Branch Nebula: Artwork

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

Earlier this week I entered a competition to win tickets to Artwork, a Branch Nebula production at Carriageworks. I scored a double pass and attended last night’s performance, the second-last of the run. I’d not read much about the show (partially because Carriageworks’ site is artfully oblique) so I entered Bay 17 with few expectations.

I knew ahead of time that the piece is performed by job-seekers. Branch Nebula (who have been developing this piece in association with Carriageworks, who commissioned the work) placed ads in online classified sites, and gathered the respondents together. They meet just before the production, and are given no instruction, other than to follow instructions according to an assigned number. They perform for that evening, and a new group will take the stage the next night.

It’s true that even established plays – Hamlet, for example – change through their runs and are created anew every night, Artwork is closer to improvisation than a scripted performance. I’m certain there’s elements which are worked out in advance – the floor is covered in stage positions and marks for the participants to hit – but it seemed a lot is left up in the air, as you’re down to the group which arrives on the night. Would someone take umbrage and leave? If anything, it’s probably more of a headache for the production team; directorial improvisation, maybe? It must be a stressful show to run from that perspective, given that it involves lighting, instructing and motivating a team of people with no rapport and no knowledge of your script.

That takes a lot of balls.

Crucially, this was not a play. You could call it experimental theatre, but I suppose experiential theatre would be just as good a name. It was a series of vignettes which were dreamlike or realist. Video was heavily involved – there were multiple screens hanging in the space, and feeds from a couple of cameras were mixed, providing something at once distancing and personalising. There was an idea of documentary, which is something our society often doesn’t want to offer job-seekers, beyond polemics about their uselessness.

The goal of the show, according to the brief notes given at the door, is to look, and to consider – to consider the role of professional artists, of audience, and of job-seeker are examined. Branch Nebula want their audiences to think about agency, privilege and responsibility. As an event designed to spur self-criticism and reflection, they certainly achieved their goal.

A mesh curtain hung in front of the crowd for portions of the performance, and had images thrown onto it. On this we saw the briefing given to the performers – literally a health and safety announcement and a request to keep all questions until the end of the performance – and it provided a barrier from the participants; one so important that when the curtain was pulled back it was almost shocking to be able to see the performers clearly.

The performers carried out a role of menial acts. A woman pushed a mop bucket. A man looked for tags of paper on the floor. A woman bounced a ping-pong ball. Another recited phrases which would loop, later. A group of ladies manned an ironing station. An older man came to a spot right at the front of the space and looked at the audience. Doubled in video, it was difficult to take his gaze, to not internally editorialise on what he must be feeling.

The sound design of the piece played a big part. Elements were miked and sent through effects – you could hear audience coughs represented, layered in reverb, moments later. Modulations of trolley squeaks, of water filling glasses, of the clatter of the mop bucket moving around the floor created a once-only soundtrack. A footstool sat in the middle of the stage, amplified, forming a bass drum when a younger guy attacked it with a football bat. It was an enormous sound, and it grew more frantic as he flailed with real venom.

All these sounds – the sounds of mundanity – were changed into electro music. At times, the people were instructed to dance; most notably an older woman danced with her mop and bucket in a sort of house-cleaning pole-dancer way. It was liberating and yet deeply private at the same time.

Here's looking at you, punters.

Here’s looking at you, punters.

The audience didn’t escape attention. Hoodwinked by the prospect of a man eating a bag of chips, most of the viewers didn’t notice a video camera on a dolly taking in the spectators – not until our faces filled the video screens. Nervous laughter resulted, and the camera kept its gaze on particular people until they were obviously uncomfortable. It was then the penny dropped and it became apparent that the performers, now clad in blankets, were the spectators, eating snacks while we became the object of their gaze. This idea was continued in a later moment where an audience member’s phone rang and they answered a questionnaire read by a performance participant. It began innocently enough but then moved to the realm of religion and sex, the answerer’s discomfort transcending the feedback loop and overtones of the sound’s processing.

In a moment of pure sensual delight, three large tubs of ping-pong balls were dropped from Carriageworks’ roof, falling en bloc before hitting the floor and scattering with a delightful sound. While they provided a pleasing visual in the act of falling, they cleverly became stand-ins for galaxies in a later vignette where participants laid on the floor, in the dark, and were lit from above by a single camera’s light – as their faces came into focus on the suspended screens, it seemed they were adrift in galaxies, transformed from slaves to our amusement to dreamers in space.

Strikingly, one scene recalled the hooded treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The players stood, enshrouded, facing us, before being made to walk to the back of the room, trying to pick their way through the balls on the floor. It seemed a bit heavy-handed (job hunting – it’s a maze?) but as pure image it was deeply disturbing.

Later, it turned out the ironing station had been creating T-shirts for the participants to wear, each with their face on the front. They wore these and danced, joyfully, and in one of the proper warm spots of the evening, it was at this juncture that the older man of the group danced and larked around, singing nonsense into the microphone as other members jived around him, some displaying histories of dance tutelage. It was where these people could cut loose and have a good time, and it was great to see any perceptions of duress lift and transform into enjoyment. They then gave these to the audience, forcing them to put them on – to make them part of the show.

The show ended with a brief reading (from the man who began the performance) about the T-shirts’ journey from Chinese cotton to their place on stage tonight. He encouraged us to look, and reminded us that their pictures, their presence had added value to the shirts and, we were left to assume, the show. Then, the participants began clearing away the ping-pong balls, and audience members hastened down, unprompted, to help them out, chatting with some of the members and breaking the performer/audience divide.

Cleaning up.

Cleaning up.

There were times in the show where laughter – a natural reaction to items of discomfort, and often heard in the auditorium – seemed abhorrent. Because unlike the laughter one directs towards actors, who’ve dedicated themselves towards the art of performance (however Adam West-cheesy it might be) these were just regular people. They were the same as us, and while I completely understand people were giggling nervously, it felt… profane, somehow.

Crucially, though, these people were paid. On that level they were performers: they brought their life skills to the gig (instead of a stint at a dramatic arts school) and were rewarded for it. I felt glad they were paid, with tax paperwork and all boxes checked, but I couldn’t help escape the feeling that they’d been made to sing for their supper. I know this is what we ask of artists all the time, but part of me was conflicted that I’d been complicit in this. Their unemployment or underemployment isn’t that of the artist, who knows that that’s part of pursuing a career in the arts, and is a well-known pitfall – it was the result of their lives. Nobody chooses unemployment, but a cynical view would say that arts workers expect it: all night I wondered if Artwork‘s participants ever thought they’d come to this.

Then again, as we left, I saw some of the evening’s performers walking towards the pub, laughing. If they felt fine about the event, why shouldn’t I?

I don’t have an answer, only more questions.

(There’s an audio interview with Branch Nebula here which will provide a bit more information on the show, where the role of fear in the work is discussed. Really worth a listen if you are interested.)

(This grew out of my daily 750words practice.)

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