One of the many joys and privileges of being on the Board at Shopfront is the relationship I develop with the emerging artists and members who are a part of the Shopfront community. I have been a board member since 2009 – and currently hold the post as Board Secretary. Besides strategic planning and signing papers and nutting out the finer details of the business, I have the great pleasure of interviewing the artists for the Artslab residencies.

Artslab is a 6 month intense residency whereby 5 or so emerging artists are exposed to different methods of working to create a show. It’s brilliant. And confronting… if you could make anything at all, what would you make? A question worthy of writers block.

It’s a fairly torturous thing, being compelled to make art. And what makes it worse is that there are so many conflicting and confusing guidelines/rules/suggestions about how to go about creating art, being an artist. Some say it’s best in isolation, and some say collaborators are everything. Some experts/academics/famous artists give theories, methodologies, or offer tomes full of autobiographical quips… and if you read and listened to everything on offer – you’d drown in theory or pontification…

And the questions that buzz and hum within still remain:
Why are we compelled to create?
Where does inspiration come from?
Can an artist ever be satisfied?
How long until I know I’m good at this?
Should I be doing this?
Do I even want to be an artist?
If I’m going to do this – what sort of artist will I/can I be?

And amid all these questions acts of art take place.

This is not a review – but a brief response to the works by artists I hold in high esteem and will continue to watch. The blurb goes like this:

“Between Us is a collection of evocative new works by five emerging Australian artists. The audience can expect to eat, to sing, to be photographed, to listen and to watch each work, in this premier season of ArtsLab12, Shopfront’s annual artist residency program. Featuring the works:
‘Sonorous’ by Sepy Baghaei
‘Life. Death. Food’ by Ava Karuso
‘The Laughter & the Crow’ by Tanya Thaweeskulchai
‘Modern Secular Reasons To Sing’ by Maria White
‘Somniloquy’ by Pollyanna Nowicki”

Maria White
Maria White walked into the room and I liked her. As a person she has an easy, quiet strength and a bright smile – clear and articulate and driven.
She spoke of the interest in reconnecting with singing – which had at one time been a big part of her life.
She sang along to Beyonce’s Halo whilst carefully sliding a whole packet of spaghetti noodles into her hair, thus creating a halo. I was nervous, amused, fascinated and charmed.
At the mid-year showing, Maria White created a shadowy puppet show with a shower hose. Inside the building there was a bit of shaddow play, a bit of music. It was playful, goofy and a wee bit spooky.
The final showing was softly blustered by a threatening November storm, she stood in a shower on a podium in the front garden of Shopfront, humming and playing a water pipe, cheekily instructing us to hum along (too much noise was not council approved). Moving inside we brain stormed as a group all the different modern secular reasons to sing. “Birthdays!” I volunteered. We emptied our responses onto the butchers paper on the wall and soon and suddenly the roller door opened and a choir lead us in singing “The Rose”…

Something in my heart or throat or memory opened up in the tentative first vocal vibrations… and the words became thick and heavy and caught in all the spaces of who I am… And I, despite the cheese, the public-ness of it all, I teared up and my voice wavered through the final verse.
“When the night has been too lonely,
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.”

What I was left with was a reconnection to that idea, which had long lived in my body from years of having sung that song in choirs and in pubs and even in my ancient car: it is a song of faith in the potential of love – and the power of potential. Perfect.

Pollyanna Nowicki
This is where it began… I had first met Polly through my ex who had directed her in his show. I knew her to be a hard working, insatiably curious woman. (And if you have ever wanted to hear me laugh and see me cry or sit on a panel… this video includes all three things.)

Interrogated about how I dream, by porceline-faced James Shepherd – I felt cross examined – and overly public as he filmed me responding to his insistent inquisition. Little did I know my face was about to be projected on a canopy over the audience. Music from a different show I had known too well last year had transported me into happier times: and the bitter-sweetness of the sound made me shy and shift like a liar on my feet. Watching Polly unpack her dreams, and me unwrap mine, made me uneasy – but a necessary unease, like when confessing a lapsed check up at the doctors.
In the final showing a culmination of many ideas, Polly had enlisted the help of many of my colleagues (past and present) – people who are close to me or who had been too close to me to make a work which was like a bouquet of mirror shards: compelling, reflective, unable to hold a whole picture and painful to hold for too long.

Lying on white cotton sheets, on mattresses, we the audience like obedient orphans surrendered to the nest Polly had made – part pirate ship with a large billowing sail on which a fragment was projected, as James and Polly danced and confessed and interrogated each other. Dreams, memories, slithers of mundane moments that mattered, perhaps, once to both characters.

