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The power of the outsider

Urszula Dawkins: Tamara Saulwick

Tamara Saulwick, Endings (2015) Tamara Saulwick, Endings (2015)
photo Heidrun Löhr
The more I converse with Tamara Saulwick about her work, the more we seem to be exploring sinuous lines of content mapped onto an unchanging axis of form—wavering through a variety of ‘threshold spaces’ that remain firmly fastened to her abiding concern with the mediatised body.

From her first major independent piece, Pin Drop (RT99, p43; RT111, p40), through an audio walk, Seddon Archives, to PUBLIC’s re-imagining of the Highpoint shopping centre food court (RT119, p42), and most recently, Endings (RT125, p15), Saulwick’s work moves across borders between fleshy and technical, intimate and public, interior and exterior: highlighting edges and end-points that are ultimately framed in terms not of opposition, but connection.

Before turning our attention to the works, though, we check voice recorder levels and glance back at Saulwick’s early career, grounded in studies at both Victoria College—and the John Bolton Theatre School. Collaboration was crucial to her training, Saulwick says, and at both institutions she worked with groups of women:

“When I first saw My Darling Patricia it reminded me of us—women who were interested in multiple disciplines because we’d been trained in multiple disciplines, and in [exploring] those languages together. Both of those training institutions were really about devising, and devising is essentially a collaborative activity.”

After many years working on independent collaborations and with companies including Born in a Taxi and Not Yet It’s Difficult, a VCA Master’s degree in animateuring allowed Saulwick to explore “what I would make if I wasn’t working in a cooperative or a company.” The resulting performance, Map Folding for Beginners, was her first solo exploration of the interplay between live and mediated body and voice:

“I was working with a lot of video, but I was also working with sound…there were multiples of me—these video and audio versions of me—and I became interested in how they could start to inhabit the space together.”

With Pin Drop Saulwick moved away from herself as subject, focusing on real-life stories of fear, and weaving 11 recorded voices with her own verbatim retelling and splintering of narratives. Technically and dramaturgically precise—Saulwick tells me it was timed to the second—Pin Drop was “the first time I decided to take a clear theme and work with it…and do the thing that I love doing, which is about how to refract that and bust it up through the way the themes are rendered formally.” All of the voices in Pin Drop were female—a creative decision that helped focus the work, rather than a feminist choice.

“I subsequently thought I could make a Pin Drop 2 with male voices; that would be really interesting as a companion piece, because I think those issues are as relevant to men, but the threat resides in a slightly different psychological space.”

Tamara Saulwick, Pin Drop Tamara Saulwick, Pin Drop
photo Patrick Rodriguez
We move from Pin Drop to Seddon Archives: Saulwick explains how her interest in human/media interaction continued in that work, even as the thematic trajectory shifted from interior/personal to social/outward. An audio walk for one, Seddon Archives took participants around suburban streets, listening to local stories while also encountering a blend of “the real and the not real.”

“We intentionally used the kind of headphones that allow quite a lot of sound to bleed in, so there was this constant slippage in what you were hearing…the pre-recorded and the live can bounce up against one another and enliven each other in that place of slippage. All the incidental things are potentially sitting within the artistic frame, so people start to read things into it. They would say things like, ‘How did you get those people doing all that stuff with bubbles at that time?’”

The impact of such random moments reached a peak, for me, with PUBLIC, in which the real-live food court setting bled continuously, and magically, into a scripted performance by four actors. Saulwick consciously utilised this capacity of the space to contribute to the work—she calls it “planning for serendipity.” “There are things that you know could possibly happen, because the work has grown out of that site—but it’s also the beautiful power of audiences…the connections are happening in them, in their imaginations. They’re constructing it.”

PUBLIC also crafted a heightened awareness of the environment; Saulwick elaborates on how she views technology’s potential in this regard:

“Sometimes technologies can be seen as alienating devices, and headphones as antisocial, separating us from the world; but technology can facilitate or mediate experiences of people becoming really present and connected to the moment and the place they find themselves in, and the people in that place.”

Through all these works, collaboration has remained key to Saulwick’s process: she stresses the need to acknowledge creative contributors including Peter Knight, Ben Cobham, Luke Smiles and others. “Light and sound are really deeply embedded into the construction of each work—so those collaborators are really involved in building things with me from the ground up.”

One of the things we grapple with in our conversation is the notion of Women+Performance: I feel keenly that female creators (or women in any field) walk a fine line in discussing their work from a feminist standpoint, always risking the shift in focus from their achievements to their status as women, or their politics. For Saulwick, addressing gender or feminist themes directly has not been a driver of her work, but in a sense “managing to keep making work as an independent artist, as a woman, leading my own projects—is a positive thing to put out there… I certainly know that I’ve always looked to the small handful of women who manage to continue to do that.”

If anything, the position of outsider, as an independent artist, is one that Saulwick identifies with more strongly. I hear echoes of Kate Davis and Emma Valente’s comments (Women+Performance 4: The Rabble; RT117, p28), when she points out that “as an outsider you can make whatever you want really, no one cares what you do. If they think it’s good then you’re given the opportunity to show it to some people, and that leads to other opportunities and conversations, and then you come into those on your own terms.”

With Saulwick’s latest work, Endings, the winding through-line from Pin Drop’s personal focus to PUBLIC’s outward gaze turns back towards intimate space, skirting the most unknowable of thresholds: that between life and death. “Even more of a sound piece than Pin Drop,” Endings explores death and the notion of the afterlife in a performance built around recorded voices and Saulwick’s own reflections and questionings. It is dependent on a cast of ageing analogue devices: record players and reel-to-reel tape machines. “It’s a bit like a calling to the dead, really, and so it resonates with all the metaphors that sound evokes, of transmission and signals and antennae and reception and decay.”

We bring our conversation to a close with Endings. I am yet to see it, but sense it as an accumulation of Saulwick’s interest in humans and our technological mediators, brought to the brink in more ways than one.

“I think the thing that became of interest to me is the way that this extraordinarily pragmatic and physical world of bodies and life support and sinews and lungs pushes up against these bizarre poetic or mystical or spiritual spaces around that time [of death]. And in terms of a theme in my work, it’s about connection, and so it’s conjuring it through these redundant technologies that are all kind of wheezing their way. You know, they’re all on the verge of death, the tape machines and the record players we use. Every night it’s like, ‘Will they turn on?’, ‘Will the tape just get chewed up?’ it’s very unnerving, but it feels like it’s so resonant with the material itself.”

Tamara Saulwick, Endings, Arts House, Melbourne, 13–17 May

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 31

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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