Tag Archives: Melbourne Fringe

Critic as audience member

Here is a question that has bothered me for a long time: how does one enter the theatre if one is going to publicly write about the event later?

This is a question quite distinct from the usually posed ‘what is the role of the critic?’, ‘what should the critic do?’, or even the more self-indulgent ‘how do I write my criticism?’. (Those are often discussed, for example by Andrew Fuhrmann, Alison Croggon, Andrew Haydon, Chris Boyd, and everyone the quote and link to in these articles.) This is a question of state of mind before the critic gets to do what a critic does.

I’ve been mulling over this question for as long as I’ve been getting invitations to shows, because of the implied reciprocity of this exchange.

It seemed to me that there are two ways of approaching this problem: one can try to be the ideal audience member, or the average audience member.

Here we encounter a difference between a reviewer and a critic, and also a difference between the assumed role of criticism, and the practice of criticism, between, say, the Anglophone and the continental European countries.

The kind of criticism practised in newspapers here, in London and in New York, is something we could call arts reporting. It involves going to a theatrical event, and coming back with a report on how it went; whether it was good; whether it did stuff well. It is, in that sense, clearly a kind of writing that requires a verdict; a judgement; a number out of five stars. There’s a position of authority there. But, because the point of the verdict is basically to tell the reader whether they should spend their money on this event or not, the critic must approach the event by trying to experience it from the point of view of their average reader. In fact, critics of this genus often talk about their responsibility to this reader (see, for example, the comments to Alison Croggon’s review of Baal.

But there is at least one other kind of criticism, which is more commonly encountered in European publications, and which so puzzled Andrew Haydon in 2006 that he wrote a blog post wondering: is it possible that criticism may not need to say whether a piece of theatre is good or bad? I have grown up reading this kind of criticism, which analyses and theorises about the theatrical event, draws parallels between the logic of the work and sciences, social sciences, theories, the world today. Haydon gives an excellent example in his blog spot; Žižek’s film criticism is a similar beast. This sort of criticism operates with a logic of philology, rather than judgement. It’s Barthesian; it responds to the text, rather than assessing it. It reads through the influences on the text, through its lineage, its peers. Clearly, it is done by an ideal, rather than an average reader, and it is read for explanation, clarification, thought provocation, rather than judgement. As Haydon points out, however, excellent thoughts can be had of very bad theatre. A lot of writing in RealTime, in performance journals, and wherever live art is written about, follows this model.

Each genus of criticism responds to its context: in London and New York, a competitive commercial world, expensive tickets, theatre understood as entertainment. In Europe, a publicly subsidised sector, long seasons, theatre understood as a part of the evolving cultural conversation (no different to books, magazines, cinema).

In terms of how they understand the position of critic as an audience member, there is a paradox to both.

Critic-as-judge assumes authority, but needs to channel the experience of the average audience member. She needs to do that while sitting in the best seats in the house, for which she paid nothing. She has, more than likely, seen an enormous amount of theatre, and is therefore attuned to the trends of the place and time (even if she, often, has a very sketchy knowledge of theatre in other places and other times). Criticism here comes from a place of profound juggle, it seems to me, of the right to have authority versus the need not to be more cerebral than the average reader; of the need to have a taste (a good taste) while not having preferences; of not letting one’s theatre education blur one’s sense of what the reader might enjoy. And, most importantly, not to succumb to the bitterness or fatigue that often comes from the lifestyle of the person who goes out to theatre almost every night, and then writes until the wee hours.

Critic-as-philologist, on the other hand, is the cerebral interpreter, her position is the one of privilege: she has read philosophers, theorists, critics, she gets the good seats, she has seen other theatre in other places. At the same time, so often the piece of theatre written about is not more than an initial blip, a catalyst for a piece of writing that may, actually, be more relevant to the critic’s intellectual project than to the work. This approach is so often based on Patrice Pavis’s semiotic analysis, which assumes the work of theatre to be a 3-dimensional text, a kind of semiotic structure, which can be read and analysed and so on, that I think it misinterprets theatre itself as a sort of unmoveable, unchanging thing. And it runs into huge trouble whenever it tries to talk about performance works that should be encountered incidentally, that are audience-driven or -responsive, or that affect the spectator on the level of affect or emotion, rather than intellect.

