- Animate Loading, Riana Head-Toussiant
- Isabella Cornell
Staged on the roof of a car park in Parramatta over three nights in February 2022, Animate Loading – conceived, choreographed and presented by Riana Head-Toussaint, was a nuanced and poetic exploration of space, embodiment, collaboration and care. Hosted by Artist-Run-Initiative Pari, the performance was proposed as part of the group show: Concrete, an exploration of the material, its experiential and conceptual undercurrents.
The work itself was presented as a “site-responsive work on a carpark rooftop in Parramatta, involv[ing] a dynamic group of seven reconfiguring their interactions with the architecture and each other”.1 Hinging on the conceptual brief of concrete – the work was an ambitious undertaking within the context of a group show. Supported by Pari, the hour-long performance required multiple performers, expansive spatial elements and weeks of rehearsal. Despite the expansive nature of these preconditions, the performance thrived working in response to the site’s existing elements. Surrounding natural and artificial light, sounds and structures all provided a platform for Head-Toussaint’s engaged, collaborative and adaptable process. Through an extended dialogue with Head-Toussaint and her frequent collaborator Imogen Yang, who acted as an outside eye on this project, the integral nature of these elements to their process was illuminated to me.
The performance began with the slow emergence of performers from multiple points of the carpark with a gradual building of tension and movement. The intensity grew with each individual performer expressing their own “movement language”,2 interacting with the surrounding architecture, in many cases with props such as skateboards or balls that spoke to this individual language. A signified and visible break separated the performance: performers resting, stretching, hydrating in between. The performers re-emerged in a gruelling closeness with the surrounding concrete structures, followed by an “embodiment circle”3 in which each of the performers echoed the movement languages of one another in a way that was relevant and accessible to their own expression. The performance ended in a crescendo of joy, freedom and movement – set to a soundscape by Head-Toussaint and complemented by the natural progression of the evening’s light and ambient sound.
Riana Head-Toussaint, Animate Loading, 2022, performance documentation featuring performers Tom Kentta, Natalie Tso, Cynthia Florek and Leo Tsao, Pari, Sydney. Photo: Anna Hay. Courtesy of the artist. Image description: A diverse group of four performers are walking up a ramp to the rooftop of the Pari carpark. They are all dressed in different coloured sportswear. Two are wearing kneepads and one carries an orange soccer ball in one hand. [End image description].
Animate Loading explored the way we inhabit and occupy public space, whilst subverting the visible and invisible forces that dictate and influence our interaction with the physical and conceptual. Employing a somewhat Foucauldian approach to the implicit role of power and embodiment in the spaces we occupy, Head-Toussaint produced a poetic piece of performance that seamlessly blended constructed interventions with the natural and built environments. This operated on two levels: first, a visible physical interaction through choreography with the architecture of ‘public space’ and second, a process driven praxis of care and collaboration that carves out new conceptual spaces in the realms of dance, art, performance, publicness and the institution.
It is through performance-based interventions such as these that practices of advocacy and disobedience occur. This exists in explicit conceptual and pragmatic opposition to the normative physical and conceptual architecture of ‘public space’. Counter to the hegemonic vision of the ways in which often cis, white, able-bodied ‘publics’ should be and move in the world – Animate Loading offered moments of embodiment, divergence, collaboration and reflection. As the performers moved together and apart, their “movement languages” gestured towards an expanded notion of the ways in which we may move in the world around us, materially and symbolically.
Sarah Ahmed suggests that “to be orientated is also to be turned toward certain objects, those that help us to find our way”.4 These objects of recognition however are imbued with systems of power and oppression. Animate Loading destabilised and untethered the anchors of orientation within the Pari carpark’s architecture. Performers responded to their surroundings in new and unexpected ways and without these normative points or recognition, the phenomenological experience of the space was thrown into flux. As Ahmed suggests, we “might start by redirecting our attention toward different objects, those that are ‘less proximate’ or even those that deviate”.5 This is further extended in Animate Loading as a relational experience through the placement of audience seating. The audience was seated on either side of the performance, with performers entering and exiting from beside, in front and behind this configuration. This unsettled structural layers and lines of sight, redirected ones’ experience of spectatorship and the ocular primacy of viewing. This choice resulted in the implicit question of: what ‘publics’ and relational experience is ‘public space’ built by and for whom?
This work not only responded to the built environment, but was site responsive to an expanded sense of what it means to be staging a performance such as this on Dharug country. Head-Toussaint produced this work embracing and working with, rather than against, the natural environment. Details such as timing the piece with the progression of the sunset, rehearsing in the rain so that movement could be adapted to various weather conditions and designing the soundscape to emphasise moments of silence at the point in which the bats fly overhead every night, could be easily overlooked as as moments of happy coincidence – but were revealed in our conversations to be very specific moments of choreography. These production elements reimersed and reoriented performers and audiences within a broader, more organic sense of being in space.
Riana Head-Toussaint, Animate Loading, 2022, performance documentation featuring performer Tom Kentta, Pari, Sydney. Photo: Andrei Meltser. Courtesy of the artist. Image description: performer Tom Kentta sits on the ground, leaning back, with their legs drawn towards their face. They are shirtless and are moving through and against the rain falling around them. [End image description].
