If Chunky Move’s Depth of Field, the beginning of my Dance Massive 2015 marathon, was to show me a seasonal pattern unshaped by human hand, Meeting revealed a pattern defined by sixty-four small-scale robots whilst Overworld writhed in a chaotic pattern of YouTube fragments tethered to the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. The tenuous link between these Dance Massive performances is solely that of my own programming: one night, two performances seen back-to-back, separated by an hour, at the North Melbourne Town Hall.
As with all festivals, cinema, dance, or otherwise, the festival patron looks for common threads in the works they’ve elected to see. Processing, reeling, and ruminating, before bouncing to the next performance: what is the best palette-cleanse? Perhaps the answer lies in making myself something of an automaton using the technologies of homeostasis. Perhaps with a stack of programmable cams at my core, stable equilibrium could be maintained. I’ll let you be the judge.
Director, choreographer, and performer Antony Hamiliton and instrument design, construction/composer, and performer Alisdair Macindoe’s Meeting is little short of a mechanical marvel. Featuring at its core sixty-four individual robots created by Macindoe, with the assistance of fellow builders Julie Macindoe, Xanya Mamunya, Lisa Gork, Simon Charles and Misha Doe, they divide "space and time in measured components"[i]. Placed on the floor in a large, fractured circle, these robots are not of the humanoid kind, but look more like timber metronomes. Attached to each block, for a singular arm they sported not wires within a polished metal sleeve, but something fantastically simple and familiar: a traditional red and black striped Staedtler pencil. This army of robots (if that is the collective noun) may not have sought to replicate nature, like the 1773 Silver Swan automaton of intricate clockwork in the Bowes Museum, but I like to think that were Mark Twain to have seen them holding court at the Town Hall he might have written similar:
“I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes — watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop — watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it…”[ii]
Where the Silver Swan preens and fishes for 40-seconds daily at 2pm, Macindoe’s robots seemed capable of performing their percussive dance at length. So capable, in fact, that they commanded the stage, even after Hamilton and Macindoe had left. Powered by internal motors and software-operated, each pencil tapped its own (seemingly) random pattern. Striving to make sense of the order, sometimes this sounded like rainfall. As Hamilton explained, “in Meeting, we sought a sonic equivalent to the fractal-like possibility of the choreographic system. Alisdair’s robots offer a similar sense of limitation/possibility, in that they are a body in space and they are limited by their simple ability to strike the floor.”[iii]
Hamilton and Macindoe, ringed by their musical making robots placed in clusters of eight, initially appeared to lead the floor orchestration. They moved in mechanical synchronicity to each other and the robots in turn mirrored them. Or so it seemed, before things switched and it was time for our former ringmasters to follow the robots’ lead. Ultimately, as I ascribed the robots with human characteristics, they were in charge, and Hamilton and Macindoe appeared to follow. Stacked within their still presumably mortal frames, I would not have been surprised to find 6000, 7000, 8000 parts refined and miniaturised. Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s late Eighteenth Century letter writing doll (in the collection of the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchâtel, Switzerland[iv]) had come to life and split in half. Two sublime machines, reprogrammed. Engraved upon their internal mechanism: “arm diagonal 8 beats medium speed, head side 2 beats fast speed, torso rotation 3 beats slow speed."[v]
Though Hamilton and Macindoe moved in ways suggestive of being robotic they maintained their fluidity, remained keenly aware of each other, and became emotionally and physically exhausted: three things we do not associate with robots, and three things that made the piece stronger, for me, as a result. Sweat formed as repeated sequences took their toll. Timing but for briefest period faltered. All those delicious things we associate with being human. Man as machine is still, after all, man. In their duet with each other, and in turn with the chorus of clever robots, they drew forms I could not see. Hamilton and Macindoe appeared to pull on imaginary rods or to focus on forms where I saw only negative space. Encouraged to fill in the ‘blanks’, with my eyes, I built a whole machine around the whole machine. And when the last pencil stopped its tap-tap-tapping and the performance was over, I longed to pocket one of those personable robots.
Returning later in the evening for creators and performers Rebecca Jensen and Sarah Aiken’s Overworld, I was presented once more with a circle upon the floor. A circle that held a pentagram mapped out by pieces of discarded clothing grouped in colours to represent each of the four elements. For earth, for example, green and brown items littered the floor, whilst those for fire were bright and red. Asked earlier upon arrival to take note of which element you were and Artistic Notes in jumbled code (“Like I should find a chair and then go down some stairs but my chair / was just floating in the sky! Ha / Oh co-ool! / And then my steps were like haha kinda like invisible but when I stood on them they kinda glowed so I knew where / the next one was / Like avatar”[vi]), I was keen to see ritual collide at speed with pop culture in a giddy mash-up of ideas; for Meeting’s precision to crash into chaos.
