Thoughts: These are the People in your Neighbourhood

by Jane

I first came across the work of Canadian performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex in 2010, when I walked into a Launceston hair salon to have my hair cut by an eleven-year-old boy. I was at Haircuts By Children, a work that sees primary-school aged children taught how to cut hair, and then gives them control over a salon for the day. They take bookings, sweep hair off the floor, and cut, colour, and even shave hair for a weekend. It’s slightly terrifying and mightily exhilarating. I’ve been excited by and following the company’s work ever since, and on Saturday I had the chance to see their work again.

With the Come Out Festival, Mammalian Diving Reflex has been working with students from Blair Athol North B-7 School on a tour of the shops in Kilburn for These are the People in Your Neighbourhood.

On arriving, we were each handed a small magazine sharing the title of the show, with articles and pictures about the people and places we were going to visit, all written by and drawn by the students. Along Prospect Road, we visited eight businesses, where each shop owner was interviewed by some of the kids and the floor was opened up to questions. There was fantastic generosity and good will from all of the people we visited: all excited to be sharing their lives with this community of students and the rest of the group that had come along for the journey. We were repeatedly invited to come back to the businesses, to say hello, to say “I saw you on These are the People in Your Neighbourhood.

The children all approached the presentation of the work with agency. Mammalian Diving Reflex created the artistic and physical frameworks for the performance to exist, but the performance itself feels to belong entirely to the children. While some may have looked to the ground while presenting, while some spoke softly even with a microphone, the show resolutely belonged to the children.

The interviews we were treated to with the shop-owners felt like the children – both the hosts of each interview, and the children in the audience who were always the first to be asking questions – were participating in a mission to accumulate facts on each person. It seemed like an attempt to understand people was best built up of knowing a list of descriptors: how old are you? How many kids do you have? What are their names? Where would you like to go on holiday?

The most asked question of the morning was ‘What is your favourite colour?’

The second most asked was ‘Why is that your favourite colour?’

It was delightful.

One of the first things Mammalian Diving Reflex does with the students is contextualise this event as art – and therefore them as artists. Last year when I worked with Brown Council I briefly touched on watching an older woman from the CWA light up when Mass Action was explained to her as a piece of art. It was the first time I’d truly considered the power behind the designation of the word ‘art’, and the ways our perception shifts when told you’re looking at a piece of art – even when that’s not quite what it looks like at first.

You feel that much of the agency the children carry in their presentation of the work is in knowing that they’re participating in an artwork: this is more than a utilitarian overview of some main road shops. Just as art can be used to subtly shift the ways we view the world, These are the People in Your Neighbourhood shifts the constructs and boundaries of the relationships between these children and these businesses. “These are the people” works both ways – these are the businesses and these are the children. The neighbourhood is shared, and through that community friendships should be shared. Just the tour is owned by the children, they have a right of ownership over the neighbourhood: and through the tour they expand that sense of belonging over to us.

These are the People in Your Neighbourhood  had only one performance in Adelaide; but I highly recommend you follow the work of this company. I’m sure they’ll be returning to our shores sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Darren O’Donnell’s book Social Acupuncture gives an interesting view into the company and the place of art in contemporary social contexts. Their website also has great detail about their work – I’m particularly excited by the ideas behind The Children’s Choice Awards and All The Sex I’ve Ever Had. While the two works I’ve experienced by the company involved children, they work with a much wider sweep of the community both in Toronto and internationally.

Of particular note is their youth wing, the Torontonians. While their other work with children places the children as artists, this places these young people in the fabric of an arts organisation. Mammalian Diving Reflex has a long-term plan with the Torontonians: to hand the company over to them in 2025.

The long-term goal of The Torontonians is to foster the youth’s talents, passions and interests in the arts, cultivating artists, producers, technicians, administrators and, for those youth who choose to follow other career trajectories, positions on arts organizations’ boards of directors. They were the inspiration for Mammalian’s Young Mammals, the company’s official branch of artistic collaboration and mentorship with youth. The Torontonians is a long-term succession plan, not only for Mammalian Diving Reflex, but for the future of Toronto’s arts community. Parkdale gets Mammalian: it’s legacy in action.

An exciting prospect indeed.

Mammalian Diving Reflex, Come Out Festival and the City of Port Adelaide Enfield presents These are the People in Your Neighbourhood with the students of Blair Athol North B-7 School. Developed in collaboration with Contact Inc.