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a review of Bridge Song @ The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, 12-14th June 2003 by Anna Rice for ‘Local Art

Bridging Worlds

Bridge Song, the latest work from Bonemap (a creative collaboration between Rebecca Youdell and Russell Milledge) is aptly named. It is a poetic piece that is split into eleven ‘events’ (some lasting only moments) rather like the stanzas of a poem or a song. And like poetry, or the lyrics of a song, much of it is understood intuitively rather than literally or intellectually. The bridge of the title refers to Brisbane’s Story Bridge and yet it could just as well refer to the links this piece creates between different art forms. Dancer Youdell and visual artist Milledge have teamed up with Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson of the musical pair Clocked Out Duo to create a piece that can truly be described as multi-media.

What is most interesting about the intertwining of forms in Bridge Song is that no one form dominates. The video projections do not merely provide a backdrop to the piece and nor does the music serve only as a sound scape to Youdell’s movement or Milledge’s images. The musicians are fully integrated in the piece as performers, alongside Youdell. One of the most memorable points of the piece was a drumming performance from Griswold and Tomlinson. They are positioned opposite each other across the stage, each behind a drum. The drum sticks are attached to each other by pieces of rope that move in waves when a rhythm is beat out. A light is projected through the ropes to create an amazing visual and aural experience as the drums are played. We can see the energy as it is sent from one drum, one arm, to the other. When the energy meets, it causes the ropes to move in a vibrating pattern that seems to buzz with a sort of electricity. It is as if we are watching the physical sound waves move through the air.

Although the inspiration for Bridge Song is drawn specifically from the Story Bridge, its themes are universal. Between Milledge’s projections and the live performances of Youdell, Griswold and Tomlinson, we are taken through a series of striking images that are capable of communicating volumes of meaning instantaneously. At one point in the piece, Youdell is illuminated, sitting on a chair naked, a globe covering her head. Blood runs from a point in the globe, dripping into her hands and onto the floor. This image touches on many ideas but the principal meaning we gain from it is that we are our earth and that in destroying our environment we are destroying ourselves. As much as we set ourselves apart from the natural world, we are inextricably linked, in fact dependent, on it and destruction of it spells self-destruction. These are not original ideas but the evocative power of this image makes its meaning ingeniously and horribly succinct. The ideas contained within ‘Globe Head’ resurface throughout Bridge Song, and form its dominant theme. Youdell’s amazing control of her body means that she can adopt the physical qualities of the landscapes we see in the projections to the extent that she seems to become a manifestation of them and this adds further meaning to the notion of our relationship to our environment.

Bridge Song attempts a daring marriage between art forms and mostly succeeds. At times, I felt that the piece neglected its audience in favour of exploring an unconventional style of performance. At times it seemed as though the work was for the artists rather than for the audience, which perhaps it was. The disjointed nature of the piece, which is so contrary to the linear narrative style we are used to, is at once its greatest strength and ultimate weakness. I felt a certain level of distracting frustration while watching Bridge Song because it seemed to be a series of beginnings; countless ingenious ideas were touched on but never fully explored. In retrospect, however, there was a continuity of themes throughout the piece that was not so apparent to me at the time. Had it not been so open-ended and sometimes maddeningly incoherent, it would not have provoked the level of thought in me that it did. I would like to see the piece performed in an outside environment because I feel that the closed space of the theatre perhaps didn’t do the style and themes of the piece justice. The artists of Bridge Song have certainly forged new ground with this work and the talent contained within it is overwhelming.

Review of Bridge Song Performance Preview RealTime56

The bridge: between iron and flesh

Mary Ann Hunter

Bonemap, Bridge Song (projection still) Russell Milledge

Wearing a frock and stilettos, a woman is upturned. Over time, and to the discordant strains of a melodica, she rights herself and totters spasmodically across the space. It’s a disturbing image and an uncomfortable adjunct to the onscreen vision of a nocturnal bridge, silent headlights gliding along its embedded carriageway. Uneasy relations between iron and flesh, motorcar and mind, industry and humanity.

