Dark Mofo is a pseudo-pagan winter festival of art filtered through a sexy goth aesthetic, put on by MONA and its infamous founder, faux-anti-establishment art collector David Walsh. The two-week, red and black-branded festival trades, unashamedly, in the hyper-articulation of the violent erotic conventions that underpin the very museum-exhibitory complex Walsh feigns disgust for: the politically-charged, voyeuristic and subjugating pleasures of the (intersecting) white, colonial, patriarchal gazes with which we often encounter culture. These problematic social relations are built into the seductive branding of the festival, which defers to the politically loaded erotics of looking and spectacle. But it’s also supported by Dark Mofo’s many historically-significant curatorial art mistakes, which most art professionals claim to hate: an all-male film program, mostly male headliners and a comprehensive music line-up of genres traditionally coded with the sex appeal and patriarchal legitimacy of bro-masculinity. While queer people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour, and women aren’t completely absent in Dark Mofo’s programming, their pretty consistent scheduling in nighttime, party-branded events seemed like a subordination of their interests and voices.
I might seem cynical but Dark Mofo deserves rigorous critical engagement when it has an unprecedented cultural stronghold over an Australian capital city, with its homogenous, omnipresent branding and the mutually supportive interplay between Australia’s colonial, neoliberal context and Dark Mofo’s seductive reproduction of the sexist, settler-colonial museum’s conventions. Indeed, a pervasive euro-phallo-anarcho-capitalist mood sets into Tassie like gelatine during the festival period – wobbling sometimes but staying mostly solid across a Dark Park filled with the indexes of Herman Nitsch’s outdated, blood-as-cum stylised violence routine, a warehouse full of whiskey and jaffle collection points, and a tourist district that becomes a Walshian dystopia.
What’s frustrating is the festival itself isn’t a unanimously unethical endeavour that can or should be boycotted. It mixes its blood-lust for problematic branding and curatorial decisions with some incredible (and rare for Australia, let alone Tasmania) experimental programming. And many artists use their artistic agency to push back against the more problematic aspects of their curatorial context. Shows like The Second Woman and Tasmanian College of the Art’s group show Panopticon, displayed enough self-reflexivity and agency in the staging of their respective spectacles to quietly undermine the desire to read performance art with what Catherine Russell would call the entangled, erotic modes of pornographic, zoological and ethnographic viewing[i] – a way of looking that seems to be encouraged by a festival that leans into the racist, sexist, imperial and commodifying discourses that mainstream and certainly museum erotics are predicated upon.
The Second Woman, Saturday June 17, 3pm – Sunday June 18, 3pm
In The Second Woman, Nat Randall performs on loop, for 24 hours, a brief scene of intimacy and angst between a man and a woman that’s inspired by the beginning of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977). Randall plays the part of the aging, blonde actress opposite a hundred different men, who are invited to each have a cameo in her revolving door of hetero-dialogue. The small, hotel-like set that Randall and her men move within is beautifully designed and made, but its visual appeal partially rests on a nostalgic desire for the soft-core, vintage aesthetics and lighting of the seventies. This scopic pleasure is heightened by the fact that Randall’s performance is filmed and projected alongside her, in real time, by two camera operators who reset with Randall each time the scene concludes. The Second Woman is about gender and performance, yes, but more than that it’s about representation and looking – and it would be a misstep to not consider both as highly political.
I went into the Peacock Theatre knowing that Randall’s spatio-temporal drag of an aging blonde was programmed alongside Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, a gig which was staged with projections of another vintage hallmark of fragile, hegemonic white womanhood (Laura Palmer) the following night. And unfortunately, I don’t think The Second Woman was able to absolve itself from its complicity in what was clearly a curatorial hard-on for vulnerable renditions of Pax Americana’s most treasured prize: the beautiful, thin, white woman. In a festival that missed the mark on representing women, the erotic, 1970s, white aesthetics of the women-led show took on a sinister edge. I don’t hold The Second Woman solely or even mostly accountable for this faux pas, but perhaps Dark Mofo highlights latent problems with the piece that weren’t magnified in its initial 2016 iteration at Next Wave, a festival that had enough diversity to not place the burden of women’s representation on a somewhat uncritically nostalgic rendition of beautiful, young, white, heteronormative cis womanhood. And that’s to say nothing of the many allusions to sex work – red lighting, a recurring financial transaction that ends the dialogue between Randall and her revolving door of strange men, the one hundred men in 24 hours spectacle – that didn’t seem to be fully conceptualised or justified; possibly an oversight in a feminist work heavy on what could be read as second-wave aesthetics.
