UWS Archive: Mowing the Microphone with Scottish Weather

Year: 1999
Level: First Years, Spring Semester 2
Unit: 33238 Contemporary Arts 2
Duration: 14 days
Dates: August 4*, 11, 25, September 1, 8, 15, 22, October 6, 13, 20*, 27, November 3, 10 (*Lecture/Performances)

Origin

Following the inaugural launch of ‘Contemporary Arts 1’ the previous semester, the format tested out then was largely retained for ‘Contemporary Arts 2’. There was however a reduction of staffing from 15 to 10 lecturers working in teams of two instead of three. I was teamed with the Dance Lecturer Karen Martin and we seconded for Project 1 the Resident Teaching Fellow Peter Stafford to join us to invigorate the mix.

Site-specificity was the dominant theme for both projects, the first an actual site on campus, the second a ‘hypothetical’ proposal.

Again there was a series of lectures scheduled from amongst the team of lecturers supplemented by occasional ‘Brown Bag’ lectures involving: Sylvia Glasser, Helen Poyner, Robyn Backen Adrian Hall, M.A. Greenstein, Tim Brady and Morgan Lewis.

Premise

Project 1

‘In small groups students must prepare a site-specific work based somewhere in the university grounds for presentation in Week 7. Once the site is found, the process should include working from the site, creating in response to the site, engaging with appropriate authorities, and addressing issues such as the audience’s role and perspective etc.’

I was scheduled to give a lecture/performance at the first session (August 4th) in the mass lecture theatre following on from a general introduction to the unit that dealt with the issue of site-specificity. In retrospect I’m not quite sure what the relationship was between my performance and the project (other than responding to the ‘site-specificity’ opportunities presented by the lecture theatre itself).

Lecture 1: Mowing the Microphone

I pre-recorded a musical accompaniment to the performance in the same way that I used the Edward Elgar selections in ‘What’s the Matter?’ This time I took arrangements by Beethoven (1815-18) of two traditional Scottish Songs (performed by Janet Baker and Yehudi Menuhin); the first ‘The Sweetest Lad was Jaimi’ was played unedited, but the second ‘Bonny Laddie, Highland Laddie’ I chopped up and stitched back together in a mutilated way so that it would progressively stutter back on itself as a ‘tick’ that could not resolve itself, the short song over extended in this way, as an incessant irritating hiccough. The recording was intentionally degraded as a recording of a recording of a recording from an original radio broadcast with poor reception. The romantic sentiment of the songs were in stark contrast to what happened next.

With the music activated I proceeded to the whiteboard and with a green marker pen covered the surface with short strokes, in an absurd imitation of grass. I then switched on an electric flymo rotary lawnmower, discretely hidden from the audience up until that point; it generated an infernal din once the blade, propeller-like reached high velocity. I then lifted it up and placed it flush against the whiteboard and proceeded to ‘mow the grass’, the turbulence in the air, on lifting the mower threw out remnants of grass clippings and leaves adhering to the casing. Having ‘swept’ up and down the board a few times I then, holding the mower aloft, exposing its blade to the audience, advanced towards the lectern, as I did so papers flew everywhere. I then slowly moved the blade toward the microphone, amplifying the noise it generated; I attempted to get it as dangerously close to the microphone as I could without actually slicing into it causing sparks to fly. I held it for some time in this position. A curious thing happened as if this conjunction ‘picked up’ radio reception as something equating to a form of garbled ‘talk back’ appeared to broadcast into the theatre. I then retired with the mower, switched it off and allowed the staccato remnant of ‘Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie’ to erratically play itself out.

I had planned, as part of the performance, to also use the Visualiser as a live relay projection. This would have ‘captured’ an activated digital stopwatch and a glistening buttered slice of bread that I was then going to chew on (the camera capturing and broadcasting my chewing). Unfortunately the technology failed on the day and this component had to be left out, although I carried over elements of this action into the subsequent lecture.

