THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE

18 Sep

This is a very unique story, the kind of story that could only ever take place in a place like Wollongong.

Apart from all the other places where stories like this have taken place. And keep taking place. In all, there have been at least 11 councils sacked in NSW from 1997-2008, and 32 corruption inquiries since 1989. So Wollongong is very far from alone in this area. Does it all matter? Compared to the scope of the political scandals that version 1.0 has worked with in the past, are these dodgy developments a bit too small-scale? Is this just a funny, sometimes silly show about a sex scandal with some loopy twists, such as the con men posing as ICAC officers? What are the stakes in local government corruption scandals? Don’t things like this happen all the time?

As a group of artists and citizens we had to wrestle with these questions. But through the process of making this work we have realised that in the end, all politics is local, and the primary tier of government that most citizens relate to on an everyday basis is their local council. The events, actions and inactions scrutinised in this ICAC inquiry have allowed us to consider what kind of relationship we want to have with the places in which we live, and with the governments that run the places in which we live. As citizens, we don’t think about that often enough. Hopefully, this show might provide such an opportunity.

David Williams, version 1.0, August 2011

version 1.0’s The Disappearances Project

7 Apr

“The world is full of missing persons, and their numbers increase all the time. The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive, and what we hear about the ways of being dead.” Andrew O’Hagan, The Missing (1996), p98

“Going missing presented those left behind with a void. While other losses may be uncertain, missingness was not only uncertain but also intangible. What had happened was unknown and what might happen was entirely outside the control of those left behind. [They] found it difficult to grieve because of the uncertainty about what exactly it was they were grieving.” Julie Clark, Adult Siblings of long-term missing persons: Loss and “unending not knowing” (2007), p17

When a missing persons case is discussed in the media, the focus seems primarily concerned with the mystery and drama associated with the disappearance, and on the logistics of the investigative process marshalled in hope of finding this person. Perhaps captured by the dramatic conventions of television crime shows, the stories about missing persons that circulate throughout the media sphere almost always propose disappearances as cases that will eventually be solved, with the victim rescued or located and the villain punished. In its simplest formulation, public discussions around missing persons cases work under the assumption that in such cases the case will be closed, and answer will be found. In many cases this is correct, with 86% of the 30,000 persons reported missing each year found within seven days. But those statistics leave a great many people unfound.

What is almost always lost in this focus on the mystery of the missing person is the plight of those left behind. Recent research estimates that each missing persons case directly affects the lives of twelve other people, and be they family, friends or community members, the journeys of the left behind are far from straightforward. As Julie Clark observes in the second epigraph, the left-behind must exist in a state of not-knowing, left ‘stuck’ or ‘frozen’ in a state of grief in which they cannot ever be sure what it is that they are grieving for, leaving everyday existence as “a void”. version 1.0’s The Disappearances Project quietly traces the edges of this void, hoping to shed light on the emotional journeys and trajectories of hope of those left behind, with the great hope that we as a society might begin better helping those faced with experiences.

David Williams, Bathurst, April 2011

Mid-process, A Distressing Scenario – Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

12 Nov

Kym Vercoe and Jane Phegan in rehearsal for A Distressing Scenario. Image by James Brown

For me the worst thing about the global financial crisis is the movie Wall Street II. My god!

At the beginning of the second week of rehearsals we thought it would be a fun thing to do. An afternoon excursion. We wanted to learn some of the stock market floor moves. My god. It was the worst movie ever!

The writing – appalling. The acting – atrocious – those Federal Reserve board meetings!!! I mean, Michael Douglas – what are you doing?

And that overused thematic of the ‘bad father coming good.’ I mean, how many movies? Why do we always need some old misguided white guy to save the day? Didn’t they make this mess in the first place?

And the young couple that get engaged and find out seven seconds later she’s pregnant. They move from one fancy New York address to another fancy New York address. She’s got a secret $100 million (courtesy of the estranged ‘bad’ father) but really they just want to save the world by investing squillions in some unproven ‘green’ technology.

They break up (‘bad’ father meddling), they get back together (‘bad’ turned ‘good’ father meddling).

Sean Bacon in rehearsal for A Distressing Scenario. Image by James Brown

[I’m not ruining it. I’m saving you $15.]

A stupid motorcycle-alpha-male-off. And the conspicuous overuse of children’s bubbles as the dominant metaphor.

And hilariously, it’s about greed! Are you kidding me? How much did this Oliver Stone travesty cost? And we had to go on cheap day and sneak in our snacks from ALDI because Jane never even got the $900 stimulus from Kevin!

Kym Vercoe, November 2010

seven kilometres north-east

12 Oct

“How could they describe that swirling current among men which passed from dumb animal fear to suicidal enthusiasm, from the lowest impulses of bloodlust and pillage to the greatest and most noble of sacrifices? Never can that be told, for those who saw and lived through it have lost the gift of words and those who are dead can tell no tales. Those were things which are not told, but forgotten. For were they not forgotten, how could they ever be repeated?” Ivo Andric, Bridge on the Drina p. 265

The idea of place is a funny thing. How is it possible that I feel more comfortable, more ‘at home’ in a country 15,830 kilometres away from my backyard in Sydney? Tonight’s story comes from my love of travel, more particularly, my love of travelling in the Balkans, and more particularly still, in Bosnia. It always takes a few days to settle in over there, to slow down and get back into copious coffee drinking. I also have to get used to the directness and openness of people, which I love, even when they tell me they can’t stand my big black boots. And then later, it’s always so difficult to leave.

