The 1993 Brisbane Fringe Festival

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:04 -- damien
Changing and persisting notions of the Avant-garde

Brisbane's 1993 Music Biennial showcased the plurality of forms of contemporary music: from international avant-garde (Cecil Taylor), to experimental theatre (Doppio Teatro), to world music, mainstream rock, Murri works, and classical. The concurrent Brisbane Fringe Festival contained an equally pluralist program, creating a space for other art forms to participate in the Biennial sound artists, visual artists, theatre, and works which played across many of these generic distinctions. The Fringe Festival, then, did not operate in an avant-garde versus mainstream relationship to the Music Biennial, despite the fact that this was its underlying structure and original brief. This year's Fringe program revealed how, in a culture of pluralism, the avant-garde is not able to be defined by stylistic or generic qualities alone. The Fringe supported work which was largely experimental, but which was also local and I or radically political, mobilising a multiplicity of audiences and venues. It was a festival alive to the economy of representation and practice in contemporary culture. The Music Biennial occurred simultaneously with the exhibition Surrealism: Revolution by Night at the Queensland Art Gallery. The artists involved in the Fringe Festival took up the full potential of the interstitial space between these major art events to explore the intermedia dialogue between: music and the visual arts; between social, performative, and gallery space; between high and low culture; and the range of levels of legitimation, appropriation, and political effect available in this exchange or dialogue. In discussing issues of avant-gardism in a postmodern culture and their importance for contemporary visual arts practice I will focus on three major events at the 1993 Brisbane Fringe Festival:

Mental Kultura (Princess Theatre); Brentlte (Institute of Modern Art); and the performances accompanying Surrealism: Revolution By Night (Queensland Art Gallery).

 

My starting point, therefore, is not what postmodern culture is (for to define postmodernism as a formal, or even formal and thematic category, is of limited benefit and is perhaps a questionable project in itself) but rather what postmodern culture does. In other words, not as an object in itself but as an object 'to be read'. Avant-gardism as both a strategy and a structure persists in postmodern culture. What concerns me is the ways in which the label or position avant-garde has become outmoded, unsatisfactory, or even unnecessary. How are experimental art forms developing in response to alternative ways of understanding culture and cultural conflict? The artists involved in the Fringe were conscious of their involvement within a cultural economy and their artworks and forum papers directly addressed issues of audience, venue, context, site specificity, and the repercussions of these works upwards and inwards into 'high theory' and downwards and outwards into popular culture.

Where is postmodernist practice going? Can it be political? -should it be? Does it offer possibilities for opposition, critique, and resistance to dominant ideologies? Or is it irremediably compromised by its complicity with the market, with mass culture, capitalism, and commercialism? Familiar questions, questions that have been asked in one form or another, at one time or another, about every avant-garde movement and experimental practice since Impressionism. Which does not make them less significant when asked about postmodernism, though it suggests that no definite answers may be forthcoming. (Suleiman, 186)

The political effects (or indeed any type of meaning) of works of art are not attributable to a set or sets of qualities immanent and able to be isolated in the works. Rather, they are part of a process of reading and framing, interpretation, contextualization and response from the viewing individual/ community. Stressing the importance of this process and attempting to articulate it is, no doubt, one of the major impulses behind the recent trend to installation, performance and site-specific artwork. Whilst these types of artworks cannot control their meanings and effects, they alert the audience to issues of context- to an immediate specificity as well as to the wider pluralist and capitalist geographies and economies which frame and contain the viewer.

