On a Sunday night in May, I find myself in a semi-flooded bathroom at the Tote, appraising the graffiti on the back of a toilet door. As I try to make out the chicken scratch text, I feel a strange sense of accord with past scrawlers. There is something almost mystical about the way in which people co-opt this space to create affirmations for imagined occupants of the future. Just beyond the toilet stall, these oracular concerns are being played out on a larger scale by PRECOG, a recent commission from Liquid Architecture and Next Wave Festival. It is an ambitious project that ultimately asks how the culture of the club might gaze through the lens of the immediate, to set its sights on blurred visions of the future.
Curated by DJ Sezzo and produced by Makeda Zucco (alongside Dijana Kumurdian, aka DJ MATKA), PRECOG endeavoured to wrest the Tote from its pedigree as the headquarters of many Melbournian rock-dogs, instead realising it as the site of an experimental club night. A spatial insurrection of sorts, the event saw a variety of electronic and performative acts commandeer the entire venue, from mid-afternoon to post-midnight. In its gesture to the precognitive, the title’s connotations of clairvoyancy could be seen as characterising the event as an act of resistance against the bleak totalitarian future it sometimes feels we are careening towards. But the event’s proclivity for transformation and mutability also presents a challenge to the world we live in now. There is a predictable tendency adopted by those in power to constantly force the disenfranchised and marginalised to justify their existence using generalities. A utopian conception of the club might instead imagine a multi-centric space in which margins are blurred, but difference is maintained–where individuals can collectively express and personify the specificities of their existence without being censured or homogenised.
In an essay anticipating PRECOG (co-written with Sally Olds), DJ Sezzo suggests that “if clubbing’s ability to materialise a better future has faltered, perhaps its power lies in the past.” To this end, before the Tote is rehabilitated as an extrasensory portico, first nations choreographer Amrita Hepi uses the corporeal to pointedly invoke the presence of the past. Hepi enters the smokers’ courtyard with a small procession of performers carrying cigarette lighters and eucalyptus branches. Gathering around a central arrangement of rose petals and orange fabric, the performers chant together, setting the branches alight to fill the space with the sweet smell of eucalyptus smoke. Hepi performs the acknowledgement of Indigenous occupation and the invitation to country. Then the procession makes its way inside, overwhelming the remnant stench of countless beer-soaked evenings with active signifiers of sovereignty never ceded.
This view towards concurrent histories spills over into J’Ouvert’s ethereal clash of cultural references. A project realised through collaboration between Makeda and the AM Trio, J’Ouvert blends tradition with the abstract and carnivalesque to explore the complexities of Trinidadian culture. All four performers emerge with faces painted in pastel colours. Two drummers are situated amongst the audience, while Makeda stands onstage, her face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat. As the performance unfolds the slow metronomic yawing is set off-kilter by frenetic outbursts from K’s distorted snare drum. Visually, it’s Ece Yavuz who draws the audience’s attention.
Yavuz begins the performance on stage, enveloped in a tiered white gown and performing meditative gestures that conjure the deliberateness of a séance. This movement is later usurped by a voguish throwing of shapes that parallels the introduction of a pounding beat and rising sense of musical urgency. Here Alvin Rostant’s steel-pan drum gives the music a feeling of circularity that sweeps through the chaos of R’s spasmodic rhythms. Makeda builds the set into a synthesised frenzy that transcends upper-register delicacy to generate a kind of cosmic hum. Amid the spectacle it is difficult to track the historical allusions being raised. But at the conclusion of the performance, it’s the work’s blending of the anachronistic with the electric insistence of the present that feels in some way prophetic.
Prophecy and the precognitive are less an outcome and more the central organising principle in Angela Goh’s performance. Through its unwavering commitment to its own weird dream-logic, this piece is perhaps the understated highlight of the evening. The work constitutes the latest iteration in Goh’s ongoing project ‘Predictable Dances.’ As with all the works in the series, Goh visits a psychic prior to the performance. The psychic predicts what will happen in the dance work and Goh then interprets this reading of her future through her choreography. In this iteration, Goh dons gaudy talon-like nail embellishments and relocates a handful of audience members. This chosen few are told to hold on to a length of rope that is fed haphazardly through the crowd.
Goh then performs tasks such as rolling ouroboros-style beneath this rope obstacle, and pushing a large rock down the steps of the stage as her laptop emits the ominous sound of blades being sharpened. In one intriguingly cinematic phrase, Goh incrementally raises her arms to a position of triumph while a soaring electronic track blares heavy bass through the sound-system. These phrases are performed with a kind of utilitarian resignation that serves to heighten the profound sense of arbitrariness that pervades the work. Though nothing seems to happen for any reason, the pre-determined origins of the piece mean that the opposite is in fact true. What the audience bears witness to then, is a process through which the future is manifest in a body, in the present.
