Bleach* Festival's Arts Program Knows When In Doubt, Freak 'Em Out

18 April 2019 | 12:59 pm | Maxim Boon

Maxim Boon explores how this year's contemporary art at Bleach* Festival - including The Farm's 'Throttle', Leah Shelton's 'Terror Australis' and 'The Cleaners' by Shock Therapy Productions - will hijack your senses by defying expectations and harnessing fear.

Terrorist atrocities, climate catastrophes, extremist politics and dog-whistle isolationism: we are living through some desperately troubled times. And yet, instead of the existential dread our daily news cycle should inspire, psychological studies have shown that we’re more likely to feel ambivalence when exposed to such a sustained bombardment of human misery.

And it’s not just the peaks and troughs of current affairs that we’re becoming desensitised to. Mainstream entertainment is saturated with violence, abuse, and wholesale death on a scale that has numbed us to even the most extreme depictions. As our metric for both outrage and exhilaration has become ever more anaesthetised, it’s left some artists questioning: is it still possible to shock an audience?

The answer to this may well be found at this year’s Bleach* Festival, the Gold Coast’s celebration of site-specific contemporary art. On 2019’s bill, several productions explore the ways performance can hijack the senses, tapping into visceral and psychological responses on the most amped-up end of the emotional spectrum.

Co-directors of physical theatre collective The Farm, Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood, are ideally placed to navigate the changing reactions of contemporary audiences, having built up a body of collaborative work that “shows the fragility and strength of the human condition”. Their latest outing, Throttle, is an immