Daniel Mudie Cunningham & Stephen Allkins, Boytown (2012). HD single channel video, colour, 16:9, 5:20 minutes. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre for Transmission, courtesy the artists. Photo: Susannah Wimberley
Pair artists with musicians and ask them to create new work. This is the premise of Campbelltown Arts Centre’s recent project Transmission. It’s a challenge necessarily complicated by the limits of two languages—one aural, one visual—each with its own syntax and inherent push/pull dynamics between the eyes and ears, two sensory theatres that run on separate mainlines to the heart. The charge becomes how to artistically approach the question of a harmonious marriage between the two so that its component parts are obscured while retaining the freedom to break free of its structure. Like a well-crafted pop song, the magic is often found in the ad-lib no matter how catchy the chorus.
This conceptual premise is reflected in the curatorial team of independent curator and writer Carrie Miller partnered with composer Dr Matthew Hindson, who also acts as Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Guest Music Curator. Working collaboratively the pair certainly assembled a delicious bill of 13 Australian artists paired with a genuinely eclectic mix of musicians, composers, performers, producers and DJs. With a launch night that threatened to lift the lid off the place, filled as it was with a heady mix of punters primed to be beguiled by live performances and patently not disappointed, Transmission’s opening set rocked. Returning to the gallery some weeks later, with the eerie feeling of sneaking onto a stage with the band departed, one had to work harder to find the lyricism in each artistic collaboration—one is less inclined to dance alone.
Heath Franco & Andy Rantzen, Tunnel Vision (2012). Multi-channel, HD colour, 16:9 video & sound installation, durations variable. Heath Franco is courtesy Galerie Pompom. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre for Transmission, courtesy the artist. Photo: Susannah Wimberley.
Beginning with works that explore the question of performance in art and music Justene Williams and Tina Havelock Stevens’ Let’sGroovyMauriceAlLarry (2012) is in scale, positioning and intensity, a centrepiece of the show. In the half-dozen or so works I’ve seen of Williams’ over recent years I must confess I’ve struggled to understand their panoply of signs and gestures, which is not the same thing as disliking the work. Indeed, there’s always much to be stimulated by in Williams’ dancing-paper-video-sculptures (for want of a descriptive). But despite the loose visual references to Modernism’s movements and tropes, I’ve found myself a baffled witness to a conjuring alien to my reasoning based on visual cues alone. So to witness the duo perform at launch night, trashing a ‘set’ of colourful cardboard assemblages as a marker of that displaced energy, was a treat that helped expand my understanding of Williams’ concern for the dynamics between rehearsal and spontaneity; Williams’ works may be ‘about’ the alchemy of the artist’s studio. The whole thing was somehow raised to absurd significance when Sydney’s artists’ artist (you’d know if you were there) ran an impromptu streak across the set, arse hanging in the wind as Stevens’ drumming took charge.
The one-off opening night rendition of Whitney Houston’s ballad Didn’t We Almost Have It All (2012) by the professionally irrepressible Renny Kodgers with Campbelltown’s Sweet Tonic Choir, whilst certainly entertaining in its jocular sweetness in the flesh, loses much of its sizzle when presented as footage on a LED screen. Kodgers, more than anyone, must surely know that the lion’s share of seduction is in a gaze returned. Similarly, Archie Moore’s collaboration with Stiff Gins presents a perplexing ‘racial cockatrice’ that transforms the mythic two-legged creature said to have a dragon’s body and rooster’s head into another kind of bastard. With its (his? her?) back turned to us one can sneak up to a standing mannequin under a mirror ball, outfitted in accoutrements signalling various cultural backgrounds sourced from Campbelltown’s discount stores of trash, that remains endearingly self-absorbed in its dubious rejection of an audience. Heath Franco and Andy Rantzen’s Tunnel Vision (2012), a makeshift house of horror comprising screens and projections of Franco in various guises—a wolf-man, deranged clown, assorted sideshow freaks—relies too heavily on a bravado veiled by the safety distance of screen media to be truly perverted, though the comedic does eventually fall off as uncanniness starts to niggle. Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward’s engagement with the Sydney Chamber Choir is staid by comparison as they present a sequence of fixed-frame views of the Choir vocalising an interpretation of an imagined rugby match from the stands of the Campbelltown Showground. Quietly meditative in its sharp focus on the almost infinite manipulation of the human voice the work disappointingly comes across as a filmed performance that underutilises the broader potential of the partnership.
