Postcard from Perth: the gift of presence

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The only theatre I’ve seen in Perth over the last couple of weeks has been taking place around me on the streets, in the shops, around the dinner table and at various venues, family-friendly or otherwise. The world’s been turned upside down (even here in Perth at the height of antipodean midsummer) and the Lord of Misrule has once more presided over the Feast of Fools – which certainly describes my family Christmas, not to mention the alcohol-and-amphetamine-fuelled antics around Fremantle and the surrounding suburbs I call home.
There’s a darkness at the edge of town here at this time of year; my neighbourhood of Hamilton Hill has resounded nightly with the howls of the walking dead – and I’m not just talking about the TV series, the first season of which I watched avidly on SBS2 after it began screening in November. In fact a visiting ex-Perthian friend recently suggested I post a blog about the Walking Dead series as a metaphor for the city, with particular reference to the desolate, hostile post-apocalyptic glass-and-concrete urban wasteland of the CBD – which indeed bears a striking resemblance to the zombie-infested streets of Atlanta, especially in the run-up (or shuffle-up) to the Saturnalian frenzy of shopping and feasting.
Now that some semblance of order has been restored – at least for the time being – I’m driven to reflect on the absurdity of it all: Christmas, seasons, festivities, festivals, theatre and performance in general, here and elsewhere – but especially here in Perth.
As for theatre and performance in a more (or less) conventional sense: the seasonal interval gives me pause to reflect on what it is and why we make or go and see it, especially here at the edge of world. Once again those questions from Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia resound: ‘Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing? What do we want?’
According to WA local hero Tim Winton – in a recent speech at the Royal Academy in London to accompany the Australia exhibition on show there (and reprinted a couple of weeks ago in the ‘Review’ section of The Weekend Australian) – such questions are essentially geographical and unique to his native island-continent. For ex-pat Tassie bad-boy critic Peter Conrad on the other hand (in his review of the same exhibition for the Christmas issue of The Monthly) these questions are cultural rather than geographical, and the confusion between the two categories betrays the naivety of the exhibition’s curators, together with much of the landscape art they’ve chosen.
For me, however, Shaun Tan’s questions are existential. As such, I don’t have any answers, but they resonate all the more profoundly, especially here across the void at Christmas-tide.
Meanwhile there’s a truckload of live performance coming up in February with Perth Festival and Fringe World – not to mention Big Day Out at Claremont Showgrounds and Laneway Festival in Fremantle, followed by West Coast Blues ’n’ Roots in April (with Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age thrown in for good measure at Perth Arena across Feb–March). I mention these music acts because for my money there’s a lot more theatre in rock’n’roll – indie or stadium-sized, classic or contemporary – than many a play, well-staged or otherwise. So I’m still asking my daughters who’s worth catching live at Laneway or the Bakery; and I’m still dragging one or other of them to see a show I think will be hot (or cool) at Fringe World or The Blue Room – even if expectations aren’t born out, or we don’t ultimately agree.
What is it we’re hoping to find in the fleeting experience of live performance?
I had a conversation about this on New Year’s Eve with a man I’d never met before (but like me a friend of our mutual host) who was sitting at the dinner table opposite me and my wife. In fact the conversation itself – and indeed the whole evening, like New Years’ Eves generally – was something of a performance, and my wife and I were relieved when we could finally sing Auld Laing Syne and go home. In the meantime, our dinner companion wanted to talk to us about being performers (as non-performers invariably do) and I indulged his speculations for a while before turning the tables and asking him about himself (which is usually more interesting for everyone).
He turned out to be a software designer who worked for the mining industry (as most people seem to in Perth, one way or another – at least if they want to earn any money at all). Nevertheless he was anxious to communicate his own artistic and even environmentalist leanings – although both seemed currently unfulfilled, at least in terms of his work for the mining industry. In fact, like Gertrude in Hamlet, his heart seemed veritably cleft in twain by the apparent conflict between his aesthetic, moral and practical inclinations. He soothed himself by being a patron of the arts, and described how he found himself drawn to the stage-presence of certain performers he admired (our host and Leonard Cohen among them).
