“We exist in a time that does not enable fluidity and connection,” Frances Barrett declares in her audio work A Manual for Time Travel, presented as part of the 2014 Tiny Stadiums festival. “Time travel exists when time, bodies and space are in dystopic flux…this is a manual to achieve these moments of confusion.” This definition of time travel, where the pre-recorded voice of the artist is relayed via headphones to the audience member in the present, also holds up as a model for the conceptualisation and experience of live art practice. Moments of confusion are common occurrences in experiences of live art, as are moments of empowerment and resistance. The closer the ratio of artist to audience the more heightened these moments become. This is the curatorial premise of Tiny Stadiums, an annual live art festival situated in Erskineville, a small inner-city suburb of Sydney. The name itself suggests its small scale and ambitious nature – providing platforms for interventions that pierce and infiltrate the daily life of the suburb, occupying and reimagining public space. Barrett’s work, like many of those presented at the festival, is premised on a personal encounter that contains the political, an entreaty from one person to another. “Look around you. You are standing on ancient land. A country where children and languages have been stolen… You are a vestige of all of this.”
Tiny Stadiums was established in 2008 by curatorial collective Quarterbred, and is presented by PACT Centre for Emerging Artists. International readers may remember Erskineville’s Imperial Hotel from the opening scenes of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but its true theatrical heart is PACT, who marked their fiftieth anniversary this year. This year’s festival curators, Amelia Wallin and Maria White who collaborate as Groundwork, have brought together new works by emerging performance artists and collectives who work in the social sphere: Frances Barrett, Lottie Consalvo, Deep Soulful Sweats, Mook Gwa Institute, Team MESS and Hissy Fit. Their works are placed in the public and civic spaces of the suburb – the town hall, the Anglican church, the parks, the street – and according to the curators ‘comment on contemporary life in the suburb and beyond’. The artists take Erskineville as a microcosm, and rather than directly addressing the political and ideological struggles in Australian society they embed them at a small scale: the soap opera, the aerobics class, cake decorating, real estate, family.
And Erskineville is small. Bordered on three sides by intersecting rail lines and Newtown’s busy King St, real estate agents laud Erskineville’s ‘village atmosphere’. It was one of the first suburbs in Sydney to be gentrified in the 1970s, and in the hipster cafes and manicured parks there is little evidence of the working class migrants who lived here for nearly a century, or indeed the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. One work in the festival explores the demographic tension of the suburb, appropriating the manic hubris of a real estate seminar to explore the multitude of human stories found in its streets. As part of Mook Gwa Institute’s work ‘Story Title’, the audience is enlisted to survey passers-by on the main drag about their impressions of Erskineville. Of the half dozen people I speak to, most think that the population of the suburb is mostly Caucasian, that residents probably live as couples or young families in houses rather than apartments. Those surveyed were divided on whether those young families owned or rented their homes (and they’re correct –there is an even divide, much higher than the national average, according to recent real estate figures). These tidbits are reported back verbally to the Institute in the meeting rooms of the Town Hall, recalling the oral storytelling traditions of communities throughout time and the way these stories lay claim to public and private space. In a suburb where real estate prices now determine with even greater economic division who can call this place home, this process of collection and sharing reclaims some of the social ownership of its public spaces.
A different act of reclamation came as another moment of time, bodies and space in a state of flux. Melbourne collective Deep Soulful Sweats presented Fantasy Light Yoga, a participatory dance work that combines the collective spirituality of yoga with the body-consciousness of public displays of aerobics and the gleeful abandon of last night’s party. Dressed in Jane Fonda-esque aerobic gear, with flowing hippie skirts atop, Natalie Abbott, Sarah Aiken, Rebecca Jensen and Janine Proost led participants through a guided dance routine, injecting a burst of chaotic energy into a quiet Saturday morning. With a similar participatory tactic, Hissy Fit’s work Girls to the Front called for women and girls to perform a 30 second head bang to the camera to song of their choice, compiled into a document of collective female rebellion and liberation.
In stark contrast was Lottie Consalvo’s intense and silent endurance work Until Distance Passes. Set in the cool and sombre space of the Erskineville Anglican Church, Consalvo sat mostly still and totally silent at the head of a long table, staring intently at a pair of small passport-size photos of her husband and child positioned at the far end of the table. Consalvo’s strained observance enacted the physical absence of her family, further heightened by the incidental presence of young families playing just beyond the church doors in the courtyard. The work contained an unstated but palpable allegory for the treatment of women and children in Australia’s immigration detention centres, where psychologists recently reported a spike in attempted suicides by women compelled by the grim hope that their children might have a better chance of settlement in Australia without them. Consalvo’s performance alludes to fact that our suburban domestic comforts come at the expense of others.
Beyond the subtle allusions and suggestions contained by Consalvo’s and Barrett’s works, one of the few direct political statements of the festival came as a throwaway gag halfway through the second night of Trojans, a new work by theatre collective Team MESS. Taking the form of a TV soap opera and shot against a green screen, a new episode was written each day by a sequence of writers and performed by a rotating cast of actors who received their lines via audio headset. After the second ‘ad break’, two performers banter about the weather and Tony Abbott’s ‘ban’ on discussion of climate change at the G20 meeting held in Brisbane that week. “Geez, it’s so topical it was almost like it was written yesterday huh?” one quips. The chaos and looseness of the format was served well by the surreal and frequently hilarious script by Zoe Coombs-Marr, and by the good-humoured cast who responded gamely to frequently outlandish stage direction and malfunctioning equipment. Moments where things threatened to slip towards theatresports silliness were saved by moments of genuine experimentation and serious attention to detail (much time must have been spent digging up some of the daggiest ads I’ve forgotten ever existed). Team MESS lead artists Malcolm Whittaker and Nat Randall describe the presentation of the work as a ‘collective triumph of the will’, and it’s a journey that brings their audience along for the ride.
“This is a performance of invisible mechanics through imagined bodies,” continued Frances Barrett’s commentary in A Manual For Time Travel, relayed directly to the ear of the audience member as they walked from one performance site to the next. The works in Tiny Stadiums experimented with the invisible mechanics of bodies, reimagining and repurposing the public spaces they move through to expose the social rules that govern them. Communities succeed or fail on the willingness of their members to work collectively and for a common purpose, and these works were most successful when the audience placed themselves in that same space of flux and movement as the performers. Relying on the participants to carry the meaning of a work can (and occasionally did) backfire, but these moments of confusion also underline the slipperiness of working in the public realm and the mirrored experience of trying to live responsibly in a democratic society. By using this one small suburb as a microcosm for contemporary Australia the festival filters political issues through a personal lens, placing the collaborative encounter on a pedestal.