Vicky Browne & Darren Seltmann, Synchronic Lines (2012). Mixed media, size variable. Vicky Browne is courtesy of Galerie Pompom commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre for Transmission, courtesy the artists. Photo: Susannah Wimberley.
Conversely, there are a number of works that bend the visual to the will of the aural in their more dedicated experimentation with the formal qualities of sound. Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann’s Synchronic Lines (2012) comprises a number of pods with faceted facades like cardboard diamonds that are suspended from the ceiling. To emerge in their cocooning space to fiddle with analogue switches that modulate low and high frequency hums and squeals is to inhabit an archipelago connected by missives to foreign sanctuaries of solitude. Carla Cescon and Kusum Normoyle’s Venereal Sound Edition #1 (2012), in which dangling semi-molten rubber humanoid bats act as phonic devices that when held to one’s ear spew an array of frequencies, is underwhelming in scale and baffling in content. By dazzling contrast, Gold Metal (2012), what and Julian Day’s tribute to Mondrian’s obsession with swing-era jazz is satisfyingly sexy in its reflective silver and gold sculptural and painted elements that are in synch with the sound of trumpets. There’s a geometric logic that is at once playful and ascetic, like the Dutch master himself.
Not surprisingly the works that perhaps most successfully tackle the curatorial challenge rely most heavily on the seductive pairing of moving image with music (as opposed to sound). In Mountain Study (2012) a Hanimex overhead projector throws slow-moving diorama-like landscapes of mountain peaks and valleys upon the wall like Plato’s cave, allowing Todd McMillan to achieve a subtle beauty with Peter McNamara’s original composition of xylophone that channels a Bernard Herrmann score of intrigue. Rachel Scott and Mick Harvey’s Atomic Telephone (2012) is similarly enigmatic in its rolling rhythmic guitar, deep bass line and cello that is in pitch-perfect tune with a dreamlike video sequence. Boytown (2012), Daniel Mudie Cunningham’s collaboration with legendary Australian dance music pioneer Stephen Allkins impressively stands in contrast to the work of their colleagues in that it unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve and is all the more affecting for doing so. We watch a fragment of a teenage boy’s travail in growing up gay in the suburbs paired with a mix of classic ‘80s pop songs about personal and physical escape. Young performer Fabian McCallum’s angelic face and searching eyes do so much to engender a beautifully sad prelude of desire for unexplored horizons when the safety net of familial security fails us.
Nell and Bec Machine from Babymachine, Quiet/Loud (2012). Single-channel digital video, 16:9, colour, looped commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre for Transmission. Nell courtesy Roselyn Oxley9, courtesy the artists. Photo: Susannah Wimberley
In a final measure of things for this viewer, at least, by far the simplest collaborative effort in the show and the most intriguing is that of Nell and Wollongong-based rocker Bec Machine.
In Quiet/Loud (2012) they perfectly compliment each other in an exercise in the fundamental oppositional force of mutually exhaustive dichotomies. As Bec, clad in heavy metal t-shirt, Doc Martens and aviator sunglasses pummels us with waves of feedback and jet blasts of riffs from her electric guitar, Nell, dressed in black Kimono, sits in meditative repose atop an amplifier. So disorientating is the collision between sound and gesture that I couldn’t quite make out if the soundtrack is actually running in reverse to the moving image or not. It hardly matters. With eyes closed and Mona Lisa smile, Nell allows us to witness just how music can beat a path to realms beyond the visual.
Transmission, Campbelltown Arts Centre, 9 June–5 August 2012
Pedro de Almeida is a curator, writer and arts manager. Over the past decade he has developed and delivered artistic and cultural programs for Sydney...