Sometimes we stumble across something haunting and we can’t let it go. seven kilometres north-east is about one of those moments. It’s a story about remembering. Thank you for joining me.

Kym Vercoe, version 1.0, September 2010

Piecing together a scandalous jigsaw

7 May

“Your editorial suggesting the Australian Government went to war in Iraq to protect its wheat market is deeply offensive and utterly untrue” Alexander Downer, July 6, 2006

In January, the version 1.0 team began work on a performance inquiry into the so-called ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal in which monopoly wheat exporter AWB Ltd paid bribes or ‘kickbacks’ to the government of Saddam Hussein right up until Australia declared war on Iraq in March 2003. The basic facts of the scandal are pretty simple, and highly disturbing. Whilst operating under a sanctions regime whose purpose was to prevent Saddam access to hard currency to continue his weapons programs, AWB was asked in 1999 to pay a new fee for ‘trucking’, payable not only in cash but also in US dollars. Rather than risk missing out on a big sale, AWB agreed to pay a ‘trucking fee’ of US$7.2 million in cash to Iraq, knowing that this was against the spirit of the sanctions. After convincing AWB to cheat once, Iraq continued to increase the ‘trucking fee’ over the next four years, and AWB, sliding rapidly down the slippery slope, continued to pay. In all it seems $290 million was paid by AWB to the government of Saddam Hussein. Worse, AWB actively tried to conceal these payments through a string of front companies. Worse still, the Australian government had very close ties to AWB and its management, and despite 35 documented warnings that the company was engaged in corrupt behaviour, chose not to investigate, and instead aggressively defended AWB against all concerned parties. Even worse, the Australian government aggressively pushed the case for war against Iraq, and one of the justifications used was that Iraq was rorting the sanctions program. AWB was the biggest single rorter, and the Australian government their biggest defender. In 2005 the United Nations held an inquiry, and the resultant report from Paul Volker recommended further inquiry into companies such as AWB. In December 2005, the Cole Commission began hearing evidence in Sydney. Enter performance group version 1.0.

version 1.0 has made theatre from inquiries before, most notably our 2004 project CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). This time however, we weren’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the task. The transcript of the Cole Inquiry’s 76 days of public hearings totals almost 8500 pages. Add to this the 2000 or so pages of Cole’s report, and thousands upon thousands of pages of journalism and other commentary, and you have a veritable mountain of paper. Scaling this mountain, and transforming it into theatre was never going to be simple. However, the precise degree of difficulty of this task caught everyone by surprise. Making performance from documents that are defiantly non-theatrical is something that version 1.0 has become quite skilled at in recent years, but to say that this process has been challenging is a severe understatement. As I described this process in an interview in February: “sometimes I think it would easier to knock over a brick wall with my head.” I was only half joking.

The usual line from government spokespeople like Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been variations of “it’s all very complicated”. Like the best political spin, this is true and misleading at the same time. Yes, the Cole Inquiry and associated documents are mind-bogglingly complex in the mass of details they continually disgorge. But as I described at the start of this article, the issue itself is pretty straightforward. Downer’s insistence that everything about this scandal is too complicated encourages citizens not to waste their time thinking closely about this. Such strategic avoidance of thinking, and dismissal on the grounds that ordinary citizens won’t ever understand and therefore should not try, obviously serves very particular political interests, especially in this election year. Part of the urgency that drives version 1.0’s attempt to render this inquiry theatrical is to actively resist these exhortations to stop thinking, and instead to encourage citizens to closely interrogate the processes by which our democracy operates, and the ways in which our representatives, both governmental and commercial, act in our name. That is not to say however that this theatre is either didactic or reductive. To encourage people to think more closely about an issue is not to tell people how they must think. No preaching to the converted for us, thanks very much.

But despite the ideological imperative that drives Downer’s statement, it is true that the Cole Inquiry is concerned with fine details. The inquiry transcript shows a forensic investigation of shades of gray in the legally and ethically murky world of the international wheat trade. The lawyers assisting the Inquiry ask probing questions of minute and often-impenetrable detail, in no particular narrative or chronological order. These include the date of a meeting, the distribution list of an email, the exact significance of a scribble on a document. Much of it is hardly riveting stuff. Additionally, the regular response to such questioning – “I don’t recall” – advances neither dramatic nor investigative coherence. One of the key witnesses in our performative remix of the Inquiry, the CEO of AWB Andrew Lindberg, used variations of “I don’t recall” 158 times in a single day’s testimony. I know, I counted them. When Commissioner Cole handed down his report in November 2006, Lindberg was deemed to be a “witness of truth”. This is somewhat baffling to us after reading hundreds of pages of denials, evasions, and refusals to admit that anything was even wrong.