The piece certainly wasn’t uninteresting or unproductive. But I’ll admit, The Second Woman failed to be politically compelling in the ways that I expected and wanted it to be. Instead of seeing some kind of expansion upon on the riveting interpersonal politics exploded in Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim’s The Blue Tapes (1972) and the audience-artist politics of seminal performance works like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), I felt under-whelmed by what often felt, to me, like a piece of durational performance art that oscillated between a slightly out-dated piece of feminist theatre that had high production values but a script and acting that weren’t quite were they needed to be, and a slightly politicised Whose Line Is It Anyway? skit. Acting chops and screenwriting acumen are not necessarily the makers of a fine performance artist and Randall, part of a group effort but clearly the star of the show, has the endurance, commitment and charisma one expects in their place. But in this particular show it’s difficult to dismiss what I saw to be a lack of complex engagement in the development of the script and its animation in Randall’s acting, as this piece appeared to rely on the nuances of its dialogue and stage directions to unpick gendered relationships. It’s when the script and its delivery shines that The Second Woman has its best moments, as a performance piece that carefully creates a circuit of interaction that is repeated again and again, to uncover the nuances of gendered politics.
Watching the infinite stream of men enter the stage and wrestle with their prescribed role as a reactionary figure is undeniably interesting. The dialogue-driven subordination of the men is literally written into the script, allowing Randall to steer the interaction by asking the questions, giving directions and moving first. It took a close viewing to pick up on all the ways in which men would navigate this textual logic and I think the politics uncovered by this rich concept would have been more evident and interesting if Randall had better negotiated her integral role in this performance – perhaps with more political weight, or at least consistency. She often appeared unsure of how to respond when men ad-libbed or reacted in a way she hadn’t anticipated and reacted inconsistently. Just ignoring their deviations from the script and performing the script again and again on a closed track would have revealed something, over time. Or tactfully playing with the men’s improvisations would have been similarly interesting. But watching Randall waver between too many breaks of the fourth wall (which devalued the currency of such an act), clownish plays to the audience (who clearly wanted Randall to be singularly funny, sans politics), and unsatisfying moments of fidelity to the script when faced with something interesting, left me frustrated and wanting more from what promised to be such a dynamic show.
As Vincent Silk noticed last year[i], the brief dance turned physical wrestle between Randall and her many male players is the most compelling part of the piece. With the least amount of stage direction, the simple act of dancing and then letting Randall fall was an unbearable ask for most of the men, who often made the process of falling far more painful than it needed to be by awkwardly resisting her fall. Many men displayed an understanding of consent and body politics that was severely lacking and included hitching up Randall’s dress, which made for a powerful imminent critique. More moments like these, which show the importance of striking on the exact politically-charged, flexible stage directions that will reveal gender politics and which Randall negotiated with power, fearlessness, insight and finesse, is what we need more of in feminist performance at large.
I’m unsure if my ambivalent response to The Second Woman is coloured by its inclusion in Dark Mofo, or if Dark Mofo’s unforgiving context makes me hold the work up to standards that are too high. But when you go to Dark Mofo and find yourself negotiating the aesthetics and erotics not of heteronormativity, or even ‘sexy goth’ heterosexuality, but a pervasive vibe of faux-radical heterosensuality that exists in the gallery, in the park and even in the ferry that takes you to MONA, if nothing else you’re gifted with the insight that everything is political and all of the choices we make as curators and artists are erect with (often questionable) ethics.
Em Size is many things, but a writer of one-line bios isn’t one of them.
The Second Woman was presented on Saturday June 17, 3pm June 18, 3pm at Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre as part of Dark Mofo 2017, Tasmania.
[i] Vincent Silk. “The Sloppy Dance”. Published Worm Hole on July 12, 2016. http://2016.nextwave.org.au/essays/the-sloppy-dance/.
[i] Catherine Russell. “ Zoology, Pornography, Ethnography” in Experimental Ethnography. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.