As disaster capitalism booms and environmental systems bust and collapse in the face of global industry and consumption, it has become increasingly clear that to think about art and performance in the twentieth century is to conceptualise culture in terms of the exchange, oscillations, inversions and sinusoidal rebounds of cultural, financial, material, imperial and racial exchanges. This essay surveys and frames the papers included within the volume of Double Dialogues in terms of these cultural and economic exchanges, moving from the work of Edward Burtynsky to documentary theatre, Australian Indigenous performance, the staging of domestic identity through consumption and set dressing, the work of playwright Roger Hall, the physical techniques of butoh and contemporary Bodyweather, the popular Taiwanese music drama form of opela, Greg Burley’s bush ballad based on the confessions of Herculine Barbin, the translation of Australian Indigenous theatre into Japanese and Ainu forms, and other issues.
Apocalyptic Time and the Rebound of the Tsunami
In his famous article on “heterotopias”, Michel Foucault identifies the theatre—alongside the ship, the library, the cemetery, the brothel and other locales—as a type of space which is never singular in nature or social definition. The heterotopic space constantly eludes stable social forms, generating within it a set of shifting relations which move the inside to the exterior of the space, and the outside to the inside. Naturalistic theatre, despite its trappings of hermetic illusionism and the attempts of authors and dramaturgs to summon a whole, self-representing world within its boundaries, only attained its value in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by explicitly bringing “the real” onto the stage itself. The influential French director Andre Antoine for example famously used real sides of beef from a local slaughterhouse in one of his productions, whilst another of his peers in the chanson and théâtre réaliste movements erected a guillotine scaffold on stage (Bourgois 1969). In these moments of heterotopic exchange, real dramas such as the scenography of execution from the off-stage world smashed violently and forcefully into the theatrical space.
As Jane Goodall indicates in her keynote essay in this issue, the language of “busts” and disintegrating explosions seems to have overtaken many of us today, both in the theatre and beyond. When the conference committee of the 2009 Australasian Association for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies issued the call for papers from Perth, the deflating energies of the 2008 Stock Market Crash were very much on our mind. As I write this essay in 2011, Japan is recovering from the worst disaster of the post-war years, earthquakes having sent tsunamis around the coast and even—albeit in much reduced form—as far south as to us here in New Zealand, creating a literal rebound of the earth’s movement. There is a reciprocal logic to such relations, both at the level of physics (water, earth, matter, force, energy) and culture. It was after all France of the Third Republic that fostered the theatre of Antoine and the Naturalist movement, this nation then being a world in which to advocate “realism” was to mobilise the allies of science and materialism against the still influential powers of royalism and the Catholic Right. In the face of a devastating war of city-wide destruction during the Siege of Paris in 1871, Republicans and the Left had again come the ascendancy at both a political and a cultural level, riding a boom of political, economic and cultural development which was showcased in the spectacles and performances of the 1889 Exposition Universelle de Paris(Sowerwine 2001; Innes 2000). Closer to home today, financial advisors are already concerned that Australia’s relative wealth in the wake of the recent international collapse can only be short lived, since it will keep the value of the Australian dollar high, and eventually make the sale of Australian exports and primary resources unprofitable (Sackur 2011, 17). Australia’s relative “boom” could tumble into “bust” at any moment, it seems, just as the overweening ambition of the French state under Emperor Napoleon III had brought about a disastrous military route at the hands of the Prussians – a defeat which in turn paved the way for the establishment of the Third Republic of Antoine’s era.
As I write, not far to the north of me here in the South Island of New Zealand, engineers and inhabitants have been struggling to rebuild their own demolished city centre following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. In an example of what Naomi Klein has labelled “disaster capitalism”, business owners here in Dunedin are openly celebrating the consequent lift in their own trade. In an article titled “Business Booming in Wake of Quake”, a New Zealand reporter noted that Dunedin PVC manufacturer Norman Woods “could not help but look on the positive side” of the devastation of our northern neighbours (Considine 2011). Meanwhile, on a new entrepreneurial website launched by the City Council titled Dunedin Business: Plug Yourself In, there is an invitation for those more worthy refugees from Christchurch to move their businesses to our apparently safer and still standing city, down south (anon. 2011). And what are these commercial products which Woods and his fellows have been churning out of their establishments to act as props in this drama of desperation? Plastic jerry cans and baked goods; items which address those most basic of human needs, bread and water, which we of the so-called First World have been accustomed to seeing as lacking only in the Third World or amongst Paris’ starving workers long ago during the 1770s. Klein’s own study traces the history of such processes of disastrous growth, whereby everything from World War Two through to the reconstruction of Iraq has been seen by corporations around the world as providing the ideal context in which to purvey and secure both capital and assets (2008). It is, it seems, very much an ill wind which blows no one some good.
