S.J Norman: The River’s Children, & Take this, for it is my body. In Melbourne Festival at Dancehouse

S.J Norman. This weekend. In Dancehouse at Melbourne Festival. That’s enough links. No excuses. Get your arse there.

S.J, or Satan-Jam, my meeting of whom last year I’ve described in eloquent, sweary detail (it’s all true, I swear! It’s why I blog, external memory storage an’ all), is in Melbourne. Right now! How privileged are you, Melbz? Get over your smug selves and get to Dancehouse this weekend, or Friday if you’re down with premières, before 17h — that’s 5pm to youse — for 2 hours of harrowment.

To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s 17h for the installation and 19h for the performance, and if both works are on each day, or … mainly because Dancehouse and Melb Fest websites are making my brain bleed. Probably best to camp out on Princes St from Thursday, just to be safe.

S.J Norman. Brilliant work, brilliant-er person, two works: The River’s Children and Take This, For It Is My Body. Go on, go and read about them.

In all non-hyperbolic seriousness, I can’t speak highly enough of them. For the past year — when they’ve been in Berlin — I’ve had crucial, on-going discussions with them around identity, selfhood, making performance, representation (as well as epic slamming of telly series), racism, colonialism, diaspora (geographical and within one’s own body), Australia in all its ambivalence; also “What’s the best music for Mad Gainz, Frances?” “That’d be ’80s speed and death metal, crossover and thrash.” type conversations about training and physicality. Really some of the best convos I’ve had in years. (They also stepped up and were on the sharp pointy rivet of the Marina Abramovic racism a couple of months ago.)

So, as if it’s not obvious enough, Frances “Hostile To Everything” d’Ath (seriously, that’s what another awesome Australian said about me, “… in a good way though …”) is a huge fan of S.J. Go see them, say hi from me.

it’s all about the money

Slagging match of the week goes to Melbourne Festival vs. The Media, wherein Robin Usher tries to sound a rhetorical question and get us all wondering, “Hey, yeah, maybe the Melbourne festival has lost its touch.”

Is this shifty journalism trying to find an angle to cut down contemporary arts in Melbourne and put the big companies — Oz Ballet, Opera, and Melbourne Symphony — back in their rightful place as the upholders of culture? I’m not a great fan of Kristy Edmunds, the current Melbourne Festival director who, it was announced last week has been given and “unprecedented fourth year”. She does go for contemporary work, but I feel in the manner of a shopper, contemporary as commodity, and she isn’t really exerting herself in finding anything outside the safe avant garde. That is to say, if the rest of the world wasn’t raving about Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, and they hadn’t already been at Australian festivals this millennium, I’m not sure how probable it is Southbank would have been graced by the sound of falling truncheons.

It’s programming based on prior box office, support of the contemporary by relying on publicists’ copy rather than finding stuff on your own and be willing to say, “I think this is good art, even if no one else knows what I am talking about, and I’m willing to look like an idiot and take a beating in the press in my support of it”.

Though contra this, the international apprehension of a nation’s art is based on the commodification from within of a body of culture as representative of that nation, so from Taiwan we always see Cloudgate, even though within Taiwan there was a surprisingly low opinion of the company, and thus for an outsider to find interesting stuff not on the menu, and for there to be the funding and support to get this stuff to festival … it’s usually easier to go with Cloudgate.

Comparing Edmunds’ efforts with the execrable neo-colonial antics of Jonathon Mills, she at least is looking outside the cultural snobbery that often comes with festivals. Both though, and this is a general annoyance for me for Melbourne Festival seem to think art comes from Europe and its descendants, is of a certain size and weight (i.e. medium to large companies), and there is a striking lack of engagement with Asia, by which I mean everything east of Pakistan, south of Mongolia and north of Antarctica. The inclusion of plenty of Japan stuff, coming on the end of two interminable years of Australia-Japan-Art-Freundschaft in my mind doesn’t count, for the same reason touring Cloudgate from Taiwan doesn’t.

But Robyn Usher’s extra-suss controversy-mongering and reductionist bottom-line dollar-dollar-bill-y’all art-as-finance in The Age is disingenuous.

A few days ago also, dance reviewer Hillary Crampton remarked, “Ideally such debates should take place in the mainstream media, but sadly they do not, owing to the lack of commitment by publishers to cultural debate”. The context of this, within a commentary on critics vs. artists becomes another mediocre ‘old vs. new media’ trope or ‘blogs vs. newspapers’. When the critical and intellectual position of the arts in mainstream Australia is represented by people like Robin Usher and Andrew Bolt, why should such debates take place where these pseudo-critics get a paycheck for intellectually feeble drooling?

More importantly though is the assumption that such debates find a natural home in traditional media. It’s been a long time since I have paid more than cursory attention to the arts columns in old media. Even RealTime, which is by far the best arts periodical in Australia suffers from press-release-plus-advertisement-as-journalism. It is impossible to engage with old media without the suspicion of being on the receiving end of manipulated publicity, and there is a singular untrustworthiness in mainstream media that precludes exactly this presence of integrity.

Or to regard it from the perspective of a debate, old media is bereft of dialogue in any meaningful respect. A review, opinion piece, column, whatever, is a statement in which response is not part of the deal. Does the inclusion of a ‘have your say’ pretend-blog comments box at the bottom of these constitute debate? More particularly, where is the community? Blogs as an ecosystem of communities have this as one of their primary attributes; the comments on blogs as diverse as Peking Duck to Theatre Notes all have regular commentators or guest writers whose erudition and passion for their interests make for inspired reading.

In this world, the writing of Usher et al is clearly seen for what it is: weasel words, comment spam and trolling.

Edit 2019-02-26

Periodically, I return to old posts and I cringe. I wrote this 12 years ago and there’s language there I’m deeply uncomfortable with using now. So, while trying to retain whatever it was I was pissy and performatively outraged about, I’m swapping out dodgy language. I made a couple of other changes also. You can probably find the original on the Internet Archive, or I can save you a trip and say the inserted changes replace two instances of the word ‘lame’, and one of ‘mentally feeble’.

Coincidentally, a few years after this, I ended up working with Roméo Castellucci (twice), and he was a joy — as a person and artistically.

Quoting my recent self here,

As for the rest, I remember why I wrote it, anger upon returning to Australia (and specifically Narrm (Melbourne)) and seeing something like a diffuse nepotism in who was getting the gigs again and again. I think today it comes across as much more misogynistic than I thought I was, and in that, misses a pertinent point about (white, cis) women recreating the power structures feminism purported to be all about changing (lol to that?). Misses also a huge point about Indigenous, Pasifika, trans/non-binary/queer artists in the (white) mainstream (or even fringe) at the time. Basically I’m calling myself an uneducated, opinionated pig.

Plus I slag off some big names.

I didn’t even know about my own history in 2006.