Most of our Australian critics, with the exception of RealTime, write in the first genre. RealTime tends to be of the second kind.

Both need to be thought about a bit more, however. The ideal and the average audience member. How much should one know beforehand? Should one have read the play? (In Anglophone countries: no. In Europe: yes.) Should one sit in the best seats in the house? Should one pay for the ticket? Both actually become very hard to practice, once you start seriously thinking about the implications of all these factors on your experience.

In particular, attending and writing about audience-driven performance in the past few years has made me very interested in this question, simply because the poetic skeleton of such performance is the audience experience. I find myself question my responses: are mine typical responses, or are they specific to me? Is it alright that they are specific to me, can I write about them anyway, or should I keep this to myself because it’s irrelevant to the work? (I think these questions are also more important to someone like me, who often feels like an outsider to the culture, than they would be to a dead white male.) I don’t know that the artist could answer these questions – a lot of the time they are themselves interested in the effects of the mechanism they have set in motion. But the questions remain.

The question remains particularly pertinent because, while I do enjoy audience-driven performance, I find myself inordinately annoyed by works that seem to be only tokenistically audience-driven; in which audience serves the role of the trendy trope, the way video featured in theatre in the 1990s. Performances in which the audience is supposedly given freedom to act, but is actually led around on a leash, are possibly the most infuriating kind of theatre I can think of (far worse than, say, bad opera).

So the quality in such works is inextricably related to the quality of the experience. Or rather, it is impossible, or at least very hard, to judge them impassionately, or in any way objectively. I do see such criticism around, but I do not think it’s possible to analyse, in some semiotic sense, the experience of being bathed by a stranger, being baited by a stranger, being blindfolded and led around, or encountering a performance by accident; they have to be approached as experience. And, while they’re approached as experience, it is absolutely impossible to avoid the question of whether this was pleasant, unpleasant, frightening, annoying, and so on. In fact, these performances are often geared towards an affective or emotional response, and omitting this aspect from analysis is a form of willing blindness.

But again the question: typical or ideal? And what does one do when one has to write about it later?

For example, at Melbourne Fringe 2009 I was going to see Take Off Your Skin. The performance was to happen scatteredly and unannouncedly around the city. Now, how do I make sure I see something I need to see, if it is supposed to be experienced in an incidental manner? The media person at Fringe helpfully suggested that she give me times and places, and told me where the final, larger event would take place. In the end, I didn’t take the times and places of all the appearances of all the performers, and thank God for that. While sitting in a cafe in Degraves St, waiting to go to the final event, a bunch of blue-dressed performers walked through – unannounced, unexpected, incidental. They shook the lane a bit; disappeared. It was beautiful.

The larger event featured a large audience, some cameras, media. In terms of performance itself, there wasn’t enough structure, skill, preparation or spectacle to keep such an audience entertained. I think we were all reasonably bored, on the level of experience (while we might have all been very engaged on the conceptual level, the level of ‘isn’t this clever!’). In fact, the audience cum performers became the event itself for most passers-by. They saw us watching, before they saw the performance itself. I would go as far as to suggest that the audience probably ruined the performance, by severing the link between the performance and the incidental activities around it, the incidental audience, the qualities of the public space in which it took place.

In this case, the typical experience does not exist, or may not have anyway: there was no guarantee of experiencing an incidental performance by accident. On the other hand, the ‘ideal’ experience (knowing where to be at what time, seeing the thing beginning to end) was actually far from satisfactory, even frustrating.

I imagine that this question will become more and more tangled as audience-driven work continues to be made. But I do hope that artists will themselves become more in tune with the experience of their audience; and that the critics may learn to regard their experience as one, too.

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RW: Thyestes

I have seen some very good theatre recently in a very short succession: not more than 3 weeks apart, I saw what I think are likely to be the best three shows in Melbourne this year. These are Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop, version 1.0’s This Kind of Ruckus and Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a great deal of time to each one of them, but life keeps getting in the way. (I’ve been badly unwell.) But let’s start with one.

Mark L Winter and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Fortunately, Thyestes sold out as it opened, and so did the short extension to the season. I have to say I was very, very pleased: not just because it is excellent theatre which deserved to sell out, but because it absolved me from the responsibility to write quick praise in order to promote the show (the silly burden which all reviewers feel, however small their readership). It’s given me time to really consider its propositions.

I’ve been tossing it left and right in my head for weeks now, Thyestes, and it only gets better as I do. It is possibly the best work that either Hayloft or Black Lung have done so far, and certainly among the best two or three we will see in Melbourne this year, local or international. It deserves a return season. Most importantly, it is both brave and bold, and highly accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was important to encourage courageous formal and conceptual inquiry. I was worried Hayloft Project might, as many young theatre-makers have before them, settle for the limited set of achievements they have been praised for early on, rather than grow as artists, a path that’s always much less readily rewarded. 3xSisters was a courageous experiment in theatre-making, on a scale rarely attempted by Melbourne’s self-funded independent theatre, and even if its accomplishments were rough and probably not entirely intended, a year on it still remains fresh in my memory as a very good theatrical work. Had it been a film, I dare say it would have been amply reappraised in the years to come. Being theatre, the best I can hope is that blogs will keep it unforgotten.

Thyestes is a whole other story, a project as radical as it is rigorously put together. If with 3xSisters the beauty was in the chaos, here I am in no doubt that the creative team were in full control of the final result, that every effect was intended. It demonstrates tremendous growth for Simon Stone, Mark Winter, Thomas Henning and Anne-Louise Sarks (who have all worked on 3xSisters). Chris Ryan, whom we have encountered in Hayloft’s Platonov and The Promise, but whom I – perhaps unfairly – didn’t see as a theatre-maker prior to Thyestes, turns out to be an excellent creative collaborator in his own right. But most impressively, and as the weeks went by I kept underlying this point in my mind with a mental marker, what strikes me as significant about Thyestes is that its own aspirations are so much higher than that of its own context. It’s a theatre show by young theatre-makers, produced in Malthouse’s fringe Tower space, and it shames most mainstage theatre in the city. Yes, many eyes were eagerly awaiting the opening night, but Stone and his creative team would have gotten high praise for much less.

Hayloft’s version retells Seneca’s dramatisation of the Greek myth (or, rather, the history of the house of Atreus, since the story spans three generations of sons) through a very simple dramaturgical frame. So simple and clear, indeed, that there are exactly two moments of surprise in the entire evening. The first is the beginning, when the surtitles rattle off the summary of the scene (Thyestes and Atreus are convinced by mother Hippodamia to kill their half-brother and heir to the throne), and the screen lifts on a traverse stage to reveal three young men in contemporary clothing, listening to music and having a casual discussion about girlfriends, sex and a flight to Guatemala. The second is in the middle, when the count jumps from scene 6 to 14, the murder of Atreus. The conceit could not be simpler: the surtitles propel the narrative, but it is the in-between moments we see, mundane conversations; brotherly rivalry; games of ping-pong. So simple, indeed, that the day after I saw it I was considering dismissing Thyestes for imaginative poverty.

For, let’s be honest, there is only so much Tarantino the world needs, and Tarantino himself is productive enough to satisfy the demand. The day after I saw this production, I was wondering mainly if it was apparent to everyone else how much debt Thyestes owes to Reservoir Dogs. The ghost of 90s cinema, its casual gun-toting, pop-cultural referencing and drawn-out, banal conversations haunts the oeuvre of Black Lung (whose Thomas Henning and Mark Winter have had significant creative input on both Thyestes and 3xSisters), appearing in the most unlikely places like some terrible rash: see Mark Winter’s bit of 3xSisters (via Scorsese).

Since every generation comes of age during a particular fad, so did our generation, perhaps, internalise Tarantino the way neither the previous nor the successive have: one for being too old not to be critical, the other because Joanna Newsom and The Quirky Indie Cinema appeared. And, fifteen years since Pulp Fiction, how much does it matter? What traumas are we tackling when we deal with such subject matter as friends shooting each other in cold blood, while Roy Orbison is playing? Mainly cinematic ones, I suspect. It is a kind of violence, cool and detached, ironic, swift, that very few people have ever experienced – I, for example, never. And while I see some of the appeal, the aesthetic appeal, and while I understand that some tropes get engraved in our collective young minds at ages too young to argue – I wonder: how does the generation of the Quirky Indie Cinema understand something like Thyestes? Does it have a relevance for them, does it stand alone as a meaningful artefact, or is it simply an incomprehensible set of images, point of reference lost? And without the reference, is there a purpose for these tropes?

Another possibility is that the drawn-out banality of the conversations (brothers reminiscing about childhood, long descriptions of sex, discussions on Roy Orbison) assumes a macabre shimmer because of what we know happens before or after: that a semiotic polyphony, shall we say, appears between the text and the subtext (semiotic and not just semantic; that we see two things at once). This certainly happens. But in itself, it is insufficient as argument of quality. If this was all that Thyestes did, it would be a fine, but not a great work.

Then, however, in Richard Sennett’s writing I came across this:

The difference between the Roman past and the modern present lies in what privacy means. The Roman in private sought another principle to set against the public, a principle based on religious transcendence of the world. In private we seek out not a principle but a reflection, that of what our psyches are, what is authentic in our feelings. We have tried to make the fact of being in private, alone with ourselves and with family and intimate friends, an end in itself.

(…) Under the modern code of private meaning, the relations between impersonal and intimate experience have no clarity. We see society itself as “meaningful” only be converting it into a grand psychic system. We may understand that a politician’s job is to draft or execute legislation, but that work does not interest us until we perceive the play of personality in political struggle. A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programs he espouses.

Because this psychological imagination of life has broad social consequences, I want to call it by a name that may at first seem inapt: this imagination is an intimate vision of society. “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely because we have come to expect these psychological benefits throughout the range of our experience, and precisely because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty.

I want to leave these paragraphs for now.

Mark L Winter, Thomas Henning and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

In the program notes, Stone writes:

These myths are real. They have repeated themselves endlessly throughout history with minor changes in name and location. They continue to repeat themselves in our time. They are not distant representations of the vagaries of a time gone by. The fascinations of the Greeks and Romans are barely different to our contemporary obsessions. The epic dimension is misleading: on closer inspection even the most absurdly epic tale of incest, murder, rape, infidelity, transmogrification or resurrection reflects something within us waiting to express itself. The Greeks had the courage to make their metaphors extreme, unsettling and almost indistinguishable from reality; the Romans had the brazenness to bring these images from off-stage to centre-stage with a terrifying realism. Artaud had nothing on the Romans.

Consider the irreconcilable difference between this proposition, which Thyestes by all means proves, that the horror of the Greek myth is extratemporal, and the shadow of datedness over Tarantino. What to do with it? On the one hand, after years of contemporising classics by, exempli gratia Thomas Ostermeier, it’s reasonable to ask why we contemporise. Is it just to give vividness to an ancient text or story, to do justice to a classic? There is a certain binging quality to Thyestes that I’ve also found in Ostermeier’s Nora and Hedda Gabler, an overabundance of things, of set, of contemporary slang, of clothing articles, of holes of incongruity sewn up. The effect is curiously akin to television – no suspension of disbelief is necessary.

But neither this is the right answer. The key piece of puzzle, instead, is in Chris Ryan’s role as the multiplicity of women in the show. His performance as the uber-realistic, Green-bag-carrying wife, or violated bride, is not just a masterly demonstration of how little acting has to do with physical attributes, and how much with illusion. (Although it is a bona fide metamorphosis, yes.) What is interesting, instead, is that there are no women on stage. Not only does this pull the mythical universe tighter together into a boyish world of rivalry and revenge; but it also shuts it from any external ontology. Or, put more simply, there is no public realm in Thyestes: it is a sealed private world.

Perhaps this will demonstrate my theatre-viewing naivete, but there are productions, usually terribly naturalistic ones, in which I can just about picture the outside world. In which the materiality of the stage does not win over the evocative descriptions of those events somewhere else. Thyestes is one of them: between the screen lifting and falling, my mind was whirling between the public and the private realm. Why?, I don’t know. Because the stage was so suffocatingly private, is my guess. Because everything happening was a kind of game with no consequences, in which all that mattered was the dynamic between two, sometimes three people, and in which rules were written by boys, the way Tarantino’s films happen in a boy-universe. If all women were played by a man, this was an aesthetic and political choice. Not only was it less gruesome to watch sexual violence inflicted on a male body playing female, but having a female body there would have, I suspect, broken the illusion. A female presence, body, voice, would not have played by the same rules, would have exposed the game for the banality that it is. (It makes more sense to me, now, while so many such films and plays and books feature no female characters whatsoever, and why, when they do, the women are caricatured into the extreme or left as vacuous enigmas – think Motoko Kusanagi, Ramona Flowers, the Bride.) It was interesting to note that Ryan played girlfriends and women that assumed caring and matey roles, rather than sensual or sexual; the nagging question being, after a while, whether this is an accurate depiction of Australian women (someone, somewhere, noted that Australian culture is hyper-masculine, posing problems for expression of femininity for both women and men), or another way to lessen the feminine quotient in the show. (The second question is whether this is a ludicrous question.)

A circular semiology opens here, with the 90s cinema, Thyestes, the Greek myth, and the reality it points to (Robert Graves refers the myth of the House of Atreus to actual sibling kings and a throne dispute) all pointing to each other, all signifying one another, all cases of a boy-universe, in which women are just colourful background, like a deck of collectable cards, the possession of which positions the players hierarchically, into relative winners and losers. The point being not that Thyestes is the male equivalent of a chick flick (dude-play?) – which it certainly is – but that Tarantino’s universe is an apt place where to translate the myth of the House of Atreus.

When Sennett writes about the fall of the public man, the ontological shift he refers to (between the Roman for whom the home was a place for reflection on the public world, and a baby boomer for whom it was a coccoon), is the shift between tragedy as Commonly Understood (as a public event, shall we generalise?), and whatever happens in Thyestes. The ugly underside of Thyestes, which I suppose is where its emotional impact hides, is a private sordidness which has become unanchored in any sort of public life. (Something similar happens to certain kinds of American indie, say Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Todd Solonz’s films, in which violence and suffering have lost any relationship to grand ideas, purpose, or even audience, and instead float in a landscape of outer-suburban nursing homes, endless freeways, squalid rental apartments. Such stories are that harder to bear for the complete absence of grand narrative that could underpin the enormity of the horror they depict.)

The story could go on: some critics have written about Nietzsche, some about Heidegger, some about Benjamin and Bernhardt. It is, certainly, a production that can bear the weight of all these interpretations. Like any truly interesting work of art, it only gets better on rereading.

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Reviewbit: in the absence of sunlight

Local theatre has been experimenting with reception studies and things-that-make-theatre-not-film, such as site-specific performances, interactive performances, and doing things to the audience, for a little while now, and you would think we would have moved past taking such gestures as meaningful in and of themselves. Taking one person on a little tour round North Melbourne, as in the absence of sunlight does, I assumed that A is for Atlas, the company behind it (who have treated us to a solid take on Heiner Muller’s Quartet this year), would have thought through the possible problems. Eg, how will the single audience member feel about being walked around and spoken to in quite confidential terms? Will they get bored? What if they try to walk out? What if they feel they can’t walk out? What is the purpose of it all anyway?

None of those questions (and more) got answered by the one-on-one walkabout, which was not only batshit-boring, but also awkward in the manner of bad dates. The similarity, I shudder as I write, was in more than just my lack of power to cut it short. The sole performer, an otherwise beautiful woman who led me around a pub in that actorly trance in which my presence didn’t seem to matter much (why pretend to be interactive then?, I wonder), performed a quasi-confessional talk, which reminded me not little of conversations one occasionally has with insane people, and held exactly the same level of intrigue, which is to say little. Her deeply self-involved mimicry of conversation was not dissimilar from the stock-standard behaviour of a woman working very hard to be seductive: self-absorbed, even self-consciously poetic, always looking behind her back, and being charming but sort of self-gratifyingly so, emitting a kind of onanistic purr that makes the other side wonder whether their presence is even required for this game to go on.

So I switched to my usual bad-date survival mode (which is also how you deal with crazy people): I watched her carefully talk herself into a happy climax, unresponsive to her antics and thinking about what I was going to have for dinner, until she either cut the performance short to kick me out faster, or got to the natural end of one particularly inconclusive dramaturgy.

At this point, it’s worth remembering Chris Goode’s Cat Test for live art, still the classic of its genre:

The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners’ practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be onfused with the ‘pop’ test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’, and is therefore disqualified from the Hampstead Theatre. If the Cat Test produces only the spectacle of Richard Griffiths shouting at the cat, a ‘let’ may be played.

As the cat of this live performance, I felt my presence rather underappreciated.

This sort of misthought failure gives a bad name to live art/hybrid/alternative/performance, which may explain why we still don’t have a short snappy name for the form. Not all is gloom, though. By making a few stretched analogies, we have just come to a litmus test of a bad date. Would it be any different if you weren’t there? *

* This may be the right moment to announce that Guerrilla Semiotics is seriously considering establishing the First Australian Award for a Hatchet Job, in the honour of Dale Peck, to advance the art of well-said controversy in this country. As you may be able to read between these lines, even mean-spirited critics like myself have come to struggle with phrasing damnation.

in the absence of sunlight. Artists: Tamara Searle, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Ivanka Sokol, Xan Colman. Fringe Hub – Foyer – Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. 24 Sep – 11 Oct.

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Reviewbit: Sonographs: Trips Along the Fault Line

Belonging to a geographer, my heart is a bottomless well of fascination for all things spatial. I will watch excruciatingly bad theatre and enjoy the minutiae of the representation of cultural stereotypes; I will stare for mesmerised hours at those bizarre landscapes in Australian national galleries that you wish were satirical, but aren’t; I even travel to places like Caroline Springs for sheer fun of it.

That all said, Sonographs was utter crap, and not even my infinite charity could stop me from walking out halfway through; either out of consideration for the performers, whose humiliation I no longer wanted to witness, or the selfish need to spare myself the pain of the experience.

The premise was utterly promising: a large number of recordings, made in different parts of metropolitan Melbourne, were edited, trimmed, manipulated, and then composed upon by the ‘enigmatic sound art outfit’ Chotto Matte, which is Japanese for “wait a little”, and expanded upon with visual footage. The result was actually very beautiful, the musicians talented, the Glitch cinema seats comfortable, leg room generous, and it could have been a great night!, had the ensemble not also include a lyricist and singer who could not sing or songwrite his way out of a paper bag, and also insisted on doing utterly embarrassing things for all parties present, such as mimic hanging himself on the microphone chord in slow-mo. I sucked my bonhomie dry trying to cut him out of the image and sound, and focus on what seemed like a rather beautiful music+image combo, sort of dissonant, lo-fi post-rock in the receding background. Alas, to no avail.

To cut the story short, there came a moment when the images of post-fire Marysville were juxtaposing on the said singer growling something along the lines (I will be misquoting for sure, as I’m trying hard to repress all memories of the incident) of ‘why am I feeling like this?’, and I grabbed my +1 and shoved us both out of the godforsaken place.

At Fringe time you win some, you lose some. The thrill of finding a gem would be nothing without the rancour of enduring the crap, and there is more than a speck of bourgeois thrill in my rage: here is the proof that authentically unplanned experiences can and still do happen in the three weeks when Fringe transforms our genteel city into a minefield of unprognosable, unforeseeable art! Alas, I cannot recommend this show. Not even my geographical largesse stretches that far.

Sonographs: Trips Along the Fault Line. Performed and Devised by Chotto Matte. Conceived by Dave R. Hicks. Glitch Bar, 25 Sep – 10 Oct.