Figure 1: “The World”, photograph by Juha Tolonen (2005). A discarded map in a building from the closed asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, WA. Courtesy of the artist.
Inspired by these and other developments, the 2009 Australasian Association for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies conference was themed around the reciprocality of relations implied by cycles of “boom” and “bust”. Perhaps the most famous example of this in economic terms were the quasi-socialist initiatives conducted within that great home of capitalism, the United States of America, under President Woodrow Wilson’s New Deal measures. Wilson instigated a massive boom in state construction to kick-start the economy after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Hoover Dam being one of the main symbols of this return to wealth. Ironically though, the dam came to power Las Vegas rather than an agricultural or manufacturing revolution, and the tumbleweeds continued to blow across the desert even as the money rolled in—money itself gleaned from the “busts” experienced on a daily basis at the casinos a few miles away. Another unexpected inversion powered by Wilson’s socioeconomic policies was the later labelling of such instances of government intervention as “Communist” during the 1950s, with Wilsonian financial methods becoming discredited on the domestic front and thus helping to pave the way for radical deregulation, spending cuts and the reduction in taxation of business which was to be championed by Ronald Reagan and William Niskanen in the US (1980s “Reaganomics”), Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and—as O’Donnell observes—Roger Douglas in New Zealand (“Rogernomics”; see Heale 1990; Caute 1978; O’Donnell 2011; Henderson 1993).
Before moving to the University of Otago in South Island New Zealand in 2009, I was employed at the West Australian Academy of Performing Art at Edith Cowan University, Perth. In late 2008, I sat in Northbridge in Perth, having coffee with Peter Eckersall from the University of Melbourne. As we gazed distractedly out the window, we commented on the massive building project then being executed up and down William Street outside. Intensely coloured, yellow-brown building-sand lay scattered about as red paving stones crept along where the formerly weed-infested, street-side verge once had been. Neat, uniform concrete edging replaced the irregular patchwork of old road-side construction, leading north, as part of a plan to run this hard, clean and entirely non-heterotopic surface all the way to the Perth Hills and beyond. Indeed, the whole city had the appearance of a construction site. Cranes towered over many sites in Northbridge as the profits from mineral extraction in the hinterland behind Perth was being rapidly transformed into taxes, capital and material. In an article describing how Australia in general, and the West Australian hinterland in particular, “feeds Beijing’s mineral hunger”, the reporter for The Guardian notes that “Australia is already China’s biggest overseas supplier of iron ore” and so is “guaranteed a steady stream of royalties and taxes” so long as the Chinese continues to grow. Critics are already speculating that a figure such as Clive Palmer—the man who holds the mining rights to the site for West Australia’s massive Citic Pacific Sino Iron project in the Pilbara—is likely to soon be “an ‘Aussie oligarch’ to rival Russia’s richest resource billionaires, a suggestion to which he responds … ‘I hope I’m nicer'” (Sackur 2011, 17). So, indeed, do we all, but history would give us little reason to suppose that massive private wealth and the exchange of capital through such narrow funnels might be likely to lead to egalitarian consequences.
Figure 2: An abandoned asbestos mine at Wittenoom, WA, Photograph Juha Tolonen (2005). Courtesy of the artist.
Perth and West Australia has a long history of such aggressively unashamed construction and exploitation. Asbestos mining, for example, once energised the economy inland at Wittenoom and elsewhere (Figs 1-2). Twenty minutes out of Perth at the nearby satellite suburb of Fremantle, when a sailing team based there won the 1983 America’s Cup competition and brought the trophy to Fremantle, the harbour-side was rapidly rebuilt and lined with visible signs of affluence in preparation for the first set of heats to be held there, due for the Summer of 1986. Fremantle’s historic buildings did slightly better out of this than those of Perth, but it is certainly easy for inhabitants and visitors to get the impression that much of this construction since the 1980s in Perth and beyond was driven by a desire to eradicate the previous histories which had nestled in unexpected corners about the city. Eckersall and I agreed that Perth often seemed to the casual eye to have remarkably shallow roots, as though a storm might one day lift these pavings off the sand stamped down along William Street, and slide the whole city into the Swan River, just as European settlement had once forced out the Indigenous Nyoongar peoples and shifted them to reserves, the off-shore prison of Rottnest Island, and other locations for undesirables (see Reynolds 1996; Perkins & Langton 2010; Belsham & Pitt 1997).
Figure 3: The Yellow Vest Theory by George Egerton-Warburton. Digital print (2008). Courtesy of the Fremantle Arts Centre.