Bonemap’s Bridge Song aims to explore “the interrelationships of environment and moment within the precinct of [Brisbane’s] Story Bridge” and further attempts to extrapolate these to our wider understandings of being in the world. With an impressive array of collaborations and residencies to its name—including the first interdisciplinary Asialink residency in Singapore—Bonemap seeks to investigate interconnectedness through live art, installation and new media. Northern Queensland-based Bonemap’s creators, production designer/director Russell Milledge and choreographer/performer Rebecca Youdell, often work closely with other artists to produce “creative intermedia” with an ecological sensibility at the core. In Bridge Song, Milledge and Youdell partner with musicians Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson of Clocked Out Duo to create a series of “out-of-awareness” perceptions of time and place in a hybrid investigation of “daily life, flesh, earth and weather” using Brisbane’s Story Bridge as a focus.

The Story Bridge is an interesting choice. It is an urban icon linking South and North, attracting the tourist gaze, and sheltering a pretty good pub. While serviceable to pedestrians, it certainly hasn’t the popular foot traffic of bridges that link the CBD to South Bank, nor does it have the political capital of the William Jolly along which many a protester has marched en route to Musgrave Park. But in Bridge Song, the Story Bridge never looked so aesthetically intriguing, even if the wider metaphor of the importance of bridges in our fragile global ecology didn’t quite achieve the intended impact in this preview performance.

The work comprises 11 titled ‘responses’ to the bridge in which meaning is constructed and communicated through “a synthesis of mediated signs and sonic events.” In some episodes, this synthesis is achieved with creative clarity. In “Bridging the Gap”, 2 ropes tied at each end to drumsticks played by Griswold and Tomlinson on opposite sides of the stage provide a percussive literalisation of sound waves. As the drum rumblings evoke the splendid thunder of a Brisbane storm, the moving rope simultaneously creates an ephemeral canvas for the projected images of the river in flash flood. Equally evocative is the bird song created by the rubbing of Chinese ceramic bowls filled with water in “Edge of the Abyss.” In an inspired fusion of sound, image and movement Youdell inches her way across the space, tautly en pointe, while Milledge’s accompanying projection is meditative, animated with birds in time-lapse flight moving across the bridge’s webbed span. Episodes such as these provide a seamless merging of projected, corporeal and sound media, achieving the kind of synthesis Bonemap clearly aims for.

In the effort to transplant broader metaphorical resonances into these responses, Bridge Song sometimes loses its allure. For instance, the screen footage of a bridge warping and waving in an earthquake provides a stunning mirroring of built form with the natural kinaesthetic of flowing water. But as Youdell throws herself into a maelstrom of balletic movements in light of these astounding images, the synergy of body/projection loses impact. As she halts and exaggeratedly gasps for breath, it feels curiously disengaging. Then again, how can one begin to engage with the scale of such a powerful force? Later, in “Humanity”, the dancing body speaks for the first time: “I believe that the planet and humanity is unsustainable. ...Now... now... now”. The statement is central to Bonemap’s philosophy yet, in this scene, fails to find a tension to equal its urgency. This section will undoubtedly become tighter in subsequent performances but, in terms of “extending the potential layers of audience empathy and engagement”, these broader parameters don’t quite arrest attention.

Many moments teeter on the edge of humour. At one point Tomlinson unexpectedly grabs Youdell’s leg in a flurry of percussion. And, as a static cartoon-like image, “Globe head” is intriguing with its social comment (a naked body sits contemplatively with a bleeding world globe substituting as an oversized head). But, for such a striking pose, it lacks a little of the irony or perhaps self-reflexivity needed to draw together this show’s ambitious amalgamation of the spatial, social, aesthetic and ecological.

In its first public outing, Bridge Song effectively spirited an interconnectedness between “moment and environment” with the specific iconography of the Story Bridge. And while the work’s conceptual global/personal divide is yet to be ‘bridged’ as seamlessly as its excellent production values, audiences can look forward to this work’s sustainable life.