Site-Specific Project

The initial sessions of the project involved the 10 groups we were assigned to work with, determining the sites they would be using. We held a series of discussions with them on-site engaging with the logistics of their various proposals. One such scheduled to take place on the roof of BD Building had to be cancelled for health and safety reasons, following complaints (and concerns) from the school management. Three groups chose to work on the old drive-in site, one on a roundabout, one at a power pole training site, one overlooking Cobham Detention Centre, one under the dance studio and one under the raked seating in the main theatre. The following are my review notes for each of the groups:

GROUP A:  HIGH UP ON THE SLOPING ROOF OF THE PERFORMANCE BUILDING

A location of high visibility and surprise to an audience conditioned to a view of uninhabited rooftops. As a transgressive, act both in relation to issues of health and safety – a site with both real and implied dangers – and protest in escaping confinement – these specific conditions incite provocation – the “bristling” security breach confirmation of this. Paradoxically the planned performance was of spectacle and the spectacular rather than of a political persuasion, as spectators expectations are aroused by mirror flashes from an apparently empty rooftop. The unfurling and rolling of intense bright colours down the roof’s slope and accompanying pourings and floatings would have been a memorable experience. Despite the late cancellation beyond the control of the group, this was a conceptually well thought through and carefully choreographed work. The glimpses, through the rehearsal process indicative of the spectacular performance to come.

GROUP B:  POWER POLE SITE

Reflecting on the global dangers of human-harnessed energies when accidentally unleashed: gas explosions, oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, sites of contamination and disaster. A ritualistic initiation to a narrative, drum pulsed and regimented, unfolds the story mythically: the declamations of “Thor” whose guided tour through global grave sites draws the audience around a “cemetery” of catastrophes, eventually arriving at an ironically incommunicative group of “technicians” – digitally transmitting electronic babble into the ether. The audience left to ponder its culpable indifference to such ominous occurrences – a work of warning signs unlistened to. The reliance on the single sign of power: the deactivated power poles – stretched the credulity of the work somewhat – their innocuous status (in being “disarmed”) dissipated their otherwise ominous presence – but a well-paced presentation.

GROUP C:  DRIVE-IN REVISITED SITE

An historically well researched location. The drive-in’s cultural history amply displayed for reference and a “site-guide” proffering information of interest to a captive audience. Encouraging participants to arrive by car a good move, allowing the formal courtesies of the “usher” to direct traffic. A centrally located plastic clad retro-sedan invites entry and from within its cloaked interior to view a cinematic projection installed within the vehicle – a bizarre and bemusing experience. The general mood of the event was light-hearted and redolent with nostalgia for the post-war suburban entertainments of the furtive fifties. The thrills on the small “big screen” being matched by the “thrills” occurring in the backseats of neighbouring vehicles, well demonstrated in staged stimulations/simulations enacted nearby. The diversity of activity on-site – the informality of the interactions – loosened the time frame and the problem of dispersal arises – How does such an event conclude?

GROUP D:   BACK YARD BBQ SITE

A pocket of suburbia in a sea of tarmac – a suburban backyard somewhat neglected and overgrown, a modicum of privacy – being fenced and hedged – but the prying eyes of inquisitive neighbours – a voyeuristic audience views the occurring BBQ – unseen – The distant dialogue drifts but essentially remains unheard and speculative. The ordinariness and mundane nature of meeting and eating in the garden is slowly incrementally perturbed by audio disturbances emanating from the adjoining derelict building, these disturbances gather in intensity and amplification – the “diners” continue oblivious of the audible intrusion which slowly subsides, at which point the gatherers retire indoors. The audience’s expectation is raised in the absence of anything particularly unusual happening – is anything going to happen? A work that pivots on anti-climax intentionally? Despite the intrusive crescendo, oblivion stabilises the condition. An exacting test and taste of patience and suspense.

GROUP E:  ROUNDABOUT SOUTH SIDE OF THE BRIDGE

A site anchoring cables that stretch “sky high” holding in suspension a nearby bridge – This skyward pointing trajectory if viewed from one’s back looking up – with all other circumstantial detail removed – isolated within the black tent-like “observatory” – disorientates and registers different responses in the observing viewer – This process documented as written-response comments and allusions depicted – These then displayed upon the encircling crash barrier surrounding the roundabout – An ironic “private viewing” of the exhibits with snacks, beverage and sound, takes place. The group variously clad in black plastic and chains alluding to the constraints imposed by security checks that reduced the numbers of initially invited participants to witness and respond. The periodic hammering of the cable as a percussive “string” added an intriguing resonance as a fired and ricocheted sound-shot. The adverse situation and conditions that the group had to work with added a determination to see the event through to its fruition – despite the initial animosity and this is commendable.