The rich and complex argument of Thomas Crow's "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts" situates avant-garde practice as a productive exchange between high and low culture (or between the oppositional and the institutional). Whilst this avant-garde moment productively confuses the normal hierarchy of cultural legitimacy it is nonetheless part of a relentless cycle of capitalist consumption. For, argue~ Crow, effects of this productive exchange are recuperated by the culture industry and returned to the lower zone of mass culture in a secondary form "drained of its original force and integrity" (Crow, 258). Similarly high art "overtakes its tactical arm [i.e. avant-garde invention] and restores to itself the high-cultural autonomy it had momentarily abandoned" (Crow, 234). The artists of the modernist avant-gardes quite often disguised their relationship with popular culture which caused their (repressed) subject to be thought of as expedient and temporary, while their art-historical references and their formalist aesthetic play was seen as essential and permanent. This in turn functioned to deny that "the artist begins with an already existing aesthetic developed in the overlooked fringes of culture". (Crow, 251)

Contemporary postmodern society is so completely saturated with aesthetics (everything from TV to public administration, from marketing to legislation) that art cannot sustain this type of (modernist) meta-text. The modernist negotiation between high and low culture is by no means a defunct (albeit deconstructed) binary opposition under postmodernism. But rather it is an ever more intensely and openly declared process (no longer repressed or disguised) in a pluralist economy where identity (corporate and private) is increasingly a strategic positioning. Performance art, a major component of the Fringe Festival (and a major part of the current visual arts scene in Brisbane), focuses intensely on this moment of material aesthetic, making manifest the intensity of the relationship between artwork and audience (a sub-cultural seductiveness), while actively resisting the recuperative act of interpretation (the evaluations of high culture)-all this momentarily of course (meanwhile: the audience goes on to disengage and I or dismiss; criticism and documentation perpetuate and transmute the work). Thomas Crow traces the history of modernist practice from Impressionism onwards, as being intimately linked with the emergence of leisure and the fringe subcultures of controlled social life. The Fringe Festival's success was the utilisation of this after hours economy and the conscious intention to both imitate forms of popular middle class entertainment, and to create active collective spaces of resistance throughout the inner city. This latter effect was achieved through artworks which were obviously politically subversive. Mental Kultura was the opening program of the Fringe held at the Princess Theatre, Woolloongabba. This venue was used throughout the period of the festival for Fringe events only, operating as the festival's focal space, giving it autonomy. The Princess Theatre also contained the "Fringe Club", a cafe, and focus for the social exchanges and activities which surrounded the festival. By far the highlight of Mental Kultura was the short performance Ordeal by opera singer Valerie Tamblyn~ills. The work was a beautiful operatic solo performed by the artist who stood on stage barefoot and naked except for a skirt of black leather with crossing chest straps. Mid-way through the performance, as Valerie sang, "Wings wings wings" ever higher, she pulled the chest straps which released a set of black leather wings from her back. The performance achieved an extraordinary tension between the high art form of opera with its sepasublime aesthetic and the kitsch playfulness of the (batman) wings. The artist's large naked breasts erotically transfixed the performance and the audience while thoroughly undermining and re-writing the misogynist operations of masculinist spectacle.

Similarly the works of Chris Maver, Richard Perram, and Geoffrey Schmidt, drew upon forms of popular entertainment to articulate a gay male identity. Chris Maver's performance Venus Envy (accompanied by Marcus Hughes on piano) drew directly on the long tradition of drag-queen performance, relating material that was largely autobiographical. Richard Perram danced amateurishly across the stage during his performance Double Exposure, accompanied by music from Diamanda Galas, the New York City Gay Men's Chorus and Hans Peter Khun, and also by 'fashion' shots of Perram (projected above). This amateurish, ineffectual entertainment was followed by the artist stripping and pouring (imitation) blood over his naked body-a startling reminder of the AIDS crisis. The juxtaposition of Maver's and Perram' s acts (more powerful than either would have been on its own), created a moment of spectacle, suspending a gaze which both situates gay identity as 'other' (exotic) and renders it politically neutral and consumable.