Theorisations of embodied experience tend to permeate analysis of club culture. Throughout PRECOG embodiment is repeatedly engaged as a mode of manifesting a sense of the world to come. This is optimistically exemplified by Girl Zone’s inclusion in the line-up. The five-piece hip hop group is made up of young women of colour who attend the local Fitzroy Clubhouse community group. Although the average age of the members is about twelve, they rap about basketball, skating, and world domination with confidence enough to have the packed band room dancing and cheering for more. Their set evades gimmickry, and is, in its unpretentiousness, a genuine joy to watch. If Girl Zone’s youth sees that they are a measure of what the future may hold, then it is likely bright, and with the potential to spit some fire rhymes.
Ideas of embodiment are more abstract in Brian Fuata and Enderie’s collaborative set. For the first half of the performance, Fuata is partially obscured by a white curtain. As he recites fragmented, absurdist mantras over Enderie’s juddering electronic arrangements, Fuata wraps the curtain around his face like one half of Magritte’s Les Amants. This disembodies Fuata in a manner that echoes physically the way in which he uses speech to de-contextualise text over the course of the performance. He repeats vaguely provocative phrases like “let’s destroy work” until they become sounds distinct from any initial context or meaning, and this abstraction extends to his body too. Yet half way through the set presence is suddenly returned to the body, as Fuata descends into the crowd and Enderie’s warping rhythm gives way to a danceable beat. Though it’s only just past 7pm on a Sunday night, I find myself amidst a packed dancefloor, feeling the heat of so many sweating, flailing bodies in proximity to my own.
The future filters through a space like this in the form of movement. In it’s most essential form, clubbing is, after all, music that moves people. There is a feeling of fluidity and multiplicity, of many bodies moving together, in their own ways, through time. As a call to collective action, the club has the capacity to be subversive. This undercurrent of potential insurgency is visually represented by both Bhenji Ra and Leila El Rayes, who render the body combative in their respective performances. An artist of Egyptian and Palestinian descent, Rayes intercedes in Poison’s set to the beat of an Arabian drum. Bound, or perhaps fortified, by a skirt embellished with knives suspended from heavy chains, Rayes’ garb glints and rattles as she twirls across the stage. Here, struggle and resistance are compounded in the heavy costume in a way that feels both dangerous and defiant.
Bhenji Ra, a trans woman of colour and formidable artistic talent, further imbues Del Lumanta and Daryl Prondoso’s set with a sense of insubordination. Ra begins the set cloaked in a veil and brandishing a plastic machete. She soon swaps these props for a set of two toy machine guns that send flashing coloured lights beaming through the crowd. Bringing the militant theme of the performance to its climax, she concludes the set by adopting the unpredictable tactics of a guerrilla fighter. Entering the crowd, she makes a beeline for audience member Oscar Key Sung, and the two proceed to make out with impulsive abandon. Like Rayes, Ra engages the threat of extemporaneity, weaponising the seductive and the performative, to carve out a complex, powerful presence in the space.
As dancers take centre stage and the audience submits to movement, the music begins to feel like a catalyst for activity, rather than a phenomenon in itself. However, the event’s headliner Klein concludes the main program by re-establishing the primacy of the auditory. Samples and piano loops collide, grinding up against each other to produce a gulf of churning noise. Klein’s expressive vocals are intertwined amongst the scrimmage, floating up through the haze of smoke and clamour, but never quite breaking the surface. Midway through the performance, the noise disintegrates into pure vibration, hammering from the speakers and returning movement to the bodies of those present. The audience may no longer be dancing, but the music is still experienced holistically.
In her essay on club theory, DJ Sezzo identifies the radical potential of clubbing in how “you are forced to occupy your body—to take up space, and to navigate other bodies.” Rather than a case of losing one’s self within the experience, this implies that clubbing might instead be a process of shaping an encounter through the collective inscription of individual subjectivity. A truly radical take on clubbing would then view heterogeneity as the fundamental unifying force that keeps the experience in motion. In this way, PRECOG succeeds in establishing the makeshift site of the club as a space where the expression of difference is the most vital architectural feature. Through its curatorial eclecticism, the event is able to manifest a shared experience that feels both evanescent and expansive. In a world of oppressive status quos, this capacity for flux and multiplicity ultimately serves as antidote to the seemingly permanent and inevitable.
Early on in the evening I pass Hannah Brontë’s visuals, projected on a wall in the band room. They consist of Gil Scott Heron quotes, the lettering coloured by the psychedelic patterning of MRI brain scans. The one I happen to catch a glimpse of reads, “THE REVOLUTION WILL BE LIVE”. Though I’m not sure that PRECOG staged an all-out revolution, I leave feeling that I’ve experienced a theory in motion, in moving together towards unpredictability. And this, I think, is something to hope for.
Curated by DJ Sezzo and produced by Makeda Zucco (alongside Dijana Kumurdian, aka DJ MATKA)
As part of Next Wave x Liquid Architecture 2018
Sunday 6 May 2018 | The Tote, Melbourne
Elyssia Bugg is a writer and critic based in Melbourne. She is fascinated by performance and the performative. Her writing on these topics has previously appeared in RealTime Magazine.
All photos by Keelan O’Hehir.