We are looking forward to the upcoming New South Wales and Western Australian premieres of Lz Dunn's participatory sonic walk Aeon.
Presented this week as part of Performance Space's amazing Liveworks Festival program, and in Perth next week with the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art for TURA New Music's Totally Huge New Music Festival, we caught up with Lz to explore some of the ideas behind the work and what audience members can expect...it's a lot more than a walk in the park...
What is Aeon? What can we expect to experience?
It’s a walk where you are alone and with others. We travel together but without speaking so each person might notice and experience things differently. Each person carries a small speaker in their hand so what we hear is a combination of the already existing sound in the environment and sound that we introduce. We observe, we listen, we think, we walk, we move.
What is it about group behaviour that fascinates you and made you want to explore it in Aeon?
I’ve been interested in birds for a while now and this phenomenon of flocking kept coming up on the internet. There was a period where people were posting videos of starling murmurations. And they are really beguiling. We see this miraculous flow of hundreds of tiny bodies moving through the sky in near unison. It’s magical to watch but mostly they are doing this because there’s a predator nearby. So it’s a survival tactic. Each individual is part of a larger cooperation that is self-protective and supports the survival of the entire group.
I was interested in how that might float metaphorically for humans at this time when we are perhaps feeling under threat as a species. What are our personal desires and collective responsibilities? What do we each sense of ourselves and others when we are in groups? What or who do we align ourselves with? What repels us? How do we navigate shared time and space independently and together? What do each of us value about our experience of ourselves, each other and the world we move through?
The show seems to encourage a sense of community building, or coming together as strangers to travel and work together. How do you encourage this with a group of people who don’t know each other?
We try to give people space mostly. We offer some frames for thinking about what we’re doing. We give people some support but we really try not to tell anyone what to do or how they should understand what’s happening. It’s ok if it feels awkward or confusing. I don’t really want to encourage a sense of community - I think that would be false. It doesn’t need to be a cooperative experience, though that’s a possibility. I think I’m interested in people being able to find their own way to navigate whatever is going on for them internally in response to what they are perceiving externally. They might develop a sense of cooperation with others or they might feel really separate or even disconnected. It will always depend on how people are coming to the work. I’m happy for people to sit in it however works for them. I think it probably fails if there’s total consensus.
Aeon is a work that takes place outside in a bush setting within an urban area. How does the location inform the audience’s experience?
It’s important that we can experience ourselves as part of a shared place. That’s quite central as a concept. Of course we can experience ourselves as part of an ecology wherever we are, but in parks it is quite pronounced. They are often very constructed ‘natural’ places. Humans say, yes, this is an area we will allocate as ‘shared space’. ‘All’ people can come here, and animals can live here. We see and hear other species, birds, insects, dogs. We share it with other people. People who may or may not be interested in our experimental contemporary art experience while they are going for their daily run or walking their pet. I like the way our sense of horizon shifts as we move through these kinds of spaces. Sometimes it can feel very close and contained and, five minutes later, the sky can feel huge and we have a sense of our tiny earth-bound selves and our cosmic limitlessness.
There are many issues currently facing the queer community, including the safety and inclusion of both gender- and culturally diverse community members; loss of safe spaces to gentrification or lockouts; access to appropriate health and aged care; not to mention the horrible public “debate” over marriage equality. How do these dominant heteronormative narratives affect our perception of and use of public space and the natural environment?
This is a really dense question! I’m not sure I can answer it fully but these are some things that I’ve found interesting to think about.
Queerness has a history of being naturalised into urban environments and disassociated from what we think of as nature. We know that actually lots of animals, including humans, engage in non-reproductive sexual behaviours and that this sex also plays a very important social role, but this hasn’t been given attention or value like reproductive sex has. I really enjoyed watching this Out In Nature documentary from 2001. It’s a very typical nature documentary complete with narration from a man with a plummy English accent, but all the content is of animals having non-hetero sex and living in same-sex partnerships.
Anyway, I think the knowledge system of science (historically dominated and advocated by white, straight men) has a huge power in influencing what is seen as valuable to us as a species and what is labelled as natural. It was through scientific and religious lenses that queerness was moralised and then pathologised. Scientific and religious ‘truths’ still shape many people’s understanding of what should and shouldn’t be in the world. It’s a vision of truth through a very particular lens with particular power agendas.
So queerness historically was seen as deviant and the product of deviant human behaviour. Queers gathered in cities, sought shelter in the urban fabric and evolved rich ecologies that weren’t entered around procreation. Parks were the natural spaces inhabited by queers after dark.
I think it’s really important that queer people are encouraged to identify with their bodies and behaviours as Natural. That we can feel equally at home and safe in an inner city club as in a National Park. That we understand our bodies and their desires as full expressions of the same life force that makes the birds fly, the sun rise and our shit decompose back into the earth to grow potatoes for us to eat.
Can you give us an idea of how these ideas of ‘queer ecology’ have been incorporated in the show?
Well I identify as a queer person and that’s why I became interested in queer ecological thinking. I’d made another project that looked at migratory birds and through that I’d had quite a bit to do with a bird conservation organisation. It occurred to me how conservative it all was. Not necessarily the individuals, but the premise of conservation and lots of the rhetoric and values of that kind of environmentalism. To be honest I still struggle to articulate what queer ecology is very clearly so I’ll let Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands do it:
“A queer ecological project might proceed by challenging [the] problematic links between the power relations of sexuality and nature. Queers have, in a variety of ways, challenged the destructive pairing of heterosexuality and nature: by developing “reverse discourses” oriented to challenging dominant understandings of our “unnatural passions”; by borrowing ecological thinking to develop radically transformative gay and lesbian politics; and […] by taking elements of queer experience to construct an alternative environmental perspective.”
So Aeon became just a process for me to play with linking these two interests for me: birds and queer ecology. We play with ideas about what is valued as natural sonically and behaviourally but it’s not necessarily overtly addressed. Partly it’s present just in the insistence of exploring these two words in the same frame: queer and nature. We work with local artists to perform the work in each location, so in the process of making it we try to work with as many queer-identifying and queer-interested artists as possible. They bring their own embodied experience of and questions about queerness into the ecology of the project.
It’s a measure of some long, indefinite period. I like how ambiguous an aeon is. There’s no way to really put an exact boundary around an aeon - when one exactly starts or ends. The process of change is ongoing and incremental so we just try to say 'things were mostly a bit like this from around then til then'. The word originally meant life, vital force or being.
What audience actions do you hope the show will spark?
Rebecca Solnit says some really excellent things about hope.
Aeon by Lz Dunn & Collaborators | Produced by Performing Lines and commissioned by Mobile States