Art in a space/of a space, and AdlFringe Review: Cultural Isolation

by Jane

I’ve long been arguing around Adelaide – although perhaps not on this blog – that the two types of art works that this city feels to be best at making as a response to the place itself are documentary films and street art.

Peter Drew, now based in Glasgow, created Adelaide’s Forgotten Outlaws street art pieces: paste-ups around the city of mug shots of 1920s Adelaide criminals. The project not only paired a current Adelaide against its past, but it also took residents to look more keenly at city walls and ally ways – looking out for another poster, comparing favourites.

2011 feature film Six on the Street [full film at link] was a remarkably assured debut from director Kieran Eliis-Jones and a collective of music lovers and filmmakers. At 100 minutes it runs quite long, but the insight the team give to Adelaide makes that length forgivable. It takes both a celebratory eye to the bands and the musicians, and a critical eye to the city and the current frameworks they have to exist in.

Six on the Street was produced by Sam Wright, who went on to produce the Moving Music tour, another work that throws a beautiful light upon this city. When I interviewed Wright about the work, he described wanting Moving Music to throw new light on the city. On the recent tour, we travelled from the bright afternoon sun on Rundle Street to the Torrens, up to North Adelaide, before ending up on night time Peel Street. Wright and design collective Fascination Street, working with local visual artists and musicians, built installations that existed only as long as the festival itself – had you wondered by the next day, they would have been gone. But what really made Moving Music was when it was able to integrate itself alongside the city: the vocals of Hurricanes’ Tara Lynch accompanied by birdsong in the Cross of Sacrifice Memorial Gardens; Naomi Keyte’s music augmented by the thumpthump of cars overhead and the tickticktickticktick of bikes being wheeled behind under City Bridge by the Torrens.

These pieces by Drew, Ellis-Jones, and Wright all work so well not only because they exist physically in the city, but because they are products of and responses to the places they find themselves in. Ellis-Jones records this world on film to be seen anywhere, Drew and Wright demand a presence to be most fully appreciated, but they all share a specificity to Adelaide at their core.

Arts SA and the City Council are trying to support more artistic works that occur specifically in the city, away from theatrical stages and gallery walls, through Unexpected City and Splash Adelaide, respectively, the latter of which supported Moving Music. For these projects to work to their fullest potential, both schemes must seek to support work that exists of this city, and not merely in it.

Unfortunately, this is where the Splash Adelaide supported Cultural Isolation falls down. The dance piece in this year’s Fringe directed and choreographed by Fiona Gardner sees its audience walking down North Terrace, stopping at various locations for short dance works, yet never truly integrates itself into the city spaces. We are left with a work that exists in exception to the city, rather than in response to it.

The most successful section of the work sees Nicole Griffiths dancing along North Terrace as the audience follows her.  It is here that the work is most fully of the space: North Terrace’s wide footpath leads on before us, unbroken until it dips down over the slight hill across King William Road. The weekend before the official opening of the Fringe the space is near empty, and Griffiths has it mostly to herself; dancing in her own world. Her inner monologue, which we hear through headphones, has her worrying about social interactions and perceptions, but in the dance Griffiths is free. Free to embrace herself, and free to embrace the highlighted the vastness of the space, and the heritage buildings the street runs alongside.

Other sections are less successful. Outside the State Library’s Institute Building is set up a scene in a café, completely ignoring the space it is in. Gardner dances on the corner of Frome Road and North Terrace, but hides the scene and the audience away from the city behind temporary fencing and burlap sheets. In front of Angela and Hossein Valamanesh’s 14 Pieces – sculptural fountains outside the SA Museum – we hear the thoughts of Hannah Timbrell as she looks across at Theodore Cassedy, wondering why he is acting that way on a park bench – when on North Terrace he’s not on a park bench at all.

This scene, too, asks for a significant degree of suspension of disbelief that doesn’t easily sit in the real outside world we are watching it in. Gardner pairs Cassedy as a carefree dancer against Timbrell as an uptight business woman, Cassedy grabbing Timbrells shoulder, arms, legs and forcing her to dance. I find it hard to appreciate these characterisations in a real physical space: why would he think it is okay to touch her? Why would she not run away?

We hear the sounds of Cultural Isolation through headphones: inner thoughts of characters (who, inexplicably, seem never to communicate with each other) and the music that they dance to. Between locations we are asked to remove the headphones, and so the world of the show never stays with us. Conversations ensue: about work, about life, about dinner. The audience, rather than being isolated, uses the time to connect and catch up.

Apart from Griffiths’ solo, the work fits the best into the War Memorial Gardens and the Migration Museum courtyard. These spaces are open enough that they give Gardner’s work room to breathe, and her dancers room to build choreographically. They’re not competing against a location, against the pulse of the city: they’re in quiet zones, alone. Here the work can exist on its own terms and its own space.

Cultural Isolation tries to be of the space of North Adelaide; tries to be of Adelaide. But it’s not quite there yet. At this stage, Gardner has used the work to explore other things: both inner voices and inner fears, and her own young choreographic style. In the end, the work would have been better served in finding its own voice, rather than trying to insert itself into the voice of the city.

FinsARTS presents Cultural Isolation, choreographed and directed by Fiona Gardner. With performers Gardner, Matt Shilcock, Hannah Timbrell, Nicole Griffiths and Theodore Cassedy. Along North Tce for the Adelaide Fringe until Feb 16. More information and tickets.