Geoffrey Schmidt's work Description of a Kiss (performed with Ben Webster) consisted of the two artists crawling slowly towards each other on their bellies from opposite ends of an overhead beam, roped at the legs so that they never quite met, straining to kiss. Schmidt wore a head-dress of blue light bulbs which turned on at intervals throughout their short struggle . Schmidt's use of 'clunky' technology and 'primordial' body movements both described and undermined the 'primacy' of desire- "a kiss is just a kiss ... " gesturing across the cultural, historical and psychic layers which have produced (homo) sexual events and identities. The sound art performance Andy Warhol Live at the End of History by David Clarke and Kenneth Lyons, also held at the Princess Theatre as part of a separate Fringe event Re/Sound, also achieved a wonderful tension between the kitsch and sublime, sustaining a strong formal aesthetic in a theatrical space, with the effect of rewriting 'masculinity'.

These performances together with other politically charged works of Mental Kulturn (notably Nick Tsoutas' Welcome To Hell) were works of intense spectacle, which were at the same time able to maintain their own political agenda. They thoroughly challenged Baudrillardian/nihilistic notions of the passive impotence of spectacle which surrounded some debates of the early eighties.1 To return to my previous thoughts, there is no immanent quality in spectacle which renders it irremediably apolitical but rather political effects can only be considered when addressing the moment of context, artistic intention, audience reception, and so forth. The Princess Theatre became a focal point, for a short while, for a sector of the Brisbane 'art world', broadly speaking the politically left or fashionably alternate, but also a venue which was able to accommodate the heterogeneous communities of a metropolitan population (with a significant and regrettable absence of Murri involvement).

The Fringe program of performances held at the Queensland Art Gallery to accompany Surrealism: Revolution by Night retrieved surrealism and dada from their static historicity, institutional bracketing, middle class marketing, and revivified a provocative and political agenda. Which is also to revivify notions of the avant-garde. The Surrealist avant-garde is perhaps one of the most outstanding examples of mass cultural recuperation, "the appropriation of appositional practices upwards, the return of evacuated cultural goods downwards." (Crow, 258)

Breton and his companions had discovered in the sedimentary layers of earlier capitalist forms of life in Paris something like the material unconscious of the city, the residue of earlier repressions. But in retrieving marginal forms of consumption, in making that latent text manifest, they provided modern advertising with one of its most powerful visual tools that now familiar terrain in which commodities behave autonomously and create an alluring dreamscape of their own. (Crow, 257-258)

While crowds queued for an hour or more to get into the surrealist exhibition, performances took place in the main gallery areas, beside the queuesentertaining, unsettling, and embarrassing audiences while they waited (exposed to local contemporary performance art by default). People made a conscious effort to ignore Peggy Wallach's performance which was occurring a few feet away. The performance was entitled Roller Ball Baby ... Q. How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A . Milk bottles, hair-balls, fluores cent p{nk, mowed lawn! The artist dressed in a red velvet dress with one breast bared, limping in one high-heeled shoe, and face obscured by her black hair brushed forward, rolled hair balls over the gallery floor, repeating a phrase which echoed quite loudly around the water mall. The work was a parody of Surrealism's parody of femininity, a double entendre which was black and confrontational in its humour. The performance also referenced the works of Meret Oppenheim (of which only one was included in Revolution by Night).

The alienating effect which this performance had on a non-initiated audience is a 'traditional' avant-garde strategy. avant-gardism is, among other things, a social strategy by which artists both engage with and differentiate themselves from the contemporary field of cultural politics. However, such a dislocation cannot be understood outside the particular cultural, political, and economic conditions which make it possible.