GROUP F:  UNDER SEATING MAZE, STUDIO 1

Through a dark maze of tunnels arriving at various tableaux, some infer crime scenes with corpse-like bodies to be stepped over and around, the barefoot requirement for entry make vulnerable soles/souls in the wet, the damp of the subterranean mind/mine?  Other sites offer peepshow guessings of home movie making, mordantly amusing and a lair’s bestial howlings (minotaur mutterings?), a shrine-like vigil flickeringly candle lit glanced at in passing – struggling on hands and knees down dark passages awash with the music of musicals poured out sentimentally – the intestinal abject “evacuation” groveling out into the bright light of day and a gravelled beach of stones starkly contrasting with the interior gloom. The ghost train, fair ground, sideshow associations self-evident (entry and exit) with the audience clearly directed one way in compliance with the grid frame of the structured scaffolding. A deliberately convoluted but clearly stage-managed experience.

GROUP G: UNDER DANCE STUDIO 6

A dramatisation that alludes to Plato’s metaphor of the cave with it’s captives held in false illusion – antithetical to the illumination of enlightening sunlight beyond the cave’s confines – The audience is beckoned beneath a concrete slabbed building, across bare earth into a gloomy interior away from the light – The “guide” informs us of what we are about to see – the captives shadowed souls entangled, masked and moving mechanically, gestures of forced labour, scratching in the dry earth, striking out at the girders – chalked text confirms detainment – a monotonously droning soundtrack enforces adversity. The performance concludes following a gesture of captive-release – an escape flight into the liberating light of day – the forlorn and confronting sight of the remaining captives within the cave. As a performance, a number of interesting ideas at play – but timing and direction could have been finer tuned through more thorough rehearsal.

GROUP H: UNDER SEATING, STUDIO 1 (NUTCRACKER)

Audience ushered into a dark confined chamber beneath the tiered seating. Two “crippled” dancers snap and jolt mechanically into action like pre-programmed automatons the worse for wear and poorly co-ordinated, motions are spasmodic, kick-start and rigidly knockabout, this sets up a burlesque of animation (of the slot machine) made more poignant by the aerial agility of the accompanying balletic Tchaikovsky. The staccato rhythms of the dances below are trodden on and trod over by the charging of footsteps overhead – running patterns that overlay and interrupt (eruptions of flight). This event appeared well rehearsed and benefited from its succinctness (leaving the audience wanting more).

GROUP I: THE LIGHT TOWER DRIVE-IN SITE.

The shadow, cast by the imposing light tower across the car park of the drive-in, employed as a sun-dial via variously positioned markers placed on the ground – traversed by the shadow in transit – time is calibrated and locatable – each participant employing a different means to make visible their few moments of time – a number of inventive responses – the set up being vandalised the night before the presentation marred its precise operational intent. To have provoked such a response however indicates the works capacity to attract attention and intervention, unfortunately in this case with destructive rather than inquisitive consequences, a risk all public work is vulnerable to. The damaged remains still conveyed – even as fragments – a thoughtful engagement with the site.

GROUP J: OVERLOOKING DETENTION CENTRE (WRN)

As a site that overlooks and comments upon the nearby juvenile detention centre, the performers deliberately set out to intimidate and harass their audience, provoking a frame of mind that is both sobering and uncomfortable. Under escort the “detainees” are herded into a small corral or holding pen, from whence a few at a time (“Get in line! Single file!”) are ordered across to a nearby play pen under escort, for supervised restricted “playtime”(“Now Play!”) at the brief conclusion of which to return again under escort to the holding pen – A further directive to turn, observe and stay facing through the fence the detention centre beyond (“Don’t turn around!”) enforces the confronting nature of the event. The controlling “authorities” countering any dissent or subordination the instant it is intimated. The imposed confinement in two small enclosures within the broad expanse of an open field further prompting contradiction and contrariness. The coercive experience a memorable one and the disturbing connotations of the site well played out.

Project 2: Hypothetical

‘In small groups, students must prepare a fully documented hypothetical for a site-specific work somewhere in the ‘Shire’ of Penrith, to be presented in week 14. The core process will be similar to Project 1, except the final presentation is as if for a formal presentation to funding organisations, and should include such concerns as resourcing, budget, target audience, relevant authorities etc., and consideration of the mode of presentation – overheads, slides, graphs etc.’

This project could be far more ambitious in scale and imaginative in scope, assuming a substantial ‘hypothetical’ budget.

Lecture 2: Scottish Weather

For my second prepared lecture/performance on October 20th, I took fuller advantage of the Visualiser now operating to work with a ‘live action’ of short sequenced events relayed/ projected ‘cinematically’  onto the large screen, from the small ‘light box’ adjoining the lectern, normally used as an overhead projector for transmitting information from A4 sheets. The set topic for the lecture that day was “All pleasured out: Parody, Kitsch & Popular Culture”. My lecture was announced as:

‘Coming Up Next Alan Wilkie With The Weather’

(scored for 10 instruments)

‘Featuring: Garden birds, a traffic jam, 2 military style tanks, a number of ‘Mr Men’, a collection of Pokie Machines, an Extra Terrestrial, A Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, Three Dancing Soldiers and Sean Connery.’

