Next Wave – Festival charts new frontier

July 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, May 10, 2008.

With ideas that are occasionally off the planet, emerging artists are exploring the outer and inner limits of contemporary art, writes Dan Rule.

No matter the attributes of their work, very few emerging artists can claim to have made history. Young Melbourne artist Willoh S. Weiland will be doing just that on the closing night of this year’s Next Wave Festival.

While other artists might be plotting their next gallery or theatre show, the VCA graduate’s latest work will be spiralling into the cosmos – quite literally. “It’s Australia’s first interstellar message,” says the 27-year-old of her new sound, audiovisual and performance piece, Yelling at Stars. “It is actually being sent three light-years away, which, you know, is pretty cool.”

She has good reason to be chuffed. The culmination of two years and “hundreds of thousands of persuasive emails” will be seen in a 40-minute live performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on the night of May 31.

Using spoken word, recorded sound-bites, field-recordings and visual projections, the piece – developed in collaboration with composer and renowned hip-hop producer Pip Norman – will stream via the internet to the Deep Space Communications Network in Florida, in the US. There, it will be converted into radio waves and transmitted into outer space in real time.

Having heard that I Love Lucy episodes had been beamed into space, Weiland decided to redress the artistic balance.

“The Earth was being represented as all these perky, attractive geniuses solving problems with the greatest of ease,” she says.

“As an artist, I feel that it’s not unreasonable to try and be a little bit more realistic about what is happening down here. You know, put forward some ideas about the doubts and vulnerabilities we have. There’s a big debate going on in the astronomical community about who has the right to speak for the Earth.”

Yelling at Stars is just one of the 61 projects – produced by around 400 emerging Australian and international artists – curated for the biennial Next Wave Festival. Proposed as a re-evaluation of “our physical and cultural landscape” and given the theme of “Closer Together”, this year’s festival will promote multi-disciplinary, cross-genre and new-media works in some of the city’s most unlikely public and private spaces.

“Next Wave is one of the only organisations in Australia that actively breaks down the barriers between all those disciplines and art forms,” Jeff Khan, the festival’s artistic director, says.

“In Melbourne we’re particularly lucky to have a whole bunch of fantastic institutions that do a great job, but perhaps what is less recognised is the potential to work outside the parameters of those institutions.”

Indeed, Weiland’s interstellar activity shares the bill with a sprawling array of seemingly odd and indefinable artistic events. Canadian duo The Movement Movement will corral members of the public into a choreographed jogging tour of an as yet unnamed major arts institution, and works such as the Houseproud installation series will see artists rearrange and creatively reinterpret strangers’ homes.

The Telepathy Project will see Melbourne artists Sean Peoples and Veronica Kent isolate themselves from each other in the front windows of the Forum Theatre, recording their telepathic exchanges on time-coded post-it notes for the public to peruse. Another event, Membrane, will use a 20-metre trench beneath Federation Square that has never been accessed by the public.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s a particularly supple take on notions of art – a world away from painting, arbitrary objects and well-lit gallery spaces.

Writer and curator Khan, 29, took over from Next Wave artistic director Marcus Westbury in 2006. He says such a rethinking of artistic form and space is at the core of the Closer Together schema.

“Emerging artists are working across more media and making projects that are less recognisable, but they’re also blurring the line between art and its social context,” he says.

“People really want their work being experienced instead of just being seen.”

One such work is Swimming Home In Heels, a 10-minute performance installation that will take place in a hotel room for an audience of one. Written and performed by young Sydney trio Post, the work represents a peculiar study in lies and intimacy, as the audience member enters the world of three teenage girls away for schoolies weekend.

“We wanted to make the most intense, concentrated performance, for everyone involved, that we could,” says Mish Grigor, a 24-year-old member of the ensemble.

“We’ve become really interested in the relationship that you have with the audience or the spectator and how you can negotiate that,” she continues. “For the last Next Wave Festival we did a piece designed for six audience members and then ended up turning it into a big theatre piece, which, despite using the same source material, created a totally different work.”

Closer Together also has a more conceptual plane, which Khan frames as a series of questions revolving around globalism and personal and social proximity in the communications age.

For 23-year-old visual artist Alec Lewis, it was ample fodder. His exhibition text, form (running at Kings ARI) uses leaked personal internet data, from US internet provider AOL’s now infamous 2006 user-data leak, to create a series of intricate digital works and voyeuristic narratives.

“It’s really frightening how much you learn about someone from their internet movements,” he says.

“I just wanted to highlight just how much you’re being watched while you’re on the internet.

“You can build narratives and see what other people are doing with themselves. But it’s anonymous as well, so there’s just this weird syntax of what people are searching for.

“There was this one guy who was searching up whether or not he could send his cat through the mail,” he says laughing. “Then three weeks later he was searching for a diagnosis for a cat with a broken hip.”

While obviously food for thought, does Next Wave’s site-specific and multi-disciplinary terrain add up to no more than a loose collection of new, raw ideas? One could confidently assert that with more controlled artistic environments and curatorship often comes more realised and developed results.

A formally trained visual artist, 29-year-old Alex Gibson of Melbourne performance company X:MACHINE happily refutes this assumption. “Within the notion of discipline is an inherent limitation,” he says. “There’s a danger in creating these barriers and obstacles for lateral thought, because often creativity exists between all those definitions.”

X:MACHINE’s Serial Blogger typifies this more amorphous notion. Inviting participants to follow a fictional crime narrative online and through the CBD’s street-side iHubs, the work will coax audiences into the public domain for a final, live, and (purportedly) gruesome performance.

“Artists are crackpots and artists are insane and artists are visionaries,” Gibson says laughing. “They’re not to be trusted and that’s the beauty of creativity. If you believe in a disciplined world where everyone has their place, then art must just seem crazy and absurd.”

As artistic director of the festival, Khan is a touch more subdued in his analysis. “It’s easy in a way to romanticise that idea of working in these alternative spaces, but the fact is that it means producing the work is often a lot more difficult than it is to put something in a gallery,” he says.

But Next Wave’s raison d’etre has never had anything to do with ease or comfort. “With risk always comes the spectre of failure,” he says. “And if things do fail, at least they’ll fail in a very different way to usual.

“Without that risk there’s no moving forward.”

The Next Wave Festival runs May 15-31.

www.nextwave.org.au for listings, venue information and details.

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