This ‘presence’ is a constituent element in the aura of all ‘original’, ‘unique’ or ‘authentic’ works of art – as famously described by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1938 essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. For Benjamin, aura is in decline because of the invention of photography, film and sound recording. This is a good thing (according to him), since it heralds the historically determined transition from capitalism to socialism – and from religion to politics, both inside and outside the sphere of the arts.
I’m largely convinced by Benjamin’s critical analysis but skeptical about his judgment, recommendations or prognosis.
On the one hand (as Baudrillard described from the late 60s into the new millenium) the very forces of mechanical reproduction praised as revolutionary by Benjamin have spread capitalism and consumerism around the globe – initially through the mass media and then in an accelerated, ubiquitous and hyperreal form via digital media and the internet – in a mesmerizing worldwide web Benjamin could not possibly have foreseen.
On the other hand, for better or worse, ‘unique’, ‘original’, ‘authentic’ (or, to use the term preferred by Adorno, ‘autonomous’) art and performance still exist in the here and now – even if they sometimes look like becoming an endangered species. Perhaps like all such species they simply migrate or adapt – in response to changing social, economic or technological conditions – by changing forms or platforms: going underground, going mainstream, going electric, going unplugged, going digital, going back to vinyl, going into fusion or back to their roots. Or perhaps they just perish; time’s up. Even across media and platforms – from books and CDs to photographs, films and TV shows, from publishing or recording to broadcasting or uploading – even virtual art and entertainment still takes place somewhere in ‘real’ time and space, even if it’s just between me and a small personal screen.
In any case, the aura of art and artists – including live performances and performers – seems to have survived and even thrived in the cultural catastrophe of commodification that now casts its shadow across the planet (and even into outer space, if we can credit plans for a reality-TV colonization of Mars). In fact, whether enduring, declining or fluctuating as the case may be, aura is still what makes art and artists such eminently collectable investments, socially if not financially: ‘cultural prestige capital’ for patrons like my New Year’s Eve interlocutor (with perhaps a warm inner glow of spiritual salvation thrown in for good measure). Professional artists can’t avoid this fate, any more than their patrons or collectors can. We’re all producers, consumers and even commodities ourselves now.
Perhaps Adorno’s distinction between the ‘function’ (Funktion) and ‘content’ (Gehalt) of art can help us here. Whether as artists, patrons, collectors, critics or audiences, we must learn to distinguish between the economic and social function of art (in Marx’s terms, its exchange value) and its content (or use value) as an irreducible form of experience. To return to my guiding question: it’s what we’re seeking in the theatre or the concert venue, on the page, the canvas, or the screen.
Reading Benjamin in this light, the aura of art has both a nostalgic and redemptive content, above and beyond either the ‘cultic’ function from which it derives or the ‘exhibition value’ that appears to be its destiny.
Notwithstanding the force of Benjamin’s critique of aura (not to mention Derrida’s deconstruction of the ‘metaphysics’ of presence), I’d maintain that – in theatre and performance at least – presence is ‘twice blessed’ (as Portia says of mercy in The Merchant) because ‘it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ – in this case, performer and fan alike. For both, the unpredictable nature of the pursuit is what makes it addictive. You never know when you’re going to score, whether the hit will be pure – or even a hit. I can count them on two hands, the shows and nights I’ll remember – from either side of the lights.
At the risk of sounding a bit theological myself, I’d even venture to say that the ‘cultic’ function of art is still an essential part of the shared experience of live performance, as fans of bands and DJs can readily attest. This ‘cultic’ function is evidenced as much in so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ rites and festivals as it is in modern, contemporary or even ‘postmodern’ works, acts and events – however ‘advanced’ the technology deployed in order to produce, distribute or consume them.
The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally end on January 6 (when I began writing this Postcard) with the Feast of the Epiphany (or Theophany), which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men bearing gifts to celebrate the birth of Christ.
In Greek, epi-phaneia means ‘striking appearance’ or ‘manifestation’, and refers among other things to the natural phenomenon of dawn – as well as the appearance or manifestation of a God (theo-phaneia).
Hard acts to follow, but we keep trying.
Happy New Year.

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