Seated in a purpose built grandstand in the formally exposed run-though of Chunky Move and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s forecourt, I waited. From this position, squinting into the sun, I was presented with a brilliant urban stage set. I pondered what I might have missed in a space I have only ever moved through at speed; the ‘field notes’ of author Richard Mabey came to mind:
“My eyes began to relax a little, and following the last swallows hawking for flies over the water, I caught sight of a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance. I had never before seen this plant so deep in suburbia. The towpath itself was festooned with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms and when a bicycling worker bucked past it seemed as natural to exchange greetings with him as if we had been in a country lane. No matter that the place he had come from was the gaunt Water Board pumping station that stretched along the bank, looking like nothing so much as an oil refinery. As dusk fell and the warning lights on its roof began to flush the bellies of the roosting gulls, I went home a new man.
That homely canalside stroll was as good an antidote to the workday blues as some real and solitary countryside would have been. And better in some ways, for I had beaten off the urban stresses in their own territory and on their own terms.”1
And so began my Dance Massive festival for 2015: transformative from the outset. Asked to look at the urban landscape in detail, to see the unseen, I noted a bustling scene. In the background, the homebound crawl. A beautiful procession when lit by a narrow streak of sunlight. The amber tint of early autumn makes nature impossible to ignore. And with large earphones on, provided upon arrival, it came with a soundtrack that before the performance ‘officially’ began flitted from 3MBS classical to Tom Waits rumble. We seem to forget that the urban landscape provides us with the chance to come into contact with nature. Nature needs but a crack in the pavement for it to put down its roots and grow. “Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature…. Every patch where the concrete has not actually sealed up is the potential home for some living thing.”2 As if on cue, three pairs of lorikeets fly overhead, a small, wild orchestration to punctuate a point. Invited, it seems, to become a would-be twitcher meets seated flâneur, I let myself think about the making-do lorikeets, and habitats that have sprung up out of human need. Accidental green pockets that grow curbside, in disused spaces, along the fence lines of factories and the sides of railway lines, all scrubby and grey. As a mudlark swooped and landed by the green strip buffer between forecourt and road, our cohabitation with birds and insects in these urban areas was apparent.
Anouk van Dijk has found a perfect ‘stage’ for her site-specific work. As a procession of dog-walkers passed, perhaps looking for February’s pop up off-the-leash dog park,3 the stage was set. A German shepard glided through, followed by its equally graceful owner, as a man in a fluorescent vest swept the unforgiving knee-scraping gravel. Up close and far away, my depth of field was tested and I relished the freedom to let my eye rest where I chose.
There is an undeniably beautiful element of voyeurism throughout “Depth of Field.” There is the release to simply watch, undisturbed. We were in our birder’s hide, denoted by our place in the audience—we were meant to watch. But though I was aware I was one figure in a large audience, I saw the view abstracted from those around me. With earphones on, I was blissfully unaware of my neighbours, nice though they were. I was busy directing my own movie. The eye can be choreographed4, but it also rebels. And so, I directed my own film throughout the performance. I let my eye, my camera lens, rest on the mechanical snaking line of cars travelling homeward before I leapt on a passing tram and viewed the spectacle through a window. In doing so I was struck by the quiet egalitarian nature of this work. Every night, for the festival’s duration, between 7pm and 8pm, travellers on the number 1 can crane their necks and see a forecourt performance for one minute in their squared view between the Victorian College of the Arts and ACCA’s velvety façade (if travelling from the city). So too those driving. They are privy to an unexpected performance. Dancing by the side of Sturt Street, a figure that was far in my ‘depth of field’ would be right up close if you were driving by, as would be the two cyclists and a ‘flock’ of brightly clad joggers looped in endless wheel. Perhaps in looking out the window, those passing might consider joining in themselves, in a moment of spontaneous joy. Waving with abandon much as a small child engages with and makes faces at people from their view from the backseat of a car. (In fact, were the rest of my nights not taken up with other Dance Massive performances, I’d consider walking past with my elderly dog, Percy, the two of us taking part in the scene as it unfolded.)
