Image: Artwork – Branch Nebula

It was a brave act to tread the delicate line between fine art and the abyss of banality.  But it paid off for Mirabelle Wouters and Lee Wilson of Branch Nebula in their latest production Artwork.

I can just imagine the grant application, assuming there was one: So what we propose is to place an advertisement online to lure random applicants to the theatre, where we will induce them to perform in front of a live audience. They don’t need any particular skills, actually we’d prefer it if they didn’t have any, just a willingness to front the public and do as they’re told.

Sounds far-fetched doesn’t it? I mean who are these dimwits who would pay to see such a thing?

I am fortunate to be such.

In a time where everyone is vying for their 15 minutes of fame, where movies and concerts have a stellar line-up of big names with no surnames and you’re nobody if you’re not trending or amassing more than a hundred likes in half an hour, it is refreshing to see a performance without the mandatory front man (or woman); to acknowledge the consummate skill in machination behind-the-scenes.

Don’t be duped into thinking this was a show lacking in expertise. Phil Downing, the sound designer, created a superb atmosphere transforming everyday accoutrements into individual sonic contributions.  This ranged from stretching and replicating the high ting chink of glass as it bumps next to its neighbour after being assigned a respective tonal value as it’s carefully filled with water, to the irregular long note of an amplified bucket traversing the stage in successive sweeping circles. The cavernous space was made to feel alternately distant and immediate, foreign and intimate.

This was enhanced by Sean Bacon’s video design, consisting of a live feed, remixed and DJ’d on three large projection surfaces, differing in scale and proximity from the spectator. The images were temporally overlapping and texturally overlayed upon one another, with the aid of a huge scrim almost spanning the width of the seating bank, initially separating us from them.

The choreography was evident in the manipulation of the space in tandem with the production values, heightened by its perceived absence.

As a performer I was envious of the vulnerability laid bare, exposed and magnified in the furtive glances, in the nervous fidgeting evident in uncontrolled shifts in weight, and above all, the earnest gaze reaching and touching each seated voyeur. Each performative ‘mistake’ was transposed into an opportunity of/for the poetry in fragility, in classic filmic close-up. Over the last 30 years I have lost and attempted to recapture this elusive quality and appreciate the dramaturgical skill, the collaborative effort in the apprehension of it.

Art really is cyclical, recycled and re-used, re-purposed and re-packaged for successive generations. A few years back it was all about community involvement, financial incentives were bandied about in correlation to the quantity of pedestrian engagement (think the big duck on parade in the harbour). Then Senator Brandis announces his homage to exclusivity in financial awards for acts of ‘excellence’. Artwork reminds me of the burgeoning postmodernist movement, of the protest performances, the No Manifesto, of Action theatre, Fluxus, of Rauschenberg, Cage, Rainer and Ono (Yoko).

A couple of years ago Jane McKernan and Gail Priest collaborated on a project titled One Thing Follows Another, presented by Performance Space at Carriageworks. I remember how refreshing the experience felt. In it they quoted Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto and subsequently proceeded to enact its purpose: To revolutionise dance and reduce it to its essential elements.* In it they juxtaposed arbitrary actions across disciplines; made cakes, drew lines and counted with intermittent audience involvement. Who would’ve thought that they were possibly anticipating the need to revisit a time in reaction to the jeopardy of cultural complacency?

Artwork was a timely event about testing, teetering on the brink in reaction to caution, conservatism and the status quo.  It fills me with hope and certainty that when situations seem at their most dire, they are actually imbued with the greatest potential.


– by Vicki Van Hout