“By placing these disparate worlds side by side, we question how our uninhibited & superficial access to this information affects not only the way we relate to it but more so, value it.... appropriating modern ritual behaviours from Neo-Paganism, yoga, music videos, death metal, online gaming, erotica & You-Tube. In amongst this sprawling collage of images, reference and experiences, we are really hoping that the audience finds some way to connect to us and to each other. The audience are really important in this work, there is no show with out them, the ritual cannot be completed and it comes down to the fact that no matter what the internet can give us, its nothing compared to spending some time with your fellow humans.”[vii]
Alongside Aiken (Air) and Jensen (Water), Rachel Coulson (Fire) and Janine Proost (Earth), Overworld served as a time machine. It catapulted me back to my 20s, to a period when I was fascinated by the zodiac (Virgo, moon in Libra), and, more importantly full of bravado and in possession of certainty: this is who I am; this is how we can fix the world.
When the audience were asked to line-up behind their Elemental Leaders to receive gifts of coloured clothing, which we would later use to adorn our leaders, the chance for playful interaction came to the fore. As I waited in a line of fellow Earth elements, I enjoyed watching the excitement and trepidation on the faces of those near me. Reaching the front of the queue, my star sign affirmed, my leader asked me to join her in whispering "Virgo" as quietly as I could. Ha! Too easy. I can speak at mouse-pitch. In public, it’s my default setting. When Proost then asked me to join her in shouting "Virgo" as loudly as I could, I knew I was in trouble. There was no way I could do that, I thought, and I was right. I failed and was sent away empty handed. Floundering publicly at audience participation, I was reminded of a photo taken of me at kindergarten. In it, I am seen standing outside a cubby constructed of large Lego blocks, a forlorn expression drawn across my face, looking in at two of my friends inside. It is declared: “You are such a Virgo” and I admit I momentarily bristled at being pigeonholed. I’m just not very vocal. Had you asked me to hop on one leg and spin clockwise I would have. Perhaps then I could have earned a bit of green cloth from the pile on the floor.
Above all, I enjoyed the sheer girlishness of Overworld and its unapologetic, whole-hearted playfulness. For me, Overworld excelled where snatches of text and borrowed movement mutated and made something new. Where “Bubble Butt” said ‘on repeat’ became a chant; where the sounds one can make (though preferably you, not me) was explored just for fun. The conviction and trust Aiken, Jensen, Coulson and Proost placed in each other united the work. It was a little like peeping in through a window at a tight circle of friends, or do I mean elements?
“Machines cannot feel, it is commonly believed. Souls have no chemistry, and time cannot end. Our skin contains four million receptors. That is all I know.... Mysterium Tremendum.”[viii]
[i] Antony Hamilton, ‘Artistic Notes’, Meeting, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th March, 2015.
[ii] Novelist Mark Twain saw the musical Silver Swan, with an internal mechanism by inventor John Joseph Merlin, at the Paris Exhibition in 1837 and it features in his work The Innocents Abroad, p. 119, accessed via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3176
[iii] Antony Hamilton, ‘Artistic Notes’.
[iv] 'Pierre Jaquet-Droz’, History of Computers, accessed March 2015.
[v] Antony Hamilton, ‘Artistic Notes’.
[vi] Sarah Aiken, Rebecca Jensen, Janine Proost and Rachel Coulson, ‘Artistic Notes’, Overworld, North Melbourne Town Hall, Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th March, 2015.
[vii] Rebecca Jensen and Sarah Aiken, [Massive Chats], Overworld, 4th of March, 2015.
[viii] Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears, Camberwell: Hamish Hamilton, 2012, p. 269.
Director, Choreographer & Performer: Antony Hamilton
Instrument Design & Construction/Composer & Performer: Alisdair Macindoe
Lighting Designer & Production Manager: Bosco Shaw
Costume Designer: Paula Levis
Producer: Freya Waterson (Insite Arts)
Creators: Sarah Aiken & Rebecca Jensen
Performers: Sarah Aiken, Rachel Coulson, Rebecca Jensen, Janine Proost
Sound Designer: A.r.t. Wilson
Set & Lighting Designer: Rose Connors Dance
Costumes: Cary Aiken
Operation: Shane Thompson
Staedtler pencils, automatons, and four elements personified