Bridge Song, Bonemap in association with The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, production design Russell Milledge, performer Rebecca Youdell, music Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson, Brisbane, June 12-14

*copyright RealTime; www.realtimearts.net*

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interview article in RealTime54

Bonemap: off centre, in balance

Gail Priest

Jim Denley, George Chua Kim Sen and Rebecca Youdell, Conflux , photo courtesy of The Cairns Post

  Twenty-four hours drive north of Brisbane and 70km north west of Cairns, is Emerald End, homebase for interdisciplinary new media performance group Bonemap. As an urban individual it’s hard not to be fascinated by this choice of location; by the fact that you can drive that far north of Brisbane and still be on land, but more importantly by the implications and resonances of such remoteness for a contemporary arts practice. For Bonemap it’s the perfect situation for developing work that is interconnected, informed, and in itself an interpretive embodiment of place and environment.

Bonemap is Rebecca Youdell and Russell Milledge. Youdell is a choreographer and performer with a background in ballet, contemporary dance and movement practices such as Body Weather; Milledge, a new media designer and director, has a fine arts background. They formed Bonemap in 1999 to be a “hybrid mesh of live art, installation and new media.” Since its inception Bonemap has had residencies at Brisbane Powerhouse, The Australian Choreographic Centre, Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns and The Substation, Singapore 2001 (receiving the first interdisciplinary residency from the visual arts and performing arts panels of Asialink). Their work has appeared at festivals such as Experimentica 02 (Chapter Arts Centre, Wales), Worms Festival II (Plastique Kinetic Worms, Singapore), New Criteria (The Substation Singapore) and L’attitude 27.5 (Brisbane Powerhouse). They were also part of the first Time_Place_Space cross-disciplinary investigations at Charles Sturt University in 2002 (see RT 53). I met them in Brisbane where they’re working on their current investigation, Bridge Song.

Inspired by Brisbane’s legendary Story Bridge, this work is an exploration of interconnectedness, of the impact of the environment on flesh. Milledge describes it as an intimate work for solo musician, dancer and projection design. Much of Bonemap’s work has a site-specific outcome, but Bridge Song will take place in the Judith Wright Centre theatre. Milledge says this is a conscious move to develop a stronger audience base in Brisbane. However they have conducted extensive research on the bridge through site-based performative explorations, filming and sampling of the bridge and its environs. The work has grown from their urban/rural spatial dislocations and an investigation of architectural iconography. Milledge says, “the transition from a kind of remote rural working environment to an urban environment is about the different sense of space and it’s not something easily put into words. It’s a perceptive, cognitive thing. There’s an awareness developed in open space that’s compressed in an urban environment. One thing we were wanting to do was look at an urban location and overlay our perception of space.”

This layering of non-urban time/space perception and industrialised environment indicates an ongoing preoccupation with what Milledge and Youdell term ‘decentring.’ Working so far from the supposed creative hubs of urban environments means that they have been very active in encouraging an expansion of arts culture within the local community, both with Bonemap and through their involvement with Kick Arts in Cairns. It also offers more opportunities for cross-cultural pollination. Milledge says there is such “a diversity of cultural types in Northern Australia...there’s more reference to closer neighbours [in PNG and the Asia Pacific] that you don’t really get in southern cities...We like to collaborate with artists from those backgrounds. We want to engage with a practice that’s land based, grounded in the geography of where we are. It’s not about something that is imagined—that old Australian mythology of imagining the geography of another place.”

With Body Weather as foundation in both artists’ practice, it is not surprising that environment plays such a vital role in their work as site, in new media manipulations or as the basis for experiential body-memory choreography and improvisation. Bonemap has incorporated these elements into a notion of ecology that extends beyond simplistic notions of the natural environment, to incorporate a performance ecology. This is ecology as a “spatial reference” with inter-relationships and connectedness as the central principles. Milledge says, “Although we are seemingly based in this flesh-against-earth paradigm, we’re also interested in this imagining of ecology as virtual systems” which can come about through the relationship of live and mediated performance.