Establishing who is a performer and who is actually walking home or on a grocery dash (or crashing the party with their Jack Russell) was a chief part of the playfulness of this piece. Asked to look closely at the obvious and the less obvious, it became a game of ‘spot the performer’ that actually made everyone within frame a part of the work. The mother and toddler that rested under the tree near to the corner—were they a part of the piece, like the woman in the red scarf seen purchasing a parking ticket? The joggers too—that was orchestrated, right? My imaginary cast sheet for “Depth of Field” includes the motorists on the freeway, more than likely oblivious to the work they were a part of. Their credit: moving tail light providers. It also includes commuters on the tram. Their credit: neck ‘crickers.’ And a windblown plastic bag seen rising and settling in own reenactment of a scene from Sam Mendes’s film American Beauty.
Though James Vu Anh Pham, Tara Jade Samaya, and Niharika Senapati are more than captivating, there is a sense that they could be anyone passing through a space and had you not looked up you might not have seen them there, arched like a lizard or falling to the ground in affirmation of gravity. As they threw themselves into the piece with force, quite literally, they became increasingly and graphically marked by the harsh elements. The gravel served to make dust plumes worthy of any Spaghetti Western. Such was the physicality of the piece that no area of the forecourt was left un-scuffed. The unforgiving gravel also served as music as it crunched under their feet. All sound throughout was amplified, from the peal of a bike’s bell to a bird’s call, and it worked as an attendant to my focus. As Samaya contemplated a drain, I was given the space to recall and project Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—shall we head down the well once more? As she rested her ear to the earth as if to listen to the world below, perhaps Samaya too will later head down the well? Playing with perception so, this made for something of an urban, present day ‘through the looking glass’ scenario.
You only need to look to find it’s all been waiting for you. A pleasant feeling of both connectedness and smallness settled: nature is massive. Inspired by “the light. The ongoing motion of the city and its people. The difference between distance and proximity, the wide view and the close up, what is obvious and what is less obvious. What the city conjures up in our imagination. Seeing the same people in it, up close, far away. To observe the unobserved, to witness and perceive the movement of the city and the movement of bodies.”5 “Depth of Field” enabled all of this and more. If the city in autumn is capricious, I am also something of a changeable director, it transpires, operating according to my own indiscernible rules, choosing to let my eyes flit from casual bystander to bird overhead in mid flight. Being at liberty to explore and choose focus alongside the quiet playfulness was intoxicating. Given a crack, I’ve put down my own roots.
As dusk closed in, a white light was shone on the dancers. As my eyes adjusted, I guiltily returned my attention to the dancers. Once more, Mabey’s observations from his 1973 autumn field notes came to mind, specifically, a sighting of a rare dusky redshank, a bird that viewed at dusk in silhouette which appeared momentarily as a dancer with long and flexible legs “set well back for balance” as it leant its body forward and stretched its neck. “Then suddenly he was up, … the shadow play was over. He was a real flesh and feathers bird again, about his urgent and arduous business.”6 The invitation to draw my own conclusions is always greatly appreciated, though sadly it means I can tell you little of the performance, only what I felt. Like Mabey, I came nearer at that moment to understanding what I was looking at: “we are all just going home, this motley collection of [characters] and I, finding what refreshment we could in the makeshift landscapes on our way, ignoring for a moment those rigid categories by which biologists break up the natural world, in the common business of keeping body and soul together.”
What I saw, what I felt, what later enabled me to cast strangers on my own tram homeward in new light. Yes, “…these are but a few upon which the eye lights while gliding by.”[note]Richard Jefferies, Nature Near London (London: Chatto & Windus, 1905), accessed as ebook on Project Gutenberg, June 2006, 181[/note] Encouraged to look at the little things that pass one by, “Depth of Field” is a celebration of the fact that “no two persons look at the same thing with the same eyes. To me this spot may be attractive, to you another…. Every one must find their own locality…. Neither painter nor writer can show the spectator their originals. It would be very easy, too, to pass any of these places and see nothing, or but little. Birds are wayward, wild creatures uncertain. The tree crowded with wood-pigeons one minute is empty the next. To traverse the paths day by day, and week by week; to keep an eye ever on the fields from year’s end to year’s end, is the one only method of knowing what really is in or comes to them. That the sitting gambler sweeps the board is true of these matters.”7
- Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, (Dorset: Little Toller Books, 2010), 18
- Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, 20
- Anastasia Klose’s project Farnsworth’s Republic for Dogs, ACCA forecourt, February 2015
- Anouk van Dijk, “Massive Chats,” February 18, 2015
- Anouk van Dijk, “Massive Chats”
- Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, 144
- Richard Jefferies, Nature Near London, vii