Keeping the arts alive during lockdown

Keeping the arts alive during lockdown

By Marco Holden Jeffery

It’s the perfect live performance: indie singer-songwriter Alice Skye, at her most raw and intimate, sits at a piano on a stage adorned with house plants, candles and an old telephone - as if in the artist’s own home.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m swallowing my own tongue,” Skye sings on an unreleased track titled Wurega Djalin, and between the decor, her breathless vocals and the familiarity between her and guitarist Sam King make you feel as if you’re right in the room with her.

But as soon as the volume and intensity of the performance ramps up, the listener is treated to the beautiful, full acoustics of an empty Hamer Hall, where Skye recorded the performance with King and a special guest appearance by singer Jen Cloher.

In a way the performance did take place in front of thousands of people - on July 23, Arts Centre Melbourne streamed the show to homes across the country as part of Vault Sessions, a collaboration with the Australian Music Vault showcasing Australia’s best homegrown musical talent.

Alice Skye, a Wergaia and Wemba Wemba woman and a rising star in the Australian music scene, was the first of three artists recorded at the revered Hamer Hall in June.

Her performance was the opening salvo of the Arts Centre’s wide-ranging program to connect with Victorian art lovers during the state’s second lockdown.

It was a special treat for fans of Skye as she treated the digital audience to a slew of tracks from an unreleased album.

Following Skye on July 30 was rapper Ziggy Ramo who delivered a biting and timely performance full of his characteristic razor-sharp lyricism on racialised discrimination and injustice, with an energetic showing by country/rock/punk outfit Cash Savage and the Last Drinks scheduled for August 6.

All three performances are made available to watch online for two weeks after the original stream.

For locked-down lovers of Australian arts and culture, Arts Centre Melbourne isn’t stopping with Vault Sessions.

Ordinarily, the annual Take Over! program commissioned and produced one creative performance project to be presented at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

But creative producer Daniel Clarke said the pandemic had allowed them to include 10 projects in this year’s edition, spanning dance, theatre, spoken word, music, live art and installation.

“We made a decision to invest across more artists and support them to have a couple of weeks of creative development in their homes, also asking them to think about how they might want to engage with audiences online,” Clarke said.

Out of 94 applications, Take Over! selected artists based on how the program could extend their creative practice and give them room for experimentation, while encouraging a diverse and equitable cast of voices.

As part of the project, one of the artists would be inviting audiences into their home every Saturday to engage with their work-in-progress via livestream.

“The first preview presentation was very laidback and very conversational - each of the artists are doing something quite different and they’re not locking down what they’re doing until they do their residencies,” Clarke said.

“This unique opportunity of engaging with audiences online might have an impact on the final work.”

Moira Finucane - whose work blends provocative burlesque performances with themes of conservation and humanity - was thrilled to be one of the artists selected to take part in Take Over!.

“It springs out of my great love of Arts Centre Melbourne - I’ve had some of my best nights aspiring under that spire, so I really loved the idea of them throwing open the doors to 10 outfits and getting these amazing ideas and artistic sparks,” she said.

“Through art if people are welcomed and you take their hands and hold them tight, you can show them these beautiful, exciting worlds - you can take them anywhere, you can talk about anything, you can explore any issue and topic together.”

Finucane – a former environmental scientist - was developing a performance titled I Miss You Antarctica, exploring “hope, melting and dreaming of the future in the only place in the world that has no history of permanent human habitation”.

Inspired by a recent trip to Antarctica, the piece would form a part of her globally acclaimed Art vs Extinction Suite, and be supported by a team of iconic collaborators including Mudburra singer/songwriter Ray Dimakarri Dixon, visual activist Eugyeene Teh and paper artist Louise Seymour.

For an artist used to getting up close and personal with audiences and feeling their visceral reactions, working from home wasn’t coming naturally to Finucane.

“Last year I took my work all over the world - I hugged people in China, I walked through audiences naked in Denmark and Berlin,” she said.

“When you feel and you feed on the sweat and excitement of people, it’s really weird to sit in a room and imagine things by yourself.”

But by her reckoning, Finucane’s work-in-progress on September 5 would be one to hold out for - she would be recreating a piece of Antarctica in her bathtub and asking each audience member to hold a piece of ice in their hands to immerse themselves in the performance.

The works have been tentatively scheduled to be presented at the Fringe Festival in November, with a digital offering on the cards if the festival wasn’t able to go ahead.

“That being said, if there’s a live outcome there will still be a digital outcome,” Clarke said.

Figuring out a live outcome was also on the minds of another group of creators working with Arts Centre Melbourne.

The New Slang program - a group of teenagers with a passion for live music and event management - had been working with the Australian Music Vault and Arts Centre’s The Channel to develop Steri-LIVE, an imagined festival for a post-pandemic Australia.

The online experience - subtitled “the best music festival to never happen” - would journey through all the ins and outs of a live event that prioritised sanitisation, sustainability and a lineup celebrating diversity.

The Channel venue and program manager Zoe Rinkel said the program was key to keeping young people engaged with the arts throughout the lockdown.

“Innovation is important, now more than ever, and the aspiring artists from our New Slang program have displayed the divergent thinking that will be required for the arts to adapt in the future,” she said.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that Arts Centre Melbourne is a place where young, aspiring creatives can learn, grow, contribute and realise their ideas.”

Steri-LIVE is now live on the Australian Music Vault’s website:•

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