In my conversation with Head-Toussaint and Yang, they discussed the role that performance contexts played in the development of this work. Pari provided discursive, experimental and conceptual flexibility, which allowed true dismantling of what a performance such as this could be outside of rigid institutional constructs. Lingering at the intersection of performance, dance, theatre, endurance, intervention and happening, this work self-consciously deconstructs the boundaries and boxed in nature of each of these delineations. The work speaks to a constant questioning of what it means to be a dancer, artist and choreographer – and who and what is allowed to inhabit these spaces and consequential power structures. As Yang aptly mused, Pari offered a generative way to “work outside of the institution… and hope they catch up”,6 with Head-Toussaint agreeing that the escaping of boundaries or disciplinary restriction was at the centre of the work –“can we do something in a carpark and not call it anything?”.7 Perhaps a work such as this would not have been able to come into its own in a more rigid institutional setting – thus the choice to stage it in a public car park becomes fundamental to its fabric.
Ultimately, the process of destabilising the normative whilst carving out new space, was translated both through a conceptual praxis in the development and staging of this work and the physical and material dimensions of the piece and its setting. This parallel echo of ‘spacemaking’ as both a physical gesture and pragmatic choice in process and collaboration is significant. The development of this piece was fundamentally founded on collaboration and group exchange. The performers, choreographer and broader team generated a work based on ethics of care and implemented this both visibly in the performance itself and in the often invisible moments of process, development and rehearsal. In a move towards subverting the norms of dance, endurance and performance-making, Head-Toussaint consciously chose to incorporate a period of rest and break in the work. This was a practical consideration and gestured towards its importance within the broader concerns of the work and its development. When these moments are so invisible in traditional performance venues, its inclusion becomes a radical, subversive act.
Riana Head-Toussaint, Animate Loading, 2022, performance documentation featuring performers Savannah Stimson and Leo Tsao , Pari, Sydney. Photo: Anna Hay. Courtesy of the artist. Image description: A different group of four performers. The two performers in the foreground sit back-to-back, pressing against each other. They are both wearing brown pants. The two performers in the background lie on their backs, their arms and legs splayed. Everyone in this image has their eyes closed. [End image description].
Working with diverse performers, Head-Toussant centred accessibility and the performers’ own embodied “movement language”, rather than a choreography of conformity. As Head-Toussaint explained: “This is an important piece of advocacy – because in the dance world there is still a culture of exclusion. Even today, we continue to see a proliferation of choreography that preferences and centers thin, white-presenting, non-disabled, classically-trained bodies and a continued focus on moving in unison”.8 These moments of divergence and expression were poetically expressed during the “embodiment circle” in which movements were translated and echoed in a way that was relevant for each of the performers. This praxis of collaboration was carried throughout the development of the work, as Head-Toussaint expressed: “This was based on an expanded movement practice as they draw from their own movement vocabularies, yet the conceptual prompts lead them to do things outside of this in a way that is comfortable and accessible for them”.9 This fostered a “group ecology with a shared movement language”.10
In this context, privileging care, access and collaboration becomes a subversive act of spacemaking. Conceptual and physical spaces weave in and out of one another to disrupt normative concepts of publicness and architecture, alongside oppressive systems of performance-making and the institution. Spacemaking in this sense, moves beyond the physicality of being in space and becomes a fundamentally relational experience. This speaks to Head-Toussaint’s advocacy, which extends beyond the obvious and literal gestures of performance and rather is embedded and modelled in process. Animate Loading made the often invisible elements of process visible in the performance itself, to become a concrete and functional example of how producers, institutions and performers can create ecologies that reshape the possibilities of spacemaking.
“Concrete,” Pari, published 05 December 2021,⬈
Riana Head-Toussaint, in conversation with the author, 04 May 2022.
Head-Toussaint, in conversation.
Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 3.
Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others, p. 3.
Imogen Yang, in conversation with the author, 04 May 2022.
Head-Toussaint, in conversation.
Head-Toussaint, in conversation.
Head-Toussaint, in conversation.
Head-Toussaint, in conversation.
Animate Loading was staged on 24 - 26 February 2022 at Pari, Paramatta.
Concept, direction, choreography and sound design: Riana Head-Toussaint
Performers/collaborators: Leo Tsao, Tom Kentta, Natalie Tso, Bedelia Lowrencev, Jeremy Lowrencev, Savannah Stimson and Cynthia Florek
Outside Eye: Imogen Yang
You can view the single-channel video of Animate Loading here, as part of Firstdraft's Conductive Site. Conductive Site is an online program of artworks by six diverse, interdisciplinary artists – Hanna Cormick, Riana Head-Toussaint, Shareeka Helaluddin, Lost all Sorts Collective, Jamila Main and Daniel Savage – curated by Riana Head-Toussaint.
Isabella Cornell is a curator, researcher and writer living on Gadigal land. They have an interest in experimental curatorial methodologies based on knowledge-sharing, queer theory and the discursive. They hold a Master of Cultural Policy with a specific focus on the politics of cultural space.
Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.