Title:
Veronica Franco v Instagram, Sam George and Lisa Radford
Author:
Katie Paine
Date:
27.07.22

Sitting at the fuzzy periphery

Sam George and Lisa Radford, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude.

I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m fishing… I’m a vision… Transmission? Spoken words slip into one another, jostling, colliding – sometimes repeated, sometimes spoken in such a way that each fragment of dialogue seems to obscure the one that came before. Words falling together in a landslide.

I’m sitting on a small black stool hemmed against a wall watching a performance for Sam George and Lisa Radford’s Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022 at Gertrude Glasshouse. George and Radford are long-time friends and collaborators whose lineage of practice springs from their involvement in the multidisciplinary collective DAMP. Both their practices collaboratively and individually seem peripatetic: traversing arenas like painting, written prose and installation. Most recurring are a series of ongoing and reciprocal collaborative projects with other practitioners. This performance is an iteration of George and Radford’s project The Dugong Sublime, part of the 2021 exhibition THIS IS A POEM at Buxton Contemporary involving the same performers: undergraduate theatre students from the Victorian College of the Arts.

Sam George and Lisa Radford, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude.

When I first arrived at the gallery, awkwardly early as I often seem to be, I peered under Gertrude’s partially lowered roller door to see the actors convened in the gallery in what appears to be a mid-rehearsal discussion. To continue looking feels risky, like I might contaminate my experience of the work, so I look away– but not before I see that the actors are clad in oversized blue shirts, socks and little else. Seeing the throng of crisp blue collars and cuffs, my first impression is that of a peculiar school choir.

As they follow one another to some secret back-stage space, the roller door is raised and I encounter the installation beyond. A sleek steel and ply step structure conjures associations with both an excavated segment of an Ancient Greek amphitheatre and 90s children’s playground equipment, painted a bright pedagogical green. A trio of bluestone sculptures of breasts gather in the centre of the space, falling in fleshy mounds that puddle on the ground. Adhered to the brown terrazzo of the Glasshouse floor lie two pale green crosses of tape: a proposition or invitation. On the far wall hangs a small square painting, a tightly cropped depiction of the rosy swell of yet another breast, which the exhibition catalogue tells me is Maria Kozic’s 1991 work, Tits.

Sam George and Lisa Radford with performers Freyja Black, Sophia Derkenne, Ludomyr Kemp-Mykyta, Ivy Crago, Iris Simpson, Frazer Shepherdson, Lauren Swain, Jess Lu and Molly Mechen, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, performance documentation, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Ezz Monem. Courtesy of Gertrude.

As the performers disperse throughout the gallery space, the strangeness of their costumes reveals itself. Gazing more closely I see the shirts are less school uniform, more Tom Cruise cavorting down the staircase in Risky Business, 1983. Hair slicked back, sleeves pushed to elbows, a glimpse of Bonds underpants: the performers make an androgynous congregation. The exhibition statement describes them as a ‘performative nut-cluster of actors’. They adopt poses of contemplation with an exaggerated insouciance: like that of a dandy or flaneur. One woman stands with the unbridled confidence of a dramatic protagonist, another sits legs akimbo. A young man in spotted socks and glasses murmurs sotto voce: I don’t know how to describe it.

At some point in the evening the first performance finishes. What followed, I refer to as the second iteration, set against the hushed tones of visitors still talking. The dialogue certainly seems different. Throughout most of the second iteration I am convinced it is different, that this is a second act, but as I leave I’m not so sure. What I think of as different lines are perhaps the exact same and this time around I’m simply noticing different moments. Perhaps I am only able to notice a limited range of moments at any one time. Another member of the audience spoke to me of this feeling, saying that trying to stay afloat, to grasp the performers’ dialogue “felt like having a stroke - but not in a bad way”.

Sam George and Lisa Radford with performers Freyja Black, Sophia Derkenne, Ludomyr Kemp-Mykyta, Ivy Crago, Iris Simpson, Frazer Shepherdson, Lauren Swain, Jess Lu and Molly Mechen, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, performance documentation, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Ezz Monem. Courtesy of Gertrude.

Sam George and Lisa Radford with performers Freyja Black, Sophia Derkenne, Ludomyr Kemp-Mykyta, Ivy Crago, Iris Simpson, Frazer Shepherdson, Lauren Swain, Jess Lu and Molly Mechen, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, performance documentation, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Ezz Monem. Courtesy of Gertrude.