Attempting to carve his own space within these environs, the Perth visual and performance artist George Egerton-Warburton has identified what he has christened “The Yellow Vest Theory” or “Syndrome” (Stephens 2009; see Fig. 3). Drawing on his own experience doing menial jobs in and around the city, he notes how the brightly coloured costume which his employers had issued him:
empowered me as a labourer and made me smell like shit. The fluorescent yellow made me stand out as a garbage man for Melville City Council. It collected sweat and garbage stains against my bare skin in the hot summer sun every morning when I was hung over, working a job that I hated, perhaps because I hated myself, so I could empathise and identify with it, and in turn, become one with the garbage (Egerton-Warburton in Stephens 2009, 5).
Egerton-Warburton later redirected this abject authority with which his body had been endowed with by virtue of the vest towards more positive, ludic possibilities, by painting graffiti “in broad daylight wearing only a yellow vest, so that I was breaking two laws at once—vandalism and indecent exposure”. According to The Yellow Vest Theory, the perpetrator becomes invisible, the vest normalising the presence of abjection, waste, asbestos tailings, and other counterproductive trends within the space of the booming economy. Photographic documentation of these acts have been exhibited in Fremantle and elsewhere, in a series of performances which dramatize the symptoms of West Australia’s economic contradictions and dialectic flows of power between worker and employer, economics and life.
It is then impossible to think of theatre, performance or art in Perth without considering the link of aesthetics to cycles of boom and bust; without conceptualizing the aesthetic, cultural and political space which we occupy in Australia as being profoundly connected to a nexus of interpenetrating forces, material relations, and cycles in history, which have sustained economies such as those of Fremantle, Dunedin, or the so-called Bubble Economy of the Heisei Keiki period in Japan, 1986-1990 (Eckersall 2006). The relations of theatre to its material, political, cultural and economic origins and practices are governed by a series of sinusoidal oscillations, in which curves moving downward into negative space are frequently replaced by positive booms in the opposite direction. From the changes in status of Taiwanese opela discussed by Hsiao-Mei Hsieh in this issue, to the shifting weight of politics and realism within Japanese theatre outlined by Keiji Sawada in his contribution here, arts, culture and capital has a tendency to move in symmetrically balanced patterns across time and space. We in Australia transport raw materials such as iron ore and bauxite through ports like Bunbury (the topic of Robyn McCarron’s article), powering the Chinese economic boom, which has in turn—at least until now—facilitated the spectacular redevelopment of Perth and Fremantle.
The idea of history as cyclic was not new when the economists first analysed patterns of financial booms and busts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within the Western tradition, the concept of temporal inversion and repetition dates back at least to pagan times, and was incorporated into the Medieval calendar with the annual saints’ days, the harvest cycles, and those other tropes which one sees so beautifully illustrated in the fifteenth century manuscript commissioned by the Duc de Berry, the Très riches heures. These cycles of de-fecundation leading to a phoenix-like rebirth as the seasonal wheel returns to its previous position from the last year took on a Christological import following the Fall of Rome. Each small death and revival came to stand for that greater pattern of suffering and redemption which our Lord endured prior to his Resurrection (various 1967). The carnage which greets Fortinbras as he arrives at the Danish palace in Act III of Hamlet presages the rebirth of that kingdom in a newly cleansed, and reformed configuration, now that the drama of violence and revenge has acted as a cathartic force for both the audience and the crown.
Medieval and Early Modern temporality was profoundly heterotopic or heteroglossic in that at least two models of historical transition were seen to act within and throughout each other as part of the seasons and the years. In addition to recurrent annual schema such as where the resumption of rural production echoed the rebirth of both Saturnalian patterns and of Our Saviour himself, pre-Modern Europeans saw within historical structures the tell-tale signs of an Apocalyptic teleology. Portents and terrible events all foreshadowed the final return of Christ in the Last Judgement, when the earth would be laid waste before the Blessed ascended to eternal salvation and peace (Lewis 1971; Panofsky et al 1964). The curious exchanges and shifts within the Mystery Plays, the tendency of events and interludes to layer into and complicate each other such that cyclic return also presaged a gradual accumulation of historical progression, lay at the heart of this rhetorical framing of history which we have now inherited within own discourse and dramas (see White 1973). As the Stock Markets tumbled in 2008, we were greeted with accounts which intermingled Edward Gibbon’s phrasing of a decline and fall of Empire, with projections of an eventual “bounce back” of the economy. If Rome tumbled because of its decadence and decline, it only did so in order to enable the rise of a newly rejuvenated cultural, political, military and economic heritage of which the British were the true heirs—or so Gibbon would have claimed. Dancing on the eve of the Apocalypse never seemed so good. To contrast two of the essays in this volume, the choice of rhetoric would seem to be between that of Eugène Ionesco’sExit the King, in which everything, even the sun, seems to have gone black (Goodall), versus Roger Hall’s more guarded critique of capitalism (O’Donnell), from which the investors emerge severely chastened but at least still alive.