Ava Karuso
Ava Karuso, for me, had exisited, until that first moment, entirely in text. Her work had found its way onto my desk top a couple of times, through a few different avenues – me as assessor or as advisor or as hunter of new work. So when she walked in with the pitch of a new play – and assisted with an edible aide (a diorama made of gingerbread) – I was utterly delighted! Bright and beautifully spoken: Ava was a playwright and a bakeress, and clearly a woman after my heart! A dark gothic tale of love and betrayal, and death to rival Edgar Allan Poe and all the Grimm Fairytales mashed into one sugary bribe! Wonderful! Wonderful!
Ava at the showing had written, cast and directed a play. As with any ambitious undertakings – you never quite know what was happening until the audience entered and filled the space – and there were a lot of us on our hind legs bouncing from foot to foot to watch the action. A noir, culture mash of Victorian horror – and tricky in cramped promenade conditions. I for one felt proud of Ava’s HUGE quantity of work – especially after a rather tender and revealing blogpost which I felt compelled to answer:
I gasped. And giggled. Eyes darted about. WHAT? WHAT HAS AVA MADE? A fantasy forest of chocolate and treats. Red capped marshmallow mushrooms, popcorn brittle… like a Willy Wonka wonderland – but REAL. Hand made by the writer. And in a feat of hilarious audience participation an edible autopsy – which I had wished I had brought all the scientists in my life to – they would have LOVED IT! A David Attenborough style lecture of comedic precision as playwright/bakeress Ava is dissected and consumed by her audience: THE AUTHOR IS DEAD! Roland Barthes cried. YEAH LET HER BE EATEN! Ava Karuso replied! Then a strange and warped story unfolded – of love/lust/greed leading one down an unfamiliar path, and the true identity of those we loved (or thought we loved and trusted) revealed. Horror. The horror of betrayal. If I hadn’t been given a red velvet cake/white chocolate eyeball to chew, I don’t think my aching heart could have handled this parable of loss and love.

Tanya Thaweeskulchai
A week or so prior, I had been forced into a stairwell at PACT carpeted with astroturf, plastic vines and flowers by a woman laughing and crying at me – making me feel confused and contronted as a poetic spiel rattled out of a tape player. But a week on, that woman with a sweet smiling face spoke of words as though they were organisms struggling and unfurling like plants. She was enrolled in a masters of creative writing. A writer! Ahhhh! I found everything she was saying so terrifying, so brave and was utterly spellbound by her ideas – intimidated and excited by the way she saw the world – I wanted to know more.
At the showing it was all very simple. We clustered around her as she struggled with words as they made their way out of her body. I struggled to watch her, struggling, I knew the struggle was self imposed. I felt helpless to her effort. I felt afraid of my dormancy, not rushing to her verbal aid. Beautiful words, twisted shapes: me paralysed and struggling too.
A mass of electrical chords strewn across the floor. A small person amongst it all. I watch as she gathered and burdened herself with the chords, a task is at hand. She is confident. Strong and determined. I feel no need to help, no guilt, and no struggle – just a self-imposed task. I wondered how much had I changed or the purpose of the work had changed. The narrative too slippery for me to hang onto , instead I listened to the grace notes and glissando of her voice – and watched her achieve a goal.

Sepy Baghaei
Sepy stood out. An AADA trained actor with an interest in sound design. A seed of an investigation into everyday narratives- soundscapes of the everyday and how we track our lives in sound. The sample she offered was a documentary, barely mixed – but that really didn’t matter – what mattered was her commitment to something she didn’t know about, but had an interest in. Brave.
The showing was really a letting in of us, her audience, into some of her explorations: sight deprivation, surprise, sound in space. The sounds selected were everyday – unsurprising – but placement in space was interesting. Sepy was largely invisible. I didn’t really see her in her investigation – perhaps because so new, perhaps because this was a process showing… I wondered what would happen next – would this become a piece about sight deprivation? Is this about the actor made invisible?
Placed firmly in the centre of the work – there she is! There’s Sepy – performer and sound artist! The artist as aural tour guide – with a collision of natural and amplified sounds – sounds that clash between the eyes and our expectations – sounds that are richer in their amplification. A satisfying, sweet, well-made narrative with a classical arc. Beautifully performed, simple, clear and delightful.

What is abundantly clear is just what powerful visions these artists have for their art and their future of making art. All of them threw themselves head first, head on into making a piece which they cared about – that they committed to investigating. Under the careful watch of Michael Piggott, the artslabbers have followed their vision, intuition – interrogated and uncovered, risked and revealed themselves – how they feel about the world, how they want to connect with audiences and what they want to say and how.

It was clear to me that in Artslab 2012, a huge amount of personal resources were invested by these artists: their time, philosophy, money, integrity, honesty, stubborness, skills, network, joy, fear, their materials, their heart, their focus…

And Between Us, I am sure, will linger on, long after the calendar flips it’s weary tattered page to 2013.

Congratulations Sepy, Tanya, Polly, Maria and Ava – thank you for your work and for allowing me to witness your growth throughout the year.