Best when it’s one-on-one

2 October 2017

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Review: Proximity Festival, Programs A and B ◆
Cathedral Square precinct, 27 September ◆
Review by Nina Levy ◆

One of my all-time least favourite questions is, “Have you ever straightened your hair?” And the inevitable follow-up question, “Why not?”

My hair is curly. Very curly. And it’s big. It’s hair with a distinct personality. And when you ask me why I haven’t straightened it, what I hear is, “Your hair is wrong. Why don’t you make it right?”

Enter Proximity Festival 2017, Program A, Hannah Brontë’s Tresse // Passing – Don’t Touch My Hair.

But first, a quick run down on Proximity, in case you haven’t come across it.

Firstly, Proximity is a series of one-on-one, interactive, site-specific performances. With just one performer and one audience member, each work goes for about 10-15 highly charged minutes. The 2017 Proximity Festival is taking place at the Cathedral Square precinct in the Perth CBD, with previous iterations at the Blue Room Theatre, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Fremantle Arts Centre and the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Curated by Sarah Rowbottam and Kelli McCluskey, and directed by Rowbottam, this year’s festival is made up of three programs, A, B and C. Each program consists of three works.

Secondly, I am a huge fan of Proximity. Since its inception in 2012 I’ve attended every festival and each program has been an adventure into the artistic unknown, a crazy dive down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. 2017’s programs A and B were no exception.

So, where were we? Ah yes, Hannah Brontë’s Tresse // Passing – Don’t Touch My Hair.

I’m in Perth Town Hall’s Supper Room. I’m reclining on a decadently furry rug, under a canopy of delicate silk, screen-printed with images of curly-haired women, their faces obliterated as though by tears. Through headphones I listen to voices of black women telling tales about their hair. Some are stories of identity, some are stories of oppression. Some I’ve experienced myself, even though I’m not black. In particular, one woman relates her frustration when people ask to touch her hair, or, worse still, touch it without asking permission, as though petting an animal. Interspersed with Brontë’s own poetic rap and samples from black singers that range from Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko”, Brontë’s work cleverly exposes the layers of racial and gender power-play that are bound up in hair. It’s both familiar and discomforting, political and personal.

Liam Colgan shares the vulnerability of being visibly queer in ‘Reflex of a Blush’. Photo: PAVLOVA

It’s the personal element of Proximity, I think, that appeals to me most. At Saint Larry Café in the City of Perth Library I share secret signals, hand-written messages and the vulnerability of being visibly queer with Liam Colgan, in Reflux of a Blush (Program B). Martyn Coutts’s Shell Game (Program A) finds me at Point Zero on St George’s Terrace. Coutts and I trade accounts of the last few years of each of our lives, ahead of a tarot reading that mysteriously enmeshes my own future with that of the South China Sea’s conflict-laden Spratly Islands. Amidst the marbly glossiness of the State Buildings, Program B’s Exclusive sees me – champagne in hand – interviewing its creator, Nat Randall, about whatever takes my fancy. I enjoy this so much that I would give Randall my card to make a time to do a real interview, were it not for the fact that I have surrendered my handbag at reception.

Proximity is not necessarily easy. Wearing Colgan’s elaborate pearl necklace whilst sauntering pseudo-casually through a city café on a busy Wednesday morning definitely takes me outside my comfort zone. So does the thought of my interview with Randall being publicly broadcast on the Cultural Centre Screen in Northbridge.

Nat Randall’s ‘Exclusive’ sees the participant interview the artist. Photo: PAVLOVA.

Interestingly, though, the work that challenges me most is relatively private. It’s Cigdem Aydemir’s The Ride (Program A). Playing on #illridewithyou, the hashtag created in support of Muslim people after the anti-Muslim sentiment created by the Martin Place siege, The Ride invites the punter to participate in a role play. And so I am “rescued” by a woman in a hijab on a motorbike. It’s a neat subversion, as the leather jacketed Aydemir pats my hand with masculine assurance, her hijab billowing behind her in the slipstream. I am so uncomfortable with role-play that I find it difficult to relax into this one but I appreciate the concept, on reflection.

It’s hard to pick favourites, but if pressed Jen Jamieson’s Let’s Make Love (Program B) is the one. An informal conversation about oxytocin, aka “the love hormone”, Jamieson’s work is less science lecture and more a life lesson in connecting with other humans. Did you know that walking and talking releases oxytocin? A short ramble from the Postal Hall takes us up a hidden flight of stairs to our lofty destination. Gazing at the sky whilst contemplating oxytocin with Jamieson by my side I feel perfectly content.

Another oxytocin-producer? Sharing adventures with other people. Maybe that’s the secret of Proximity – with the traditional boundaries between artist and audience dissolved, each work sees two people take a leap into the unknown… together. It’s pure joy.

Proximity Festival plays until 7 October.

Top: ‘Let’s Make Love’, Jen Jamieson. Photo: PAVLOVA.


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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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