The theme for the conference was not only inspired by my conversation with Eckersall, but also by the visit in 2008 of the Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, and the latter’s attempts to highlight the relations between art, industry and society in West Australian and the region. Burtynsky’s work is the topic of my own essay reproduced in this issue of Double Dialogues.
In the catalogue essay to a 2009 exhibition featuring Egerton-Warburton’s work, curator Jasmin Stephens notes how such accoutrements and symbols of West Australia’s economic life as “the mine” or the construction worker’s “vest” have come to act as a form of “national costume” or heraldic emblem which symbolises “the rags to riches story at the heart” of both West Australia’s and the nation’s sense of “self-image” (2009, 6). Works which would challenge or complicate this iconography of the boom therefore simultaneously question any discourse “which automatically equates economic growth with progress” (Stephens 2009, 6). Egerton-Warburton’s vulnerable bodily performances provide one method to attain such effects, whilst Burtynsky’s photographic documentation offers an epic and depersonalising response to the relationship between art to capital. In Egerton-Warburton’s work, it is the artist’s body in its soft vulnerability and unlikely nakedness which becomes abject and wasted. Burtynsky however casts a distorting mirror of extraction before his spectators, which makes us, the viewers, ourselves become abject and overwhelmed through a series of monstrously sublime projections, identifications, disavowals and transferences (see my article in this issue). It is our own abjection, displaced onto the physical features and objects which confront the gaze, which Burtynsky’s work stages. In this way, Burtynsky’s oeuvre insists on the reciprocity of image and audience, economics and aesthetic consumption.
An Iconography of Exchange: Burtynsky’s “Minescapes”
Burtynsky travelled to West Australia to photograph those “Minescapes” for which the state was renowned. At locations such as Kalgoorlie he searched for what he has described as “the largest example” of various extraction processes and their wastes or tailings, which generate “the greatest and most complex transformations” within space and upon the landscape (2003 54). The set of oscillating contradictions both represented by the spectacle of such locales, and which is then staged within the consciousness of the viewer, are writ large—literally—within these photographic prints. As Burtynsky explains, such visions
are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire—a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times (Burtynsky nd).
As in Egerton-Warburton’s description above, within Burtynsky’s vision of exchange, we and our bodies become one with garbage. The spaces and scenes staged within these highly theatrical photographs therefore ‘reflect’ not simply the land or space. Burtynsky’s highly abstract form of mimesis rather is intended to reflect time, or the zeitgeist itself. Burtynsky visualizes the last moments before the Apocalypse, freezing them into a massively over-determined spectacle of capital, aesthetics and exchange. It is this drama, and our own highly-embodied responses to these depictions (fears and fantasies of disembodiment, and of being ground into textured particulates) which are dramatized within the theatron of Burtynsky’s viewfinder. The pathos of Egerton-Warburton is here replaced and exceeded by the overpowering disintegration and dispersal of self which is made possible by our inescapable connection to materials, voids, and relations which extend far beyond our own bodies, sense of control and cognition.
It is this aesthetics of exchange which acts as a principle locus around which the essays in this volume are arranged. Burtynsky’s own articulation of this, which we used in the call for papers, was provided by his account of attempting to depict all of the materials and routes of transport which went into the construction of a multi-storey building. Encountering the hard-edged shapes of stone and marble quarries, he felt he had found this impossible to see image:
I found an organic architecture created by our pursuit of raw materials. Open-pit mines, funnelling down, were to me like inverted pyramids. Photographing dimensional stone quarries was a deliberate act of going out to try to find something in the world that would match the kinds of forms I held in my imagination but had never seen in real life—the idea of inverted skyscrapers (2007).
Burtynsky’s observation is a timely one, and it is closely linked to the themes of this collection of essays. In the late twentieth century, economists and major institutions such as the World Bank tended to theorise capitalist exchange as being without limits. Cycles of boom and bust were in this sense the froth on a larger ocean of shifting relations and growth, mere epiphenomena which could be rectified by minor structural financial change. Only rarely was the entire system of capitalist accumulation and material consumption seriously challenged. With the latest bust in share markets and the public admission by the previously sceptical administrations of the United States and Australia that Global Warming is in fact a reality, created by our own industries and processes of material distribution, the prospect of further exchange leading to a potentially Apocalyptic future has now become a far more real and widely accepted possibility than ever before. It is in other words becoming apparent that the global material resources of the planet are indeed finite, and although a rise in population can lead to a rise in markets (as has been the case with China and India), further expansion of material wealth internationally will almost certainly lead to significant shortfalls elsewhere. As with the price of gold or oil, it is not just demand, but also shortages such as those the Christchurch earthquake generated, which drive economic relations. Holes need to be filled, and when buildings, skyscrapers, or venues such as the new State Theatre in Perth, are constructed, gaping wounds, absences, and movements of material and cultural capital need to be effected. The rise of one group or class frequently presages the lowering of standards for another—like Egerton-Warburton’s garbage-man—a pattern which has long set the scene for colonialism and empire. The question we must all ask now, as we move deeper into a supposedly “post-colonial” international economy of exchange, is can these processes and relations be balanced?
