Wellington, had been a forest.

We received plenty of delight from people smiling and filming us.  One woman in a wheelchair was extremely delighted and laughed heartily.  “Some people took photos,” Stephen observed, “other people looked worried, a few people tried to get inside, while others did their best to act as if we weren’t there at all and nothing was happening out of the ordinary.  These last ones are the people I find most mysterious, how we go about our daily lives with such drive and purpose that even when something quite absurd happens we convince ourselves that it has nothing to do with us.”

“If you grew up in Wellington in the 1930s I imagine it would have been very difficult to do weird things, riding a skateboard would have been illegal, art would have belonged behind framed glass...  Urban design and architecture has become completely mixed up between private and public interests...  If we allow cafes and restaurants to spill out into our parks, for example, it’s no longer a place for people with children to hang out.”  The intention to subvert the use of public space while we can was achieved experientially through play and as spectacle and did not require the intrusion of understanding.

Dance as Document, by Amaara Raheem. Photo: Sam Trubridge

I attended the first of three performances of Dance as Document by Amaara Raheem in collaboration with eight dancers – Mick Douglas, Isabella Green, Luke Hanna, Weichu Huang, Chloe Jaques, Tessa Martin, Wade Walker, and Kimberley Young.  “The audience for Dance as Document,” Amaara told me, “was Wellington Harbour, for all its forces and intensities...  Human audiences were free to come and go, to stop and watch for as long as they wanted.  We would carry on doing it even if we felt no one was watching.  The other audience was ourselves and each other...  It did not have a linear arc.  It was a tuning score.  By this I mean, we were instruments, constantly in the process of either tuning ourselves to the group and the harbour, or being tuned by it...”

Dance as Document was a ‘happening’, tracing a performance lineage back to Fluxus, a loose group of international artists in the '60s, whose impulse was to integrate art / life.  It was not so much a performance as it was an experiment.  Maybe we could think of it as anti-dance.”

They had not rehearsed or worked together before, so the first half was a workshop, gathering the group into huddles to give guidance and direction.  They began by walking through the space slowly, experiencing and exhibiting an intensity of presence that was exemplified by the response of three passing 20-year-old dudes who were clearly struck dumb for a moment.

A stage/not-stage line was intuitively drawn by the performers and audience.  A dancer would move out into the stage space and perform one minute (exactly) of spontaneous movement in interaction with the waterfront environment before returning to the group.  Seconds later other dancers would move into the stage to re-play their movement.  Interpreting simple movements through their different bodies would inevitably produce deviation, evolution, the static and noise of a copied document.  The specific movements were sometimes forgotten and the spirit of the dance was re-enacted.  A movement that was natural to the expression of one body was more awkward or expressive in another.  Structures were danced behind and upon, a rubbish bin was danced with like a lover.  The simplicity, immediacy, humbleness and vulnerability of the performers was very engaging and I felt my presence and attention focussed.

Dance as Document, by Amaara Raheem. Photo: Sam Trubridge

Amaara: “Lisa Nelson developed Tuning Score, an improvisational composition practice, that offers frames for collaboration, constructed in the here and now, that asks performers to work with real-time movement composition, real-time editing, and repetition...  I was interested to use Tuning Score as a starting point in this work and then to open it up in an expanded field that foregrounds listening rather than dancing.”

The duration of this performance was over the course of dusk, and as we sat on the pavement and watched, the dancers were silhouetted and upstaged by the stunning golden-hour night sky, under-lit clouds, changing light and flocks of birds dancing together in the sky.

Thank you to Elliot, Stephen and Amaara for engaging with my questions.

Quinoa / Chris Kirk


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