The unique premise of Proximity Festival is that it presents programs of performance art created for one viewer at a time. This approach to art consumption lends itself to participatory works; the behaviours assumed by the audience member are often as crucial to the artworks’ concepts as the performances enacted by the artist. Program B at Proximity Festival featured three artists who engaged with the participant to explore themes such as alternative modes of social activism, the queer experience of public visibility, and the cultivation of celebrity through the talk-show format. The 2017 iteration of Proximity Festival marked the first time the festival took place within public spaces of Perth City that weren’t art institutions. This is significant because the strength of the works in Program B was partly determined by the sensitivity to the purposes and aesthetics of the sites in which they took place.
The first work in Program B was Jen Jamieson’s (WA) Let’s Make Love. In this work, Jamieson greeted the participant with a minute-long hug in the Como Treasury Building before walking them through an obscure route to a balcony under the sun with a bed for two. Along the walk, Jamieson, deliberately dressed all in blue, talked about oxytocin, a hormone attributed to creating sensations of love and trust. The entire work was based around eliciting this hormonal reaction within the participant, and to that end, it was successful. Let’s Make Love was previously featured in the 2014 iteration of Proximity Festival at the Fremantle Arts Centre, and it was interesting to see how the work was redeveloped for a new site. I was under the impression that a lot of the development for this multi-sensory work involved strategic location scouting – Jamieson did her best to ensure the locations chosen for the work didn’t seem arbitrary, and this was something the sites definitely ran the risk of being. She walked the participant past an existing lavender bush and instructed them to pick a flower and pay attention to its texture and smell while explaining the positive effects smelling lavender has physiologically. The destination of the work was a blue bed placed upon a balcony, on which Jamieson and the participant laid down and held hands. Whilst the bed could have been anywhere, the balcony setting was serene and poetic, and adventurous walking was another central aspect of the work – walking beside someone is an activity that elicits oxytocin in the brain. At the end of Let’s Make Love, Jamieson posited that gestures designed to elicit oxytocin within one another could be a form of social activism in response to an increasingly hostile socio-political climate.
Jamieson’s work becomes interesting when considering the convergence of candid and manipulated reality present within the performance. The aesthetic decision of combining existing features of public space with imposed settings and colours pertains to the deliberately elicited, yet involuntarily created, oxytocin within the participant’s brain. It is through this dynamic that the idealistic undertone of ‘you can affect your own reality’ is given credibility. However, the implied conclusion that synthesising happiness and fostering trust between strangers can constitute productive social activism is a poetic simplification and is best not contemplated too critically. A week after experiencing the work, I recall the peaceful and positive feeling the work left me with. Let’s Make Love is at its strongest when considered as a poetic and light-hearted affective performance integrating escapism within the fabric of reality.
Liam Colgan’s (WA) Reflux of a Blush is much more sensitive to the politics of public space, examining queer visibility and the seeming inevitability of being noticed for being different. Colgan met the participant beside the restrooms on the (conceptually appropriate) mezzanine level of the City of Perth Library. They then instructed the participant to wear gold gloves and sunglasses, whilst they wore a gold necklace and red bandana. Colgan and the participant would take turns stealthily hiding one accessory around the cafe and silently gesture to the other to locate it. After Colgan and the participant exchanged all of their accessories, Colgan handed the participant an iPod with Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Body’s In Trouble” playing, along with a note that read ‘This feeling is yours now. Sit with it.’ Colgan ran off hastily back to the restrooms, as the participant reflected on wearing conspicuously feminine accessories in a quiet public space. With ‘Reflux of a Blush’, Colgan did not aim to construct boundaries of the work that exist separated from reality; it was crucial that these actions were happening in a space surrounded by the gaze of others, and where public pressure to behave appropriately is at its peak. In the context of an affective performance, this use of space is powerful and conceptually watertight – the relations that naturally occur in these spaces – that is, relations pertaining to queer visibility – become the meat of the work.
Whilst Jamieson’s work was concerned with chemically manipulating the participant through affective performance, the affective quality of Colgan’s work was centred around transforming a personal narrative of queer experience into a genuinely felt experience by the participant. They were successful in eliciting the feeling that the participant was being watched, although I would suspect this feeling would be more powerful for participants who have no prior experience with performance as a medium. One of the strongest, and most poignant moments in Colgan’s performance was when the participant became inclined to browse the catalogue search available on the library’s ground floor. As the participant scrolled through the results, they would notice ‘queer’, or ‘queer history’, being the search keyword. The results showcased a vast array of queer literature, some published as early as the 1960s and some published more contemporarily. As the participant sits with this gesture, they realise that it becomes necessary to learn about oneself through literature or online communities, because of the way queerness is suppressed from mainstream expression and identification.
The final work in Program B was staged almost theatrically and resembled traditional performance art more than either of the previous works did. This felt slightly jarring to begin with, but it was refreshing as it progressed. The participant is ushered into the room by a woman wearing corporate attire, explaining that you’re about to conduct an interview. In the interview room, the participant is offered a glass of champagne, some release forms to fill out, and verbal instructions on when to walk on camera and begin interviewing the artist. Nat Randall’s (NSW) EXCLUSIVE is an extension of her practice as an endurance performance artist and draws inspiration from her work on Sydney’s FBi Radio to query notions of truth-telling and the cultivation of celebrity on talk shows and reality TV.
A rich history exists of endurance as a performance genre, and the way it functions in Randall’s work is that it allows her to extrapolate and narrow in on a couple of particular phenomena within the interview format: the capacity of the interviewee’s responses to construct a narrative, and function of broadcast as a means of actualising this narrative. These conceptual concerns, along with the genre of endurance performance, seem a little at odds with the deliberate mis-en-scene of the work, which one would assume exists to assist the participant’s navigation of the work through affect. It becomes apparent, however, that affect is of far less importance in Randall’s work than in Colgan’s or Jamieson’s. Instead, the participant serves as a necessary device for the artist to interact with in order to continue her performance. The participant wraps up the interview and walks away shortly after they hear the usher call ‘seven minutes!’ from outside the interview room. The participant is given a card that lets them know when their interview will be broadcast in the Perth Cultural Centre, and leaves with a sense that they contributed to Randall’s work, rather than a sense that their behaviours were included within the bounds of the work. As an extension of Randall’s practice, EXCLUSIVE is an appropriate work whose documentation and discussion I look forward to engaging with, but as a performance within Proximity Festival’s first iteration outside of traditional art institutions, the sensitivity to site was notably absent, especially when viewed immediately after Reflux of a Blush in the Program line up. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Randall is the only artist in Program B who isn’t from Western Australia, and while the absence of site sensitivity is noteworthy in context, it should not be regarded as a criticism of Randall’s work itself.
Each of the works in Proximity Festival 2017’s Program B provided very different examples of what participatory performance could entail, with sensitivity to site and audience agency being the key elements by which the works could be compared and understood. All three works were accessible and dynamic, and I was left with a real sense that placing Proximity Festival outside traditional art institutions allowed for more ambitious works to be realised. I perceive that the 2017 iteration belongs to a wider trend, especially led by Dark Mofo, Hobiennale, and Fremantle’s High Tide, of integrating art festivals within the broader community. It’s too early to anticipate what the Proximity Festival 2018 would look like, but I hope they continue to contribute towards this trend of publicly situated arts festivals.