Who is Veronica Franco? I wonder, before trawling through a rabbit warren of articles on Google. My first thought when reading this exhibition’s title was of the legal copyright debacle and ensuing ethical dilemmas generated by Richard Prince’s New Portraits. In this now notorious exhibition, he printed large scale reproductions of the contents of others’ Instagram profiles without their consent. Though fleeting, this association then led me down another path, contemplating notions of politics, power, attitudes to the societal role of the arts, representation and the gendered body. I later learn that Franco was a 16th century humanist Italian poet and courtesan who contributed to feminist discourse of the time. Where does feminism lie in this project? In the unabashed, recurring representation of the breast as a matter-of-fact appendage? Or in the play’s dialogue, fragments of which seem to occupy second wave feminist territories in its treatment of gender? Is feminism a core concern of the project, or is it subject matter – a vehicle through which to discuss something else? You’re preoccupied with a need to be certain, one performer murmured.

I don’t have a frame of reference outside my own immediate experience, the performers articulate in playful harmony. Larynxes open and close in whispers and shouts, caressing and spitting out the words they speak. The performance is dizzying, elastic and chimerical. It wheels wildly from earnestness to utter silliness, from commedia dell’arte to incisive satire or the poignancy of an intimate gesture. One performer kneels, picks up one of the breast sculptures and cradles it, she stoops to listen to its stony form like one might hold a shell to their ear. At other times the same duo play a bawdy game, one breast is straddled, another is held like a phallus and we watch a pantomime of fellatio. Within the group of performers, complicated dynamics abound: they bicker, interrupt and shhh one another. Though none of them look alike, there is something unified about this group that reminds me of the doppelgangers in Being John Malkovich, 1999: a deranged choral arrangement. The ensemble appears to be of one body, a body that houses multitudes and that listens to its many constituents. Or perhaps more accurately, the performers make up a cacophonous polyphonic voice. Whilst dialogue may at times feel fractured or jarring, performers respond to one another in a highly developed and intuitive manner. Like echoes or shadows of each other, one utters a call and others respond, the entire tempo of the performance changing in the blink of an eye. This project often seems to adopt the guise of a confounding game, a laboratory or testing site: a project that balances precariously on chance and contingency, on the boundaries of collaboration in all its facets.

Sam George and Lisa Radford with performers Freyja Black, Sophia Derkenne, Ludomyr Kemp-Mykyta, Ivy Crago, Iris Simpson, Frazer Shepherdson, Lauren Swain, Jess Lu and Molly Mechen, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, performance documentation, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Ezz Monem. Courtesy of Gertrude.

The script that is presented, or dissected, or assembled, is adapted from Hannie Rayson's 1990 play Hotel Sorrento. Having never read Hotel Sorrento, I could not delineate or demarcate the original script nor could I find an outline of its alterations. I was frequently greeted with the feeling that certain elements of the project are purposefully indeterminate. Oblique references to both the play and Franco demand prior knowledge that we are not necessarily given. Maybe it is the tenuous space in between that matters. The membrane between performance and original play seemed porous: authorial voice became if not lost, then confused. It was only upon reading artist Spiros Panigirakis’ accompanying exhibition text that I was greeted with whole segments from Rayson’s script. These intelligible fragments helped me to piece together George and Radford’s slippery dramaturgical actions. At one moment, reference is made to the mozzarella in the fish tank. Ah ha! Here is a direct reference to their humorous dairy aquarium installed in the 2021 Gertrude Contemporary studios exhibition, If Not At Arm's Length. I can hold on to this. This phrase refers to a recognisable world outside of the play that I can use as a life raft to navigate these swirling waters, these narrative realms that collapse in on one another.

At one end of the gallery a large video camera gazes out upon the installation like a stern, black sentinel; stretching out the temporality of the performance, carving out new digital iterations. Depending on your vantage point, it might be barely noticeable, receding into a gap in vision we save for the banality of documentation. Some might see performers intermittently greet the camera and perform for its unblinking aperture. Astride this structure is a tablet inscribed with a sequence of lines from the play, an infinite teleprompter. Here there is yet another fracture: the text is utterly out of sync with the action. I later learn that the entire performance and segments of the intermission were live streamed on Instagram and now exist as video documentation. An archival remnant and unfaithful spectral recording made continuously accessible to interested parties.

Sam George and Lisa Radford, Veronica Franco v Instagram, 2022, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne. Photo by Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude.

Sitting at the fuzzy periphery is a response to the 26 May 2022 performances associated with Sam George and Lisa Radford's exhibition Veronica Franco v Instagram at Gertrude Glasshouse (27 May - 25 June 2022) by Katie Paine. Sitting at the fuzzy periphery is the third in a series of articles published by Performance Review in conjunction with Gertrude, in response to Gertrude's 2022-23 Artistic Program.

Katie Paine is an artist and writer living and working in Naarm/Melbourne. She writes fiction and criticism for publications such as Vault Magazine, Art + Australia, un Magazine, Running Dog, Runway Journal and Art Almanac. She is currently completing her Masters in Fine Art (By Research) at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a particular interest in hauntology, semiotics and the archive.

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.