These are some notes from a two-week residency Forest Fringe created in Melbourne in September 2017, with Melbourne Fringe and the Substation. On this occasion Forest Fringe were represented by myself, Deborah Pearson and Mish Grigor, and we worked with local Melbourne-based artists Shian Law, Stuart Bowden and Zarnie Morcombe (Plastic Loaves).
Don’t Bother, it’s gone.
The rooftop of the carpark is a wide and grey and serenely empty, and this and the bright sunshine lend our walk across it a cinematic grandeur, as if we see can see each other in slow motion. The walk from the elevators propels you towards the nearest edge and from there you can see what might best be described as ‘everything’ – the railway station, the river, the mosaic of orange and blue shipping containers stacked and rowed like some stickle brick cityscape, and beyond it the actual cityscape of Melbourne’s CBD, its battery of towers reflecting the vivid blue autumn sky.
This rooftop is one of the first places we come to in Footscray, and we will return here on several occasions over the following days. What is it that draws us back here? Is it perhaps an attempt to find a clear view of the city, both literally and figuratively? From here it all appears to be moving so slowly and gracefully, a clockwork city made of finely wrought and shimmering parts. I’m reminded of Michel De Certeau, stood at the top of the world trade centre and gazing down on Manhattan, a city ‘cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American’, caught in the voluptuous pleasure of ‘“seeing the whole,” of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts.’
To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp.
Here on the roof of the carpark we are not quite 11o floors up, but we are lifted up above the noise and detritus below, seduced into believing we can take it all in, that we can make sense of the city, or even just that the city makes sense.
But each ascent to the seductive clarity of the rooftop is followed by a return to reality of the city below. The elevator doors open and we are back in Footscray market, buffeted by the smells, jostled by busy shoppers, a cacophony of sounds swilling around us. Here, at street level, the city is messy and chaotic, a riot of colour and languages and places of contested meaning. From this perspective, goods and people no longer appear to move in and out of the city like clockwork, instead they spill up like tidewrack, washed in and washed away again.
There is no way to see the whole city, and anyway it won’t stay still long enough for us to even try, so instead we try and make a record of the changes. We tell each other stories of the about places and people that weren’t here before, and places that were once here but have now disappeared. Two anonymous vagrants who died in a warehouse fire. An arcade-themed burger bar that appeared almost overnight, wrapped in brown paper like an unwanted gift from some slicker, more affluent future. We go in search of an abandoned swimming pool, peering through a crack in the metal fencing when a voice from across the road yells at us some seemingly well-rehearsed advice. ‘Don’t bother’ he says, ‘it’s gone.’
Don’t bother. It’s gone.
We have it engraved on a small copper plaque by a man in the Highpoint mall. Our plan is to install it on the rooftop carpark as part of a performance, a DIY ritual of arrivals and displacements and disappearances, looking out on the city and the port in all its relentlessness. Before we can do so however, we are interrupted by car park security who politely ask us all to leave. The plaque sits on a table in our accommodation for another week and then is cleared away with the rest of the rubbish.
Don’t bother. It’s gone.
A theatre of dreams
Newport Lakes is a large square nature reserve, 33 hectares of peaceful woodland made-up almost entirely of species alien to Victoria imported cheaply from other parts of the country and planted on rolling hills of buried toxic garbage around a flooded former quarry. It is a place that is easy to disparage as something false and euphemistic, a thin layer of borrowed green to disguise poisoned and pillaged land, a papering over of historic trauma in the hope of avoiding its reckoning. But as we are standing by the lakeside in the spring sunshine, this is not what we are thinking about. We are only looking out across the water, watching the swans moving in elegant spirals, happy to be away from the city, lost in the tranquillity of this artificial retreat.
If the carpark and the market below it became a kind of motif for our week spent in Footscray, then the lakes serve the same purpose for our week in Newport – a place around which our ideas are both literally and figuratively organised. Not only are we are seduced by their apparent rural calm after a week of urban hustle, the Lakes also serve as a curious kind of mirror to our cavernous new home for the week at the Substation. Both are former industrial sites repurposed and transformed as part a wider attempt at social regeneration in the area, both theatres of very different kinds, one a vast cultural edifice, the other a simulacrum of wilderness replete with prop plants and a pretend lake; and for the entirety of our week there both are almost totally empty and disconcertingly quiet.
The shift in our approach this relocation necessitates is apparent almost from the beginning of the week. Whereas in Footscray the performances we made were tentative interventions into the complex reality of the city, in Newport we are undoubtedly working in (a) theatre; its fictions, its artifice and the decidedly unreal environments it precipitates. Or put simply, if the first week was about what kind of theatre we can make in the city, the second week became about what kind of city we can make in the theatre.
There is an event score by the artist Ken Friedman that I have loved ever since I was introduced to it, which reads in its entirety:
Imagine a life.
The theatre I’m interested in always exists audaciously in that white gap between the two instructions. It refuses to be one thing or another, constantly slipping under the curtains of traditional theatre and out into the world whilst never wholly abandoning the kind of fictions dreamt up there in earnest pursuit of authentic reality. A theatre that begins safely in the imaginary and then quietly calcifies itself into something more solidly real. Perhaps the final aim of such magical thinking is a fiction that is totally realised enough to live inside of. A dream that theatre changes this world by creating an entirely new one.
Imagine a world.
I am ready to believe in a way of making theatre so compelling that it becomes a way of living life, just as I am ready to be seduced by the beauty of a natural world that is made out of foreign trees planted on a rubbish tip. Both seem to me to be convictions born out of hope, that there is a world outside of capitalism, that we can do better than we are currently doing, that we can mend the mess we have created.
As with the car park in the previous week, we both begin and end the week at the Lakes. On our final day, we ask all the participants in our day of action to walk with us to the Lakes and bring something back with them to our base at the substation to serve as the material out of which three short performances will be made. Perhaps we imagine this to be a hopeful way to start the day, and it is, to some extent, but amidst the twigs and leaves that they collect they carry back with them something more unsettling. As we reconvene at the Substation there is amongst the woodland detritus a question in the room, about power and ownership and belonging. And as we tease at it there is a shared recognition that these Lakes are not simply a generous and optimistic gift to the neighbourhood; that their presence is shaped and underpinned by relationships of power and control that are not immediately apparent, in which our pleasure serves an economic and political agenda. And as much as any physical that we have brought back with us, this unsettling feeling, these opaque agendas, these relationships of power and control, become the material of the performances we make.
Each performance is semi-improvised and the action directed through a set of rules or structures which are understood by the performers but concealed from the audience. As such in each the attempt to create an immersive theatrical world for the audience (a life imagined and then lived) is problematised through an imbalance of power. Shian and Stuart impose a set of strict choreographic rules on their ensemble that structure the performance, to the extent that they do not reveal their real names to each other until the final moments of the performance, Deborah and Mish begin with the audience outside of the performance space, the curtains closed, so that initially at least, we can hear but not see what is taking place inside, and Myself and Zarnie create a dinner party in which the waiting staff’s unrelenting attention quickly turns the performance of servility into a game of power.
From a quiet walk around a Lake and the gentle entreaty to bring something back to the theatre, the day has unexpectedly transformed into a fractured meditation on the problem of the imaginary, and who it is that gets to do the imagining, inside the theatre and out in the real world. And as in the previous week, buried deep in the soil of all of this is a question of belonging – who gets to belong, and what are the stories we tell to make us believe so? In the context of a residency that brings people from the UK to Australia, it is a question that is hauntingly resonant.