IN THE CLUB
“In many communities,” Artistic Director and Producer Sara Cowdell writes, referring to COVID-19 but hinting to other precarities, “experiences and relationships have been forced to become incredibly private or incredibly public, reshaping our lives in unexpected ways.” I like this drawing apart of the public and private to the extremes. It is good that I like it because the theme for this fourth iteration of Performance Art Week Aotearoa (PAWA) is Public vs Private.
I want to talk about where the public meets the private in the gallery space – primarily Meanwhile – that hosts the Opening Night of PAWA.
The gallery is not quite a public space because it isn't open to one and all. There’s a door, with a lock. Nor is this gallery public in the sense of being run by the state.
Nor is the gallery private because the spirit is to welcome people to experience the space. And as an economic venture, it certainly doesn't seem to be private in the sense of seeking commercial outcomes.
So PAWA hosts us in an in-between space, between the public and private. But there are many places like this, all dribbled along a spectrum between what is purely public and properly private. So I want to introduce a third space to the theme, one that isn’t as pure and which might better resonate with a mixed space.
I want to say: “People! We're in the club!”
By saying “We’re in the Club” I am also saying, “This is where it’s at. This is where the good shit is at. I am here and you are here and there is no better place to be, now. Right now! Right here!”
But I also want to appeal to those who aren’t here. We’ve all been not here, not in the club.
The club is a public-private partnership in space that intends to be open but with particular terms set by the host. Did I say that it is good to be in this club?
I don't intend this phrase – “in the club” – to sound like a sneer. Some people have always felt outside of the club, felt uncool, unwelcome and unwanted. The club, to these people, is the worst of all spaces because the rules are unclear: Who is in? Who is out? What are the rules? Do I really want to be a part of a club that will have me?
A public space is far clearer than the club: you are welcome.
The private space is clear, too: you are not welcome.
But not the club: you have to do work to be here. You wriggle, morph, broadcast, ingest. You fit in.
How do I get into the club? It’s a particular kind of club. It has acumen. If McKenzie Wark were to look around the room, she might say “Judging by their appearances, all the patrons in this restaurant [read: club] look like they work with signs and do pretty well at it.”
Me? Well, I arrive early and plop myself on the floor to begin writing my theory of the club. I am to review the opening night – featuring Chris Kirk/Quinoa and Elliot Vaughan and Jazmine and Courtney, and mystery surprise performers. That’s how I get in. I’m here to review it. It’s a nice marker of being in the club, isn’t it? And not just in the club, but of it.
And so it begins: Chris Kirk/Quinoa is in the club!
And he is in his grundies. The club slowly begins to give a fuck. But there is still talk – it’s an opening after all, who looks at art at an opening – and some ambient music from the corner. He is performing through the duration of the opening, outlasting the audience who are seeking that opening mood. Spread across at least two hours, he wraps himself in newspapers – that medium often mistaken as a public good because of its fourth estate function. His performance brings to mind the work of Mark Harvey from the TEZA festival in Porirua in 2015. The stripped-down shreds of newspaper feel like the lingerie version of the cardboard dungarees that Harvey wore.
But let's not think the space of Meanwhile is our only concern. I am, like the durational work of Quinoa, interested in how time forms and dissolves with the club. The gallery is called Meanwhile, after all. It is founded on the segway between one time and - “meanwhile…” – another.
The timely coming together of the club is a beautiful thing. That’s why I arrived early. Look! The first guests! Look! The beer and snack table, at first heaving and taboo, now has a queue. It's the same as a good party getting underway... and here it is – the club is forming.
I ask Sara about the other performers. She points me to a flyer for Elliot Vaughan's existentialist hotline. I call him and he gives me advice from Jean Paul Sartre, which in my case, amounts to, an exhortation to unionise. He was a Marxist after all.
Then Sara then points me to the videos and photos on the wall from Jazmine and Courtney. They were to offer a – I hear and am impressed by – three hour pash marathon with each other, which is well captured by a screen. Their video plays throughout the night, a deep kiss in a dappled grotto and the mere mortals in the audience don't dare stare. If they'd wanted an attentive audience they might have kissed in public, not in this white-washed club. I suspect we're supposed to be happy for them and I am willing to look at their happiness with a gentle envy. I remember.
Then there are the surprise performers Ricy and Reneé who give a tour of the city. I walk with Ricy from Meanwhile to Thistle Hall, with lovely facts about politeness on Manners and a rendition of 'Toxic' by Britney Spears. The city is still a little on edge after yesterday's anti-vax protest at Parliament. Maybe the city of Wellington is a club, too. Go on: log in.
At Thistle Hall, Tobias offers one-on-one sessions of singing melodies over loops of melodies, all of which are degraded according to the contours of the room and replaying. He describes the way the process animates the room, both enabling the recording, but also the decay of the recording. Thistle Hall will host the breakfasts that mark the start of each day and has been a longstanding commitment of PAWA to hospitality. I'd initially pitched to review the breakfasts – the Breakfasts Club – but it might not count as art.
Back to the club. It’s loose now. Time has passed. That might be the point of performance art to be loose, to be provisional.
In the performance art club people don’t keep to their lanes. There are ruptures. Audience or performer? Conflict and curiousity. Someone from outside wanders in. Why no face control? Here is the moment when an ostensibly public space is challenged by a private citizen who does not or will not read the opaque social cues.
They speak too loud, they bring in gauche topics of conversation, they dress against the fashions of the day.
They make us want to limit entry to the club, but they also shunt against our feeling that our club is somehow representative of the public.
Some embrace the outsider, exchange names and pleasantries.
The outside is now part of this club. And I welcome you – the reader as an outsider – to do the same. To converge, to correspond, to club with us.
Written by Murdoch Stephens.
IN THE CLUB