A Cubist Portrait of Global Cultural Exchange: The Essays
In her essay “Cross-Cultural Encounters”, Maryrose Casey observes that such flows of material and cultural value in Indigenous Australia will be at least as complex, multivalent and ambiguous as Burtynsky’s beautiful but terrifying imagery. Previous scholars such as Michael Parsons have tended to argue that the market for command “corroboree” performances by Indigenous Australians at the behest of white audiences largely functioned to reinforce political and racial dominance, thereby degrading the Aboriginal performers and placing them in the role of spectacular exotica. In the case of at least some Indigenes like the resourceful Billy Cassim, the very staging of such an instance of colonial spectatorship provided an opportunity for these actors to invert and mock these conventions and the audiences who gazed upon them. Like Burtynsky’s imagery, these were ambivalent re-enactments which pulsed between positivity and negativity, between domination and rebellion, evoking a kind of carnival even within the controlled space of colonial theatricality. Here, performance moves into the heterotopic, its very self-consciousness as performance enabling a degree of critique and dissent.
Moreover, as Sawada shows in his keynote paper, the space created by economic depression can enable the expression of different voices, identities and perspectives within culture and theatre. Sawada’s claim is that in many ways, politics itself went underground during the economic high times of the 1980s, as the highly political work of the earlier 1960s Angura generation either became institutionalized or exhausted itself. Political commentary did not of course disappear. Fujimoto Takayuki, a member of the multi-media dance company Dumb Type, claimed that their own highly machinic, partially digitized worlds of dance, projection and sound represented a world in which certain “thought patterns come to set dominant world models … Still there are no grounds for believing them to be immutable” (Eckersall 2006, 155). If the slick post-industrial data-realm of Dumb Type provided an almost quintessential reflection of Japanese and Western fantasies of a cultural and political space driven by technological control and production, it was nevertheless a space of ambiguous desires and domination as much as it was one of utopian visions of the future. Nevertheless, as Sawada observes, the collapse of Japanese financial institutions as we entered the 1990s created conditions wherein the conduits for exchange both across the Pacific and within the cultural space of Japan were able to accelerate and open up a discourse with new parts of Japan’s cultural and ethnic territories. Whilst not perhaps booming, this is certainly a realm wherein the subaltern peoples of Japan and elsewhere have had access to new modes of communicating with the still dominant mainstream of Japanese political and cultural life. Sawada himself participated in these initiatives by acting as a translator of such texts as Stolen and7 Stages of Grieving by the Australian Indigenous authors Jane Harrison, and Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman. Sawada argues that contemporary Australian Aboriginal arts provided a useful dramaturgical framework for Japanese subaltern peoples such as the indigenous Ainu peoples. I would add to this that the process of translation itself offered a useful strategy of estrangement or ostranenie in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists (Selden 1988), defamiliarising and distancing Japanese audiences and artists from their own histories such that the foundational myth of the Japanese nation as racially and ethnically homogenous might be critically decontextualized and refuted. As Beverly Curran has argued of Sawada’s work, what “comes into view” in these translated productions is “not only a First Nations or Aboriginal body” being enacted on stage, but also the “political possibilities” of such a body’s imaginative construction and cultural performance, such that “a range of bodies in Japan and in the world” are made “visible and meaningful” on stage and within the wider cultural discourse (2007, 450).
Sawada’s paper thus presents the paradoxical possibility that economically depressed times might, counter-intuitively, serve as the incubator for a theatrical boom of sorts – or at least for the possibility of counter-narratives and new models to emerge. The situation which Hsieh offers is more complex still, since here it is less a “bust” of financial confidence, but rather a political collapse—namely that of the Nationalist Party of Taiwan—which has provided a context within which the popular and multicultural arts of that nation might be re-contextualised. No longer thought of exclusively in terms of the opposed poles of a diasporic Chinese identity, versus a radically purified, ethnically Chinese and yet uniquely Taiwanese identity, opela seems an art form ideally placed to “boom” in a world where a shifting, layered, and continually evolving political and national culture is being established.