Avant-gardism and modernist ideals developed only within certain metropolitan intellectual formations at particular stages in the history of the not-yet-stabilised capitalist states. These formations depended on metropolitan centres for their arenas of intervention, for their institutional bases, for their access to publicity and communications, and for the professional and leisure class audience which could support their activities. (Tagg, 161)

It is quite possible that at a point in Brisbane's history where it is developing rapidly, where it can command the budget and audiences for an exhibition such as Surrealism, that a local avant-garde is called to assert itself, as a reflex action of capitalist development. It could be that these artists are in the process of uncovering 'the material unconscious of [our] city', 'the residues of earlier repressions' . Jeremy Hynes, one of Brisbane's most interesting young performance artists, performed a work entitled Automaton on the main escalators of the gallery. Two suited men, one walking down the 'up' escalator and the other walking up the 'down' escalator, then proceeded to send objects up and down the escalators (black boxes, bricks, buckets, and wine glasses, in various combinations). This created a somnambulistic procession of objects, moving without effort in a dream-like state (reminding me as much of Dr Seuss' Fox in Sox as of Magritte). This work, like many of Hynes performances, was organised by a strong formalist aesthetic which moved far beyond the early conceptions of performance art as ephemeral and thereby necessarily or intrinsically anti-aesthetic. Hynes returns formalist aesthetics to the sensorial realm of performance and 'real' objects, collapsing a divide between painterly (pictorial) and gallery space and the theatrical spaces of popular culture.

The highlight of the Queensland Art Gallery performances was Luke Roberts' Beyond The Great Divide/Mama-Papa is Wounded. The performance consisted of Roberts, dressed as Pope Alice in full frock (with face masked and toting a giant wig), skipping and gently strolling around a large square sheet of plastic, accompanied by an amazing sound track (which sounded like excerpts of circus music), parading a stuffed kangaroo, blowing up a pouf, tapping on a gold shoe, and calling for "Frida"! Roberts' call for Frida was to protest the absence of works by Frida Kahlo in Revolution by Night as well as to build upon his many references to her in previous works. During the performance Roberts/Pope Alice flicked a switch on an air hose, causing the large plastic area to inflate, becoming a giant fair-ground jump castle, filling the entire Gallery 5 space. At the end of the performance as the castle deflated the giant clown (which it resembled) appeared to bow ceremoniously before the audience. The complex super-position of spaces-art historical, carnival, artistic, fantastic, ritualistic-in the real-time, real-space of performance, created a postmodern representation of history (of space / time) whilst remaining a thoroughly delightful, entertaining, and whimsical work. Roberts' work utilized those seemingly unsalvageable examples of kitsch (ones that have been through the capitalist recycling machine too many times-the Pope, the fairground, the stuffed toy, perhaps even Frida Kahlo) and allowed them to play, creating in the performative space, multiple subjectivities for the artist and audiences, utilising sexualities, cultural histories, and childhood pleasures not as guiding principles or limits, but as euphoric potentials. For those familiar with Roberts' work the meeting of Frida and Pope Alice was a truly touching moment as well as a grand celebratory public event. Roberts' merchandising of Pope Alice condoms in the Surrealist shop (and currently available in the Queensland Art Gallery bookstore) further testifies to this artist's ability to complicate and to critique notions of the avant-garde.

