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Without the safety net of definition

John Bailey: FOLA: Festival of Live Art

Bryony Kimmings and Taylor, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, photo courtesy the artist Bryony Kimmings and Taylor, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, photo courtesy the artist
One of the biggest challenges facing the organisers of the upcoming Festival of Live Art (FOLA) in Melbourne is defining the damned thing. Many of the artists in the festival don’t even use the term to describe their work, and those who do can’t seem to agree on what it really stands for. In other areas this might be a worrying matter, but when it comes to live art it suggests a festival which will be constantly questioning its own limits. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

“We began the whole process by getting a whole bunch of artists in a room and having a discussion about what live art is,” says Arts House Creative Producer Angharad Wynne-Jones. “And no one could agree. We tried to at least set some parameters about what it isn’t, and I think at one point we went well, it’s not a three-act play, and then even that was disputed.”

FOLA will be presented by Arts House, St Kilda’s Theatre Works and Footscray Community Arts Centre, the first time the three organisations have worked together. Given live art’s relative outsider status in Australia, it’s unlikely that such a festival could have been produced by one venue alone. The term was coined in the UK in the mid-1980s and the rise there of many bodies such as the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) has meant that a large community of art-makers has come together under the same banner. In Australia the scene is far more fragmented, isolated, but perhaps also more diverse as a result.

“It feels to me like the Australian artists engaged in that kind of practice have got a relationship with (UK live art) history and certainly they collaborate and connect internationally all the time, but they’re working in a broader context,” says Wynne-Jones. “There are connections into Asia that change the way we might think about live art, and within Indigenous Australia, things we might think about ritual and relationships to the body that are quite different to the UK context.”

FOLA works appearing at Arts House include Tristan Meecham’s large-scale Game Show, in which contestants vie for a prize pool consisting of every possession the artist owns; Sam Routledge and Martyn Coutts’ interactive drama set in a miniature railway and township; and Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan’s Nothing to See Here, wherein Arts House patrons around the North Melbourne Town Hall and Meat Market will be dispersed, willingly or otherwise with “techniques police use to break up protests” (FOLA program).

The emergence of the festival was a serendipitous one for Theatre Works. Creative producer Daniel Clarke had already brought on live art practitioner Dan Koop to help develop a program named Encounters which would explore the possibilities of one-on-one and micro-audience performance. When talks about FOLA commenced, that program naturally wove itself into the larger festival. The Theatre Works season will include a work by choreographer Nat Cursio held in her own living room —there are only 10 tickets available for the entire season. Other works see audiences of one sharing a bed with cabaret artist Yana Alana, or investigating intimacy in the age of Skype with Melanie Jame Wolf, or else subjecting themselves to experiences of very real terror in Kelly Alexander, Jodie Ahrens and Melanie Hamilton’s Fright.

Fright stands out among the overall FOLA program, since much live art in Australia takes a generous, expansive or collaborative approach to audience-artist relations. Not that it’s all hugs and flowers, but it’s rare to find a work that delves into physically threatening territory.

“I did the development and I found it pretty full on,” says Clarke. “I was terrified at some moments, like physically afraid.” “It plays on a physical sense of fear,” says Koop, “an emotional sense of fear, a social sense of fear. In that same way that something that’s uncomfortable in a conversation can make you blush and laugh. It wasn’t all shrieking and pulling my hair out, there was awkwardness as fear as well. And self-exploration as fear, self-knowledge as fear.”

Theatre Works will also present performance artist Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, in which Kimmings and her nine-year-old niece Taylor develop a better icon for the contemporary tween. “There’s also a large part of Bryony’s work that doesn’t happen on the stage,” says Clarke. “This character that is the role model, Catherine Bennett, now goes out to schools and runs assemblies with tweens. She’s made pop songs, there’s a doco about her. The show is one part of this art project and it’s just sort of snowballing.” It’s an example of the way British live art occupies a broader space than the moment of presentation.

Melbourne-based performance maker and teacher Leisa Shelton is presenting an archive of Live Art Development Agency video during the festival as well as a work that seeks to “map” our memories of pivotal moments in Australian live art. Both Arts House-based investigations are attempts to rethink the idea of documentation in relation to a mode of art-making that is deeply concerned with the live moment.

Footscray Community Arts Centre’s CEO Jade Lillie is taking an equally interrogative approach to the festival. The venue is one grounded in community and socially engaged practices, and for some time she questioned how live art could contribute to these.

“For us it’s a playful way to look at what live art is in a community-engaged context,” she says. “We’re interested in questions like ‘who does a Festival of Live Art speak to?’ Sometimes my feeling is that live art practice often speaks to itself, or audiences that reflect the artist. I’m not particularly interested in that in our context.”

FCAC will host a forum addressing such questions as well as a masterclass with Lenine Bourke. Performance poet Alia Gabres will be recreating her grandmother’s traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony and both sharing and creating new stories live, and Triage Live Art Collective’s Strange Passions will see strangers swapping their own tales while rendered anonymous by masks.

Beth Buchanan, I Know That I Am Not Dead Beth Buchanan, I Know That I Am Not Dead
photo Andrew Sully
Appearing at Arts House will be post’s Mish Grigor, Paul Gazzola (artist, curator Temporary Democracies, RT117), James Berlyn (see RT118), Malcolm Whittaker, Emma Beech (RT115), Nicola Gunn with Triage Live Art Collective, Julie Vulcan (RT116), Jason Maling, Sarah Rodigari (ex-Panther), and Lois Weaver, independent artist for 25 years and lecturer in Contemporary Performance at Queen Mary University of London. Weaver is currently Artistic Director of the Air Project, an Arts Council of England-funded initiative that nurtures and sustains established Live Art practitioners and emerging artists in the UK.

Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model will play at Theatre Works 25 March -6 April. EDs

Arts House, Theatre Works, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Festival of Live Art, 14-30 March

The full festival program is online at

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 41

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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