So how does the new media content function within this performance ecology? Youdell states, “It’s had different modes really. We have tended to create work that’s modular. There would be some cinematic component, as well as performative and some sort of exhibition. It’s been quite separate in the past so we’re just beginning to look at integrating this more closely in a performance context. You always see the performer in front of the screen and we’d like to go beyond that and integrate it.” Milledge adds that projection is “convenient and almost too easy. The idea of engaging with a remote location, like a marble mine or a lava tube is, obviously, that you can film that location and it can be transposed into a theatrical setting. I guess there [are] other ways at looking at the relationship between environments and performance which are to do with internal body nerve memory kind of stuff. There’s an incredibly obvious element to cinematic projection in performance, and I think the kinds of performer interaction with projection turns cold on an audience unless it’s the audience manipulating it in some way.”

The guiding principles of ecology and decentring also create a practice that is collaborative and interdisciplinary. The Bridge Song project will be an interplay between body, image and sound with Youdell and Milledge working with Brisbane-based musicians Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson (Clocked Out Duo). In 2004 they plan to continue a collaboration with improvisational musician Jim Denley and work with Singapore’s Lee Wen, who performed the Yellow Man at APT3 (Asia Pacific Triennial) in 2000 and Simon Whitehead from Wales, both of whom have “walking practices”—performative journeys through public spaces. Planned for the Brisbane Powerhouse, they envisage this work will be durationally oriented, though its form—theatre or media based or both—hangs enticingly in the air.

Bridge Song, Bonemap, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, Jun 12-14.
*copyright RealTime; www.realtimearts.net*


Interview in RealTime55

How the balloon taught the piano to play

Russell Smith

Vanessa Tomlinson, Erik Griswold, Clocked Out Duo, photo: Russell Milledge

  The last couple of years have been busy for percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson and pianist Erik Griswold of Clocked Out Duo. They have performed individually, as a duo, and in collaboration with a range of other musicians, artists, writers, dancers and theatre performers—in China, Korea, the US, UK, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as appearing at the London Jazz Festival and the Shanghai International Festival. They’ve recently released 2 CDs: water pushes sand (their second CD as Clocked Out Duo), and More than my old piano, Griswold’s second solo piano CD (reviewed on earbash, www.realtimearts.net). Now based in Brisbane, where Tomlinson is Head of Percussion at Griffith University, they are collaborating on a new project Bridge Song with new media performance group Bonemap (profiled in RT 54). And in the midst of all this, they’ve recently had a son.

I recently saw Clocked Out Duo at a series of “house concerts” staged at an Adelaide artists’ cooperative. Pitched in the space where vaudeville and Dada intersect, the concerts involved a stunning variety of musical styles and theatrical gestures. Sitting astride an enormous balloon, Tomlinson performed a virtuosic solo that coaxed a surprising range of moods from the unusual ‘instrument’, from the low rumbling of a motorbike engine, through crisp violin-like notes to the wavering ethereal sounds of the theremin. One of Griswold’s piano solos, in the tradition of the one-man-band, simultaneously combined prepared piano, toy piano and melodica (a kind of toy keyboard instrument with a tube and mouthpiece, like a miniature melodeon). Duets involved Tomlinson drawing on her impressive collection of percussion instruments, from the tam-tam (an enormous gong) through to the tiny sounds of tinkling shells and ceramic bowls, while Griswold extracted a similar range of colours and intensities from the piano. Collaborations with other performers involved, among other things, bravura choruses of rapid-fire chanted nonsense syllables, Fluxus-inspired interventions where audience members shouted, stamped and clapped on cue, and live phone-in performances from collaborators overseas.

However, the remarkable thing about Clocked Out Duo’s performances is not so much their wild eclecticism, but the way they maintain a strange cohesiveness and integrity. Attempting to explain how their collaboration works, Griswold jokingly paraphrases Donnie and Marie Osmond: “I’m a little bit jazz; she’s a little bit classical.” Tomlinson’s background is in the European avant-garde, and reflects her interest in women’s performance art, while Griswold’s influences stem from American improvised music traditions. The pair recently spent 5 months in Chengdu, China, where Tomlinson studied Sichuan opera percussion and Griswold explored the structured improvisations of folk and street music traditions. So, with so many diverse influences behind their music, how do they manage to produce music that is aesthetically coherent?

