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Imagine the Brisbane Powerhouse's main theatre with the seating removed. lt is a rather voluminous, rectangular expanse. At one end, a steel and white installation containing uncanny constructions and at the other end a white screen with a shadow on it. In between, the flat stage is set for an orchestra. In such a dramatic room, strangely, the shadow is the first thing I notice, partly because it is moving. lt is the shadow of a cicada cast to enormous disproportion and whose wings flutter occasionally. I wonder what chaos will be born of those beating wings.
The installation produced by Per lnge Bjorlo occupies half the space and the orchestra occupies the other half. There is a blurred distinction between these composite parts. As I enter an usher hands me a rectangle of white felt to sit on, to soften the blow of steel seats. I can sit anywhere I like and move around during the performance. Comprised of an orderly series of rows of primarily seating, the audience is 'accommodated' by and in strange architectures. While sitting in rows is all too familiar, the architecture has changed. The first row is comprised of small steel cage type structures: they are like bus shelters with gridded mesh that contains a steel bench. In fact this is the same type of bench that many seats in public spaces are now made of, vandal proof and designed to ensure that no one ever sits for too long. In the second row, sheets of translucent fabric are hung between benches. Sitting here, people cast spectral shadows across the white fabric. The third row contains two rows of steel benches for one person. The couplets are separated by a row of glass and steel sculptures. In the fourth row, two benches run parallel to the side walls of the hall and flat round metal sculptures sit on the floor.
Blinding white lights are strategically positioned throughout this uncomfortable and inhospitable place. While the lights cause even greater discomfort as they burn my eyes during my wanderings around the dark and light room, stark shadows and distortions abound. They also prompt restlessness among the audience, and people begin to wander, seeking more accommodating positions. The stage cannot be fully seen from any single vantage point, necessitating movement for those who want to see everything. Enter the conductor Christian Eggen who takes his position on an elevated central podium resembling the control centre of a factory or a building site. He can probably see every part of the space and every member of the audience. As expected, he has his back to the audience but also to another cage where the sound artist and mixer are contained.
From this arrangement of the space, some rather unpleasant associations have emerged: surveillance, panopticon, institutions. Situated between an insect's shadow and this punishing architecture, the orchestra is comprised of musicians from Norway's Cikada Ensemble and Brisbane-based Elision. The literal arrangement of the in-between has not escaped my reading of this collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.
True to its title, Dark Matter is an exploration of the universe which is predominantly non-luminous. Dark matter is only detectable from its gravitational effects on other types of matter. In pursuing this cosmological inquiry, UK composer, Richard Barrett, together with Bjorlo and Eggen, considered religious, artistic and scientific constructions of knowledge. Dark Matter's intense musical works, like the installed environment itself, are demanding and insist on the audience's involvement/expenditure. They are layered, drawing from a variety of sources including Samuel Beckett and mythological, philosophical and renaissance texts. The compositions are highly structured and purposely symmetrical presenting a variety of binarisms, distortions and narrative trajectories. In the program notes, Barrett explained that several recurrent motives are used: formal repetition, symmetrical structures including canons and palindromes, and processes of augmentation and diminution applied to intervals and durations. Several electronic sound pieces assembled remarkable sounds and ruminations. These rapid works, particularly the last piece, were like codes which called for a cipher to break down and negotiate their alien soundscape.
With reference to Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari write, 'to every relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness grouping together an infinity of parts, there corresponds a degree of power'.[i] Through this orchestration of the space and the seemingly forced urge to move around, the members of the audience produce their own performance becoming acutely aware of others' motions and wanderings. It's a slow moving dance where individuals circle, follow and avoid each other to get a better view. Many performances, planes and desires combine and intersect to produce Dark Matter. The audience's movements and engagement with the installation and the fluttering shadow of the cicada are as much performance as the orchestra and composer's sonorous presentation.
[i] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (trans. Brian Massumi), University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p.256.