Suzanne Little sketches a similar paradox of cultural enunciation, namely the authoring and verification of truth and the representation of trauma within a realm so “booming” with such tales, so overwhelmed with the repetitive restaging of the traumatic and the supposedly real, that even Antoine’s guillotine or the use of verbatim reportage on stage seems attenuated and ambiguous. The stage space evocated by verbatim theatre re-stagings of traumatic events and the personal narratives of those who have survived them are poised between the forceful, booming violence of these acts and memories, and the potentially broken and healing bodies and psyches of those who seek out. To address the contradictory claims of ethical responsibility and dramaturgical intensity, these works negotiate an uneasy sinusoidal potentiality of failure. To be dramatically effective and secure audience empathy is not always entirely consistent with the need to protect, ameliorate or re-frame the experience of trauma in documentary terms. Amongst the findings Little draws from her chosen examples of David Hare (The Permanent Way, 2005), Moises Kaufman ( The Laramie Project, 2001), and Stuart Young and Hilary Halba (Hush, 2009-present), is that—particularly in the case of Hush – the audience is encouraged to identify with not the victim or survivor him or herself, but with the actor-researcher who conducted the original interview, and whose encounter with the traumatised subject is in fact the true subject of the performance. The booming voices of the recorded interview, playing back in the ear of the performer as he or she re-enacts the vocalisations and gestures of the interview subject, serve to protect, cushion and reframe broken but now mnemonically reassembled bodies, memories and experiences. In these tripartite exchanges between the audience, the performer-researcher, and the victim, the power and authority vested in the speaker by virtue of his her having witnessed and endured trauma and violence, is endlessly circled, deferred, embodied, aesthetised and documented (see Felman 2001; Caruth 1995; Rossington & Whitehead 2007).
What then, besides Dumb Type, might be the art forms of the economic boom itself? Burtynsky clearly represents an important example, an aesthetics of an expansive prosperity delicately balanced on the edge of a precipice overhanging a bust of major proportions. McCarron however offers another more positive model, a form of performative representation within the boom which empowers, rather than disempowers those involved. If Burtynsky places one in the position of a spectator to the drama of post-industrial waste, Stark Raven and other volunteer organisations in West Australia offer further evidence of the importance of involvement within art-making as well as the community’s consumption of such arts which fosters civic society and social engagement. One of McCarron’s key points is that such regional companies do not represent “amateur” performers in the sense that Richard Fotheringham (1992) and others have described, but are rather often artists and theatre-makers with considerable professional training and expertise in their chosen form. Hence it is a culture of volunteering which these theatrical associations promote, rather than one of the second-rate distribution of cultural capital to locations distant from the major urban centres of Australia.
McCarron’s discussion of civic engagement serves as a reminder of the point made by Raymond Williams, and which is taken up in O’Donnell’s essay. Theatre is not only situated within the social relations enabled and sustained by economic flows. It is itself an economic product, a consumable, which is purchased by the audience as part of an exchange which may benefit one or the other party more or less. If Casey’s focus is on how such economic and cultural exchanges can be more multivalent than they at first appear, the work of Burtynsky, Egerton-Warburton and Roger Hall are deeply contradictory in that they both sustain major economic relations—the art market and New Zealand theatre—whilst they critique the very relations which enable their production. The most important insight which Karl Marx provided us was that capitalism is deeply contradictory. Indeed, capital development depends in part on such dialectical contradictions. Hall’s strategy of biting—or perhaps more accurately, gently gnawing—the hand that feeds him provides a striking instance of how the flaws of contemporary financial institutions inevitably and inescapably inform the theatre, just as the exhibition of Egerton-Warburton’s work at the Fremantle Arts Centre in 2009 or the presentation of Burtynsky’s photographs within Fotofreo 2008 were enabled by taxes accrued from the construction and mining activities which the two critically reflect upon.
Figure 4: Birchgrove Capri Manor, by Mike Gray. Archival inject print. Exhibited as part of 2008 The Yellow Vest Theory exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Image courtesy of FAC.