Tomlinson explains: “While our travels, experiences and collections of instruments continue to effect the sound of our music, the actual method of making it is consistent. Whether it’s balloons, prepared piano or conventional instruments, the working process is the same. Often it’s a case of one of us coming up with a musical idea, and the other failing to understand it. Then it becomes necessary to push it and play with it until it becomes something we can both work with.” She likens the process to a foley artist working on a film soundtrack. “It’s a matter of building up a sound world with whatever happens to be around in the studio.”

The vaudeville atmosphere of their concert performances, with their constantly shifting moods and stark contrasts of styles, is a way of balancing eclecticism and integrity. Griswold explains: “We want to set up an environment where it will seem natural that a complex, sophisticated piece can come up next to a pop song. There’s a certain amount of nostalgia there, going back to a time before the split between high art and low art became such a dominant part of culture. In vaudeville, serious musical performance can rub shoulders with slapstick theatricality, and neither is the worse for it.”

Both Griswold and Tomlinson are renowned for the ways they explore the outer limits of their instruments. For Tomlinson, this means not only extracting new sounds from familiar instruments, but also exploring the potential of unfamiliar instruments. Her interest in playing the balloon came from seeing pioneer virtuoso Judy Dunaway perform in New York (one piece on the new CD, “Dear Judy”, is dedicated to her). “Trying out the balloon for myself, I was amazed at the range of sounds you could get from it. It has a very powerful palette. I wasn’t interested in playing it in an orderly or mannered way. What was interesting was that it was so difficult to control, that here was an everyday object that had a wild and unruly world of sounds within it.”

Tomlinson is also exploring the sound of Chinese ceramic bowls. Rubbing the rims of bowls filled with different levels of water, produces a much more earthy and grounded sound than the ethereal sound produced by wine glasses, but with a similar shimmer of overtones. “As a percussionist, the collection of instruments you build up over your lifetime maps out the course of your musical exploration. But a percussion instrument collection is never complete; it’s an ongoing record of where you’ve been that is constantly changed by the journey itself.”

Griswold’s explorations of prepared piano are taking him in 2 main directions. There’s the potential of prepared piano, with its twanging strings and array of wooden and metal percussive sounds, to sound like a quirky folk instrument, reversing serious concert music’s colonisation of home and community-based musical traditions. On the other hand, prepared piano is also capable of producing similar sounds to electronic music. “It’s a way of reclaiming the space of electronic music, raiding some of its sounds and bringing them back into the domain of the acoustic.” Most notably, Griswold’s version of Al Green’s Tired of Being Alone on the new CD sounds exactly like an electric piano in the middle register, with the upper register producing music box effects, while the lower register sounds like a twanging acoustic bass guitar.

Attempting to find ways for the piano to express sounds that are apparently alien to it is one way Griswold keeps exploring the boundaries of the instrument. “We spent a long time developing a musical language in which the balloon and the piano could interact. It’s one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done on piano. The musical language we developed was based on spoken languages, especially Vietnamese and Chinese, which, with their rising and falling tonal inflections, have a certain melody built into them. It makes it natural to adapt them to music.” Tomlinson had to develop a clear understanding of the balloon’s musical language before they could work with it as a duo. “I ended up with 12 sound groups which I then taught to Erik. We’re both interested in discovering the dormant sounds within things, and this was the perfect example—first finding the sounds within the balloon, and then finding the balloon sounds within the piano. In other words, the balloon taught the piano how to play the piano.

Bridge Song, Bonemap in collaboration with Clocked Out Duo, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, June 12-14

Information about Clocked Out Duo’s performances and CDs is available at www.clockedoutproductions.com

Russell Smith teaches English Literature at ANU, writes regularly on visual arts and is working on a book about Samuel Beckett.

*copyright RealTime; www.realtimearts.net*

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