Against the Australian government’s line “it’s very complicated” and AWB’s line “I can’t recall”, version 1.0 attempt in Deeply offensive and utterly untrue to put the pieces of the kickback jigsaw together, and in the process entertain, provoke, disturb, and inform. Together with our audiences we seek to produce accountability for both corrupt behaviour and negligence. The task might be impossible, but since when has that ever been a reason not to try?

David Williams, August 2007

Article first published on Arts Hub, Friday 24 August 2007.

The pleasure of patriarchy: some reflections on gender relations triggered by THIS KIND OF RUCKUS

7 May

In our exploration of depressingly ordinary, run-of-the-mill sexual violence – violence in the form of struggles for power and control that occur within all intimate relationships – we were forced to recognise and confront the reality of male power. Not only did we reflect at length on the banally obvious fact of physical difference – “He feels tall. Towering tall”, as Kym notes in our couples mediation session midway through the show. There’s a physical capacity for violence built into the male body and, like it or not, this remains close to the surface. Not that this is intended in any way to excuse the behaviours of violent men. On the contrary, such men far too easily get such behaviours excused on the basis that these were an aberration, a one-off, pushed over the edge, under the influence, under pressure, under attack, and will never ever happen again. Until the next time, which will also undoubtedly make claim to being another once-off. No, the point is more that all male bodies are capable of such violence, and as such must remain self-aware to keep such capacity in check.

Now, I like to think that I’m a sensitive, caring, considerate kind of guy, a so-called SNAG (presuming that the reader will permit me the excision of some of the more hippy connotations of ‘new-age’). I like to think that I have a healthy belief in both gender equity and personal excellence, and as such, that I oppose discrimination without reducing solutions to such discrimination to mere quotas. I like to think that ‘reverse discrimination’ initiatives should remain temporary measures. Most of my bosses in a wide range of jobs have been women, and its fair to say that almost all of my significant mentors have been female artists and artsworkers. I like to think that I’ve absorbed many of the primary lessons of feminism – biology is not destiny, the personal is political, etc, etc.

I begin with this awkwardly affirmative-action paragraph in order to indicate the scale of my self-deception. As we were making THIS KIND OF RUCKUS, the closer attention we paid to gender politics and power struggles within relationships, the more I realised that despite my belief to the contrary, I benefit from patriarchy. Not only that, but I use these benefits for my own advancement. Subtly, of course. And most importantly, I like it. I enjoy these benefits. This pleasure in (relative) power is unavoidable, even though it becomes, upon reflection, somewhat abhorrent to me. When I think too closely about it, I begin to despise the sight of myself in the mirror. Despite this reflective abhorrence, the simple fact remains that my power as a man is largely invisible to me. And by invisible, I mean that I am not required to think about it very much at all. I can walk through the world and think very little about my power – my power to inflict physical and psychological harm, my power to remain safe from various forms of assault whilst walking on the street, my power to only be required to be afraid of particular kinds of physical harm NONE OF WHICH attack my status as a subject. I have within my power the ability to effortlessly retain the status of a subject, and am never forced to risk reduction to an object. I benefit from patriarchy* and I like it. How could it be otherwise?

If this project was to succeed in anything, it should be to have made visible, however fleetingly, those powers that men wield that remain, in everyday life, invisible to us.

*Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in addition to being male, I’m white, physically unimpaired, and middle-class (in upbringing if not in income – I do work in the arts after all!)

David Williams, November 2009

The public conversation and version 1.0’s THIS KIND OF RUCKUS

4 Mar

We’ve often said of our works that we want them to open up a space for public conversation, and so we’ve looked for the best artistic means available to us to do so. Usually for us we juxtapose found texts from a range of sources – media interviews, court proceedings, television shows – with our own personal stories, and put these texts up against a range of different visual perspectives offered by video.

In the show that results from this meeting of aesthetics, we ask our audiences and ourselves direct but often impossible questions. We present complex images and scenarios that are impossible to easily resolve. We embrace the gray areas that cling around such a significant issue of public concern and dig into the spaces that require us to argue about in order to make sense of it all.

To open up a space of public conversation means reflecting seriously not only on examples of clearly unacceptable behaviour by people ‘out there’ but also on those experiences each of us within the shared space of the theatre have had, moments in which we have crossed lines of proper behaviour, either unconsciously or consciously, as well as times when our trust has been broken or abused by others. It’s too easy to say that the problem is only ‘out there’. This lets everyone in the auditorium off the hook, and as we are all aware, problems of sexual violence are never that simple.

There’s a poem by Brecht in which he discusses a car crash. All of the witnesses to the car crash are transformed by what they see, to the point that they cannot stop talking about it. Whilst each of them have differing accounts, and each version of the story is partial and incomplete, they seem unable to stop reflecting upon events, feeling in some way responsible to make sure that these events are never forgotten. If we were able to achieve something like this in THIS KIND OF RUCKUS, then we will have fulfilled our mission.

David Williams, Sydney, March 2010