Tuning Fork

Shopfront
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art, Brisbane
19 – 23 and 26 – 29 November 2008

Allan Kaprow wrote in about 1960, ‘The young artist of today need no longer say “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer”. He is simply an “artist”. All of life will be open to him’.1 It is the last sentence that comes as a surprise. It would have been logical for him to say all of art will be open to that young artist working across different areas, because presumably all of life was already open to artists as subject matter. But Kaprow was making the point that advanced art of the time needed to break with what he called the ‘highly sophisticated habits’2 art contained, including the dependency ‘upon the conditions set down by the structure of the house’ as art’s ‘home base’.3

He goes on to list six rules-of-thumb for Happenings, events which he says take art in a new direction. In these rules-of-thumb and in the structure of architecture are the seeds of the performance Tuning Fork: Shopfront.

The work was developed by James Cunningham and Jondi Keane from observations, discoveries and decisions made about their interaction with the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art’s shopfront space during a residency there; the work-in-process was visible to those passing by outside on Brunswick Street. Using common construction materials and objects, such as carbon fibre rods, tape measures, doors, columns and carpenter’s snap lines as props, Cunningham and Keane continued to evolve the work from night to night during its run, as in turn this iteration of Tuning Fork grew out of a previous performance of these artists together, in another space.

On the back wall of the space was a score, also developed from night to night, for the performers to follow. It was made up of words that described their series of actions, such as: CURVES; STRAIGHTS; HERDING; KNEADING; PIANO; SKIMMING; WALKING VERTICAL DOORS; HI-LO STILLNESS; FORESTS; ROD CREATURE; WAVES; HEADS, etcetera.

At a glance Cunningham and Keane could have been renovators in the stripped shop space, perhaps getting ready to refit it, but a longer look confirmed that their intention lay elsewhere. The performance drew attention to the site in its present state, not to what it might become, or what it had been.

Each performer set up a sequence of apparently simple and habitual interactions between himself, the chosen props and the space. At the same time, they seemed to be testing their own observations and, especially in the case of Cunningham, testing the capacity and stamina of his body when he entered into situations of stretch or tension with one or more of the props and the space. For example, he found a balance point with a long flexible carbon fibre rod so that he and the rod relied on each other to hold their mutual curved shape for some time. His interaction with the rod seemed both cooperative and competitive; his stillness had the visual effect of making him another one of the props.

Keane was usually more playful in setting up situations with the props to see what they could do and how he might prompt audience perception of the measure of the architecture. For example, he extended a number of metal tape measures, hooking the ends into small holes and other imperfections left over from previous manifestations of the space. These were high in the wall or ceiling, allowing the weight of each tape hanging down to hold itself in place.

Each performer was intent on his own investigations. For the audience this had the effect of dispersing attention to the relationships between objects/actions/environment. It was obvious, however, that at any time each was also aware of the actions of the other and they did cooperate for some moves: at one point Keane, after considered observation, came to Cunningham’s assistance when the prop—a column-turned-beam—apparently pinned him to the floor. Sometimes their actions took polar opposite positions that referred to the space, for example in HI-LO STILLNESS.

There was nothing theatrical about this performance. What could have been a theatrical moment, when Keane climbed with practised ease in two steps to the top of a door he had leaned against an I-beam, was negated by his balancing on the door and holding that position for as long as he was able (a long time!) while as counterpoint Cunningham was lying flat on the floor under a shelter of other leaning doors. What it gave us, as audience, was a measure of the span between the artists, and the sense of being suspended somewhere between their two locations and ours, conscious of the stretch across space.

Sound was an important element over all. There were tilting welcome boards for viewers to walk on as they entered or exited the space, adding to the sounds of performance. Sound was always the direct evidence of how something was manipulated, for example, gathering (HERDING) and sorting out the rods by rolling them back and forth on the floor (KNEADING), running tape measures or walking doors across the space. PIANO was an extraordinary segment of the performance when Cunningham and Keane performed a ‘duet’ of sounds made by rods when they were skimmed along the floor and bounced off the base of a particular section of wall.

Many people would have caught a glimpse of the performance as they walked past the three large windows of the shopfront space in the early evening. Some stopped to watch for quite a while; many took a long look but continued on. In fact it may have been the audience inside sitting near the back of the space and facing the street that people on the footpath caught sight of first, then looked to see what was being watched.

From the perspective of those inside, passing foot traffic and cars on the street added another layer and measure of pace to the performance. There may have been audience members who stayed for the whole three hours on a particular night, but as it was a durational performance and people were encouraged to arrive and leave as they wished, seeing the whole piece was not the point—although longer viewing did allow for greater accumulation of layered perceptions. On the other hand, the steady time of the performance was condensed to just a few minutes by its being recorded and projected as time-lapse video at the end of each hour.

Kaprow’s last rule-of-thumb for Happenings and breaking with art habits referred to audiences being integrated into performances. Several art generations down the track from the 1960s, Cunningham and Keane set up a number of audience options, and Tuning Fork pricked at habits of viewing that arise from expectations that a performer’s body will be fore-grounded over the space of performance, and from everyday preoccupations with internal awareness.

notes: 

1. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell, Oxford, 2003, p.717.
2. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, ibid., p.717.
3. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, ibid., p.718.