The natural form of the boom aesthetic under capitalism might however be best thought of as that of the fetish. As Marx and Naomi Klein have observed, within the world of capitalist exchange, products themselves come to take on a quasi-mystical value. The Reebok shoe or the Gucci handbag has far more prestige and profitability than its manufacturing or transport costs alone would dictate. The product has ceased to be exchanged according to the logic of material production or distribution, but rather one of an abstracted, immaterial and impossible to place value. Objects take on a cultic and ultimately aesthetic value quite separate from their material conditions. Other than the regimes of fashion and fashion photography so masterfully exploited and discussed by Judith Butler, Roland Barthes and others, one of the principle vehicles for such dramas is the interior setting. Gene Bawden traces the development of our current obsession with aspirational home improvement and domestic display during the period which saw the rise of bourgeois culture. From Jane Austen to renovation television, the careful arrangement of materials and products within the theatron of the home has been a major concern of authors, film-makers and indeed all of us who are, as Foucault (1990) put it, the “other Victorians” of the fin de millennium rather than the fin de siècle. For the upwardly mobile or the careful consumer, the home becomes a site of performance where an idealised version of our selves is staged both for the delectation of the visitor, but also for ourselves. In this hyper-real realm of staged desire—a modality so well captured in photographer Mike Gray’s images from The Yellow Vest Theory exhibition (Fig. 4)—such bizarre stage-sets as one finds in Gray or at the Caroline Springs display village come to be normalised. At the other end of this oscillating spectrum is the banal ordinariness of the home within which an anti-alcoholism advertisement is located, becomes starting in its almost uncanny display of realism and grime. In an opposite situation to that described by Little, here unreal desire is prized and fetishized, not ‘truth’ or authenticity. Reading Little against Bawden though, it becomes unclear which one of these inversely related value systems is to be preferred.
If the logic of boom and bust reflects an impossible to reconcile conflict between material conditions and the limits of representation, versus the fantastic realm of our desires and fears, wishes and beliefs, then Greg Burley’s “Ballad of Hercule Barbin” acts as a suitable place to move to close our passage through the curves and dips of such sinusoidally opposed relations. Burley’s poetic text, part of an ongoing aesthetic project which he reported on within the conference, was inspired by the diaries of Herculine Barbin (1980). This extraordinary document was brought to critical attention by Foucault. In 1868, it was found beside the corpse of its author, an inter-sexed individual or “pseudo-hermaphrodite” who was unable to live with his re-assigned identity as a man. As Ann Sullivan astutely notes:
The story of Herculine Barbin is difficult to classify. It seems to both evade and inhabit several genres—Is it a memoir? A diary? Autobiography? Barbin’s story reads like a murder mystery, a suicide note, and a theatrical romance all at once. What perhaps links all of these categories is “confession”—the central voice in Barbin’s narrative. Barbin’s project is to “unveil,” to excavate her own identity (2005).
Like the artists Little explores, it is this project of “revealing the truth of the self” which Barbin seems to undertake. “Yet in spite of these components, Barbin’s narrative remains” a highly constructed and “‘remembered’ fact. The act of confession—the attempt to authorize the self” in effect “fictionalizes the confessor” and so fails to uniquely identify its author, or indeed what genre it is within which Barbin is writing. It is Barbin’s sexual indeterminacy which produces these complications, for Barbin continues, throughout her confession, to refuse any simple identification of body with gender, since Barbin’s physique insists on its dualism, which in turn splits and multiples the discursive forms and genres at play within the text. Truth and untruth, boom and bust, univocality and heteroglossia, all compete for space within the text.
Burley employs a similar model of stylistic conflation and undecidable identity to fracture the generic structures and iconography of the Australian bush ballad. Even more than the historic Barbin, Burley’s “Herc” possesses physical signs of both sexes—a fully functional penis and vagina—which serves to queer the gendered characters represented within bush balladry. Neither homosexual nor heterosexual, the boom of Burley’s characters in terms of identity and gender is echoed by the plosive force and rhythmic bass of the spoken text itself. Shifting from regular syncopations to a wailing flow of watery speech at its climax, “The Ballad of Hercule Barbin” does not conform to concepts of either a quest for unity, nor a simple oscillation of dualist dialectics. As Herc’s body slides into its watery grave, the protagonist himself disappears in this act of staging, dispersing and pulsing into a realm of tragic and multiple desire.
The idea of dissolving one’s self and one’s body into the land is a prominent theme within the last essay within this collection, the discussion of Bodyweather technique in Australia and Britain provided by Marnie Orr and Rachel Sweeney. Like Min Tanaka – author of the butoh-derived dance-theatre methodology of Bodyweather – Orr and Sweeney attempt to dance the land itself. In this, their work is designed to function according to a countervailing discourse to that of contemporary capitalism itself. This is a relational dance aesthetic whose very terms of an extremely precise realization in dance of local influences and impulses (body as micro-topology) immediately short-circuits the dispersive forces of commodity capitalism and exchange. Rather than confine this enunciation of difference to the unique and highly circumscribed locus of the performed moment though, Orr and Sweeney undertake this work as a form of research to define a toolbox of relational concepts and metaphoric images (tasks and calls for the physicalization of metaphors, ideas and transient sensory responses) which can be applied within multiple environments. In this sense, Orr and Sweeney continue the work of pioneers of Bodyweather in Australia such as Tess de Quincy, whose oeuvre sets up a series of triangulations and exchanges between Japan and theAngura aesthetic (the butoh context out of which Bodyweather emerged in 1985; Marshall 1995 & 2006), between Australia, and between the new, heterotopic space so created out of this translation project. Like Sawada’s work with Australian Indigenous theatre, the practice of Orr, Sweeney and de Quincy re-imagines and reconstructs the relational body as a tool which can transgress simple binary constructions and interrogate physical, conceptual and political imperatives. The model Orr and Sweeney proffer of an “adaptive” and radically open or responsive body holds the potential to move beyond the horrific seductions offered by Burtynsky to a new form of critical embodiment and performance.