As with previous lecture/performances I had a pre-recorded musical accompaniment throughout, in this case two pieces by J.S.,Bach played one after the other without interruption:

BWV 1060 Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor: Adagio

Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood     5:41’

BWV 1041 Violin Concerto in A minor: Andante

Gidon Kremer / Violin                                                         5:17’

I commenced with a reading (in a Scottish accent not dissimilar to that of Sean Connery’s) of a transcript I made from Channel 9’s ‘News at Six’ as delivered originally by the Weatherman Alan Wilkie, incorporating a brief dialogue at the end with the Newsreader Brian Henderson:

‘Alan says:

A very warm and humid day in Sydney, sunny this morning, with cloud increasing through the afternoon, with a few local showers and isolated storms, moving across from the west, and along the coast, to the north of Sydney. The day was mostly cloudy, warm and humid, with moderate north-east winds, and the sea slight on an easterly swell. Temperatures in the metropolitan area were close to average near the coast, but 5 or 6 degrees above in the west. The top afternoon readings: 23 degrees in Sydney, 29 at Richmond and Campbelltown and 30 at Liverpool and Parramatta, and Katoomba’s maximum: 24 degrees, quite a warm one at the Blue Mountains. A lot of cloud coming through from the west from this mass here, but its only given some light falls of rain, a few isolated thunderstorms developed on the ranges during the afternoon; as I’ve mentioned a few of those drifted across towards Sydney in this trough of low pressure. A little low developing there, as you can see, but what we have is a southerly stream coming up along the southern part of the New South Wales coast at the moment and will certainly freshen along the coast near Sydney during tomorrow, that will cause the seas to rise. Brisbane tomorrow: a few scattered thunderstorms up there, a top of 27 degrees expected, Melbourne: cloudy 17 , in Adelaide: 18 for their maximum and fine weather, cloudy in Perth and 25, and in Sydney tomorrow, after some overnight showers and storms, it will be cloudy with a few showers in the morning, scattered showers in the afternoon and an isolated shower or two in the evening. Winds will be fresh and gusty from the south and the seas rising on a 1 or 2 metre swell. The maximum temperature: 20 degrees in the City, 21 and 22 inland, and looking further ahead: a few clearing showers Thursday, fine on Friday, maybe a shower or two on the weekend Brian.

Brian says: ‘It’s all over the place’.

Alan says: ‘Yes’

Brian says: ‘The way it is Wednesday October the 20th, this is Brian Henderson…Goodnight’.

Having performed this weather forecast I then proceeded to sequence the series of ‘events’ occurring on the ‘light box’ of the Visualiser that were to be transmitted direct to the large screen in real time. The music was ongoing as continuo in the background.

I commenced with turning the pages of an illustrated child’s book: ‘The Ladybird Book of Garden Birds’ (1967). I then parked a ‘traffic jam’ of miniature toy cars on top of the ‘light box’ and then with two plastic toy tanks proceeded to ‘bulldoze’ them off. I then placed a series of small child’s “Mr Men” books one on top of the other with the cartoon character of each momentarily putting in an appearance: Mr. Happy, Mr. Grumpy, Mr. Sneezy, Mr. Strong etc. I then displayed a picture of Poker Machines. I then had three articulated toy soldiers who could gyrate by manipulating their feet to variously ‘dance’ to the music (as bizarre Ballerinas). With the theatre light’s dimmed, I walked some distance from the ‘light box’ as landing strip and proceeded to bring a toy 747 Jumbo jet in to land upon it, (Holding it high above my head and as I moved closer to the Visualiser commencing its descent by gradually lowering it. The distance of the audience from the ‘stage’ where the lectern was situated, coupled with the miniature nature of the toys meant that they only became fully visible when magnified as projected from the visualiser to the large screen. Following the same routine as the Jumbo Jet I then had a small figure of E.T. (from the film) which could be activated to flash intermittently from its fingers (like the lights on the wing tips of aeroplanes), come into land on the same ‘flight path’ (the audience was very amused by this second landing when they realised what the figure was).

At some point in amongst this sequence I found time (as an impromptu) to unwrap my glad-wrapped sandwich, prepared for lunch, on the visualiser and proceed to take a large bite out of the corner.