The theatre-based performance work, together with the site-specific installation work of the Fringe, effectively created an artistic geography, an economy of sites, in Brisbane city. Frankunwine, at the artist-run gallery Omniscient, transformed the entire four-storey building (and basement) into a fantastic stage set for a production of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein . Audience groups were given guided tours by Igor, and subjected to spectacles of hilarity and monstrosity akin to the old-fashioned horror show. Frenzy (written by local artist Fawnia Mountford and performed in an old Church hall in Fortitude Valley) was like a present day version of Frankenstein: extending Mary Shelley's original feminist critique of masculinity; disrupting thenarrative style; and focussing upon the physical realm to produce genuinely disgusting, frightening, and beautiful moments. The Contact Youth Theatre's production On The Line and Craig Walsh's Country Life Collection, used a city venue, in very different ways which involved not so much a transformation as an extension of a site, an extension of the aesthetic dimension, as well as the historical and contemporary social significances of the sites. On The Line (directed by Ludmilla Doneman and performed by young Brisbane women, including Murri women) was one of the most innovative and sophisticated examples of community theatre I have ever seen. The play was written (by Hilary Be a ton) in response to research into the lives of women who lived in the inner city suburb of Kelvin Grove. The play took the audience through the actual life of one of these women (who appeared in person at the end of the play to narrate the final lines in her own voice), as told I discovered by a group of broke and jobless girls who come to rent the house she had once owned. During the performance the actors spoke with the audience, and both actors and audience partook of the barbecue in the neighbouring yard. The dialogue which occurred between real lives and identities and fictional ones, real houses and yards and metaphoric or historic ones was profound. The woman's life story was narrated with sensitivity and with artistic sophistication enabling the popular genre of autobiography to retain (and even to extend) its space of authenticity without re-creating the vampiric culture of capitalism's commodification (Who's Who) or vicarious voyeurism (Hollywood Stars, the Royal Family, etcetera, to give extreme examples). Craig Walsh's installation was situated in a city demolition site which is temporarily being used as a car park. The facade of the original building has been preserved (supported by scaffolding) and the allotment is surrounded by semi-demolished brick walls. Walsh attached wooden frames to the decaying wall areas, and painted white the areas surrounding these frames-aestheticising the processes of demolition and decay; recovering the original aesthetic processes of building design (for example the old brick work); echoing and complementing the (City Council's) process of preserving the historic building facade. Users of the city car park were awakened to the aesthetic dimension of urban geographies, which shape consciousness, and to the binary political dimensions of continual destruction/reconstruction, profit/ recession, overdevelopment/underdevelopment which characterise the spatial logic of capitalism.

Craig Walsh's work (and also installations by Rod Spooner, whose works for the Fringe occupied a number of sites in the city area) made reference to the frame, the white wall, and a painterly aesthetic. This secondary referencing allowed a gallery I museum space to 'hover', 'spectrally' over Brisbane, as a floating signifier, m eta-textually announcing 'art' to a non-initiated public, while also announcing that the gallery I museum space is no longer the space but a space for contemporary practice. The questions being asked of contemporary artists are not so much how to sustain an appositional practice (in the 'traditional' position of the avant-garde) but rather how to formulate a (critical) practice, which 'cuts across' the whole hierarchical spectrum of the art economy and culture industry. As postmodern criticism has revealed, there are no positions 'outside' of relations of power, there are no languages apart from the available vocabularies, as avant-gardism moves from invention to intervention. Indeed, Cultural products and practices have significance precisely because of their place in that non-unitary complex of social practices and systems of representation which construct, invoke, maintain, or subvert the relations of domination and subordination in which social position and identity are produced. (Tagg, 167) The speakers at the Breathe Artists' Conference, held at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) and curated by Jay Younger, testified to the complexity of the postmodern cultural field, and to the explosion of opportunities for practice. Maria Kozic spoke about making her bill boards, film clips, her huge inflatable Blue Boy, and its translation into a plastic toy, as well as painting (including her exhibition of 'tits' which sold each painting by the weight!). Ex de Medici spoke about her previous career as a visual artist in photography and her current work as a tattooist (take or leave visual artist). Ex is now one of the few female tattooists in Australia (tattooing, in Australia, being controlled by the male-headed biker gangs). Designing over 90% of her tattoos herself (others are mostly collaborative efforts, still fewer are specific requests), she places her work of art directly onto the skin of her intimate audience of one, knowing that it is something they want (for that moment at least), lasting them a lifetime, and dying with them. The slides of the many tattoos, or tattooed people she has produced, directly continued Ex de Medici's previous work in photographic portraiture, serving as a documentary record of her work, but also enabling the transference of this work to another medium, context, and audience, and to a more complex circulation in an economy of representation. In an almost mirror reversal of Ex's journey from 'high art' to 'low' culture, Linda Dement described her earlier life experiences (direct and peripheral) of male dominated sub-cultural life (bikey gangs, prostitution, police), and her current work in computer- generated imagery, software design, and fiction writing. Dement taught herself computer skills in the same way she had to teach herself the mechanical care of her motorbike (men simply refused, not maliciously but deeming it unnecessary, to share their knowledge). For Dement, the computer is like a more intelligent bike. Having survived the violences of sub-cultural scenes, Dement has gone on to explore the manifestation of patriarchal violence at other levels of society and attempts to develop a subversive vocabulary. Her interactive computer work Typhoid Mary lies somewhere between a highly entertaining computer or fun parlour game and an extremely confrontational, disturbing, and intensely personal series of statements and images. This tension reflects both the violent and exhilarating life experiences of the artist, and the theoretical and political grasp she has of those experiences. The practices of Maria Kozic, Ex de Medici, and Linda Dement have made extraordinary leaps between high and low culture, the gallery and the game parlour, theory and practice, while maintaining a political/feminist agenda, and indeed illuminating the operations of hegemonic ideologies. At Breathe, this illuminated the need for appositional discourses such as feminism, socialism, black and gay politics, to become equally pluralist, multi-layered, and shifting.

The Brisbane representation at the Breathe conference consisted of presentations from two artist-run spaces, Isn't Studios and Omniscient Gallery, both of which have produced very interesting and lively work over the last couple of years. The presentations were disappointing and were surprisingly apolitical-displaying an ignorance of the history of artist-run spaces in Brisbane and of their own situation in the larger contemporary arts scene. It was also disappointing that Boulder Lodge (another artist-run space in Brisbane) did not participate. This space has managed to achieve a radical intermixing of local visual arts, rock music, performance, dance parties, and gay politics which is crucially re-positioning the role of the local avantgarde.

The Breathe conference also included a performance (and paper) by Basis (Melbourne based artists Danius Kesminas, and Andrew Lipsys) whose performance work consists of spot-fires (usually) in vacant city allotments (under strictly controlled conditions). Basis had originally attempted to gain legal access to the vacant allotment opposite the IMA but failed. The artists then designed a spotfire performance for the lot behind the IMA, which was cancelled by the IMA just prior to its scheduled staging. The artists then performed an unpaid event on the original site. This consisted of an arc of fire which burnt across quite a large open area, while the conference participants watched from the cancelled site across the road. There was a sense of exhilaration and intimacy among this gathered audience, followed by amused amazement, as we watched fire brigade and police arrive to inspect the harmless smouldering remains. The performance, of course, was not simply the spot fire event, but the processes of negotiation, which led up to it, dictating its final form, and the machinations of social surveillance, which it triggered. For me, this work summed up the contradictory desires of avant-gardism for artists and artsworkers in contemporary society: namely, trying to negotiate a better deal for politically subversive work. How to take our government funding and corporate sponsorship, fight for better pay and less exploitation of our labour on the one hand, and continue to push the boundaries of control, make gestures of opposition and radical subversion on the other. Acknowledging our complicity on the one hand, searching for alternatives on the other. To survive we need multiple personas (Pope Alices?), not in order to sponsor hypocrisy (though this is undoubtedly what it will do), but in order to negotiate on several levels, to establish alternative economies, to arrest the recuperative inertia of capital, to experience the euphoric potentials of postmodern culture.

 

notes: 

1. Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra", Simulations, trans.

Paul Foss and Paul Patton (Semiotext(e)-Foreign Agent series, New

York, 1983), 33-34. In fact Baudrillard's notion is that postmodern society

has moved beyond the passive society of spectacle, to a society

where everything has become 'spectralised' and there is no longer a

distinction between active and passive.

references

Thomas Crow, "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts",

Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (ed. Francis Frascina), London:

Harper & Row, 1985.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the

Avant-Garde, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

John Tagg "Postmodernism and the Born Again Avant-Garde", Grounds

of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field,

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Beth Jackson is Curator of the Griffith University Art Collection, Brisbane. ·