Wind Daruma: A Body of Exchange
The discourse issued by the founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, constructed the body as the ultimate site of abject knowledge. From the pathologically beautiful “gathering of emaciated bodies” which Hijikata presented within hisT?hoku Kabuki cycle (1985), through to the somatically threatening visions proffered by Burtynsky, the fragmentation of the self and of one’s physique offers the possibility in these works of short-circuiting the currents of exchange which perpetuate our Apocalyptic accumulation of products, consumables and capital, to suggest a realm in which the incandescent erasure of self might produce “a body with its eyes just open wide, a body tensed to the snapping point in response to the majestic landscape around it” (59). Echoing in some sense the Christological tradition of humility as a starting place for compassion, discourse and art, Hijikata spoke of “being jealous of a dog’s vein”, a perfect skein of flesh whose blues and hues might become marked on the exterior of the skin in performance. In a series of tropes and metaphors which tapped into international cultural exchanges between Japan and Europe (notably Hijikata’s interest in Surrealism and German Ausdruckstanz), between France and Hokkaido, Hijikata claimed that in the region where he was born in Northern Japan:
In Akita, or I should say in all of the T?hoku district, there’s something called a ‘wind daruma’… Sometimes when it gusts up north, the snow swirls around and the wind is just incredible. Then a T?hoku person can get wrapped in the wind that blows from the footpath between the rice paddies to my front door and, garbed in the wind, become a wind daruma standing at the entrance. The wind daruma goes into the parlor, and that already is butoh (71-72).
Here, it is the freezing gusts of the wind that link bodies and objects, acts and performances, through a zephyr which runs the length of the muddy plains of Akita and into infinity. This exchange of air, by merit of its intemperate nature, demands a reaction from the dancer’s body, its energies producing physical connections and shivering responses. Even if, as Eckersall and Sawada observe, the aesthetics of the Angura moment itself have been exhausted, one could do worse than Sweeny and Orr, Little, Burtynsky, and the other authors here in harnessing the ambivalent powers of terror and abjection to forge a new set of whispering, Aeolian exchanges within and across the trajectories of global capital.
Figs 5-6: A singing box nestled between the wires of the Wogarno Wire Installation, by Alan Lamb, & his temporary recording station, WA (2008).
In 2008, I crouched upon a massive, weather-worn granite boulder in regional West Australia, to place my head into what artist Alan Lamb calls one of his “singing boxes”: polystyrene foam shells affixed to wires which he has carefully strung between points and “which make the vibrations of wires audible and allow voice, instruments and percussion to be played into the wires” themselves, and so change the qualities of those sounds generated by the tensing and relaxation of the wires; by their oscillation and dipping with the wind (Figs 5-6; Lamb 2007). The deep hum and sproing-y, whip-crack accents which arise at the Wogarno Wire Installation gather up and nestle the wind and the metal into the coil of my ears (for audio, go tohttp://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/web/lamb/wogarno.mp3). Lamb notes that he first became aware of these noises while parked beside a length of telephone lines in Scotland in 1975, and that “the sound of a beautiful and sustained major fifth” and other tones issuing from these constructions could also be heard in the wheels of trains or other oscillating metal structures which move people, their communications and their art from one place to another (Jenkins 1988; Lamb 1991). Standing in Wogarno, not far from the mining centre of Mount Magnet, and gazing out past the bush and scrub as Lamb connects sophisticated digital recording devices to the sound sculpture, and the sharp, breathy tone of Anne Norman’s Japanese shakuhachi flute strikes the resonating panel of the singing box, it is easy to believe that the possibilities of relational aesthetics, cultural exchange, and the power of the wind daruma might yet have much to offer us even as we hurtle into the second decade of the twenty first century.
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Figure 7: Wittenoom Mine. Photograph Juha Tolonen (2005). Courtesy of the artist.
(1) In 2008, Marshall was a guest of Tura New Music at the Sounds Outback Festival.