The following are my reviews of the group presentations:

GROUP D:  FROZEN CHURCH   presentation time 5 min

A proposal dealing with preservation that takes a heritage building – a church in Castlereagh – that is to be incorporated into the extensive “Lakes scheme” and freezing it to appear as if within a block of ice – although a glass frame separates the building from the wall of ice – and the building still accessible for use. Intriguing incorporation of names of early residences from the area held within the ice and subject to dissolution as the ice melts. Diagrams and simulated photographs illustrate the idea – an iced model would have been interesting. The presentation time was rather brief and more could have been said about the feasibility of the project.

GROUP D:  OCEAN VIEWS  presentation time 6 min

A proposal to flood the area east of Penrith with the Sydney CBD retained as an offshore island and Penrith itself an aspiring Venice. A beach frontage created with purple sand and a WPS Water Pigmentation Separator treating the water similarly. Presentation utilised a map, letters and a sand-surfaced model and some manipulated photos of Penrith/Venice and purple sand sample. For such an extravagant idea, the material presented was rather scant and only half the allocated time was used. This suggests the absence of rehearsal and insufficient material to draw from.

GROUP D:  SPRUCE GOOSE presentation time 6 min

An ingenious use of a giant plane (Howard Hughes prototype ‘spruce goose’) as the site for the Sydney 2000 Olympics – housed within an even more giant boat – anchored at sea on an inundated Sydney. The proposal delivered with tongue firmly in cheek – its extravagance leaves a lot to the imagination – freed from all budgetary constraints.

GROUP E: SHEEP PLAZA   presentation time 14min

A proposal that comments upon the negative effect of consumerism. The mindlessness of the herd allows sheep to substitute for shoppers. Penrith Plaza is emptied of humans and filled with 4095 sheep, allowed to wander at will but eventually ending up at the abattoir on the first floor – crows at the ready to feed off the offal – blood flowing through the fountain. Large display screens outside relay events inside. Presentation referred to the atmosphere inside in respect of aroma and acoustics and images both photographic and video via media 100 spliced sheep to shopping, costings as to variety of sheep and transportation also referenced. Presentation time not fully utilised and technical problems with sound recording and video extract – indicated a lack of rehearsal to iron out the gliches.

GROUP G:  BUS STOP   presentation time 6 min

A proposal that looked at ways of enlivening Penrith’s main bus station by introducing various scheduled activities including: drumming, yoga, wine tasting, arts and crafts, rave parties, re-enacted pantomime and “shock” interviews. This followed a profile of standard bus stop behaviour – activities differing from morning to evening (food stops) and for different ages. The proposal skipped across the surface of most of its ideas – opting to amuse rather than fully inform – The support material limited to overheads and overall allocation time under utilised.

GROUP G: PLAZA GARDEN   presentation time 9 min

A proposal that imaginatively converts the grounds outside Penrith Plaza into a surreal night garden that is experienced as “other worldly” – all extraneous references to Penrith are silenced ( the traffic, the street lights) and the garden is isolated within a curtained off arena that is magically lit with fairy lights and the air is misted and bubbled – visitors are costumed and escorted into this magic realm where Husky dogs roam and many projected images conjure other spaces (the dream world of dogs). A comb lattice backlit along one side: compartments to rest in. The intent to create a “mystical” and dream like space – This was presented simply, but effectively via a map of the site and various illustrations.

GROUP F: TWENTY MINUTES WITH MARJIE presentation time 22min

Proposal viewed through the “lens” of a hypothetical / stereotypical TV chat show “20 Minutes with Marjie” in which the “host” entertains four artist-interventionists onto her show to explain their rationale for flooding Penrith into the Venice of the Western Suburbs, asking the question “Is this Art or an act of violence?” Their justification towards the attraction of the “exotic”(tourism) as well as innumerable job-creation opportunities – offsetting the inconvenience as documented in radio and video interviews (cleverly scripted and directed amusements). The metamorphosis of water as mud, blood, mercury, molasses, etc. a feather in Penrith’s otherwise drab cap. All up ludicrously effective.

GROUP J: WERRINGTON LAKES  presentation time 29 min

A proposal to transform the Werrington Lakes into an imaginary realm of childhood fantasy (fractured fairy tales) where an audience encounters variously scenes of swashbuckling pirate, rampaging cowboys, fairies and trolls etc. as they are escorted around the site. This as an evening event lantern-lit and surrounded by manipulated sounds – experienced interactively and triggering all the senses in the journeying. Video footage describes the site and potential enactments, a brief history and discussion of budget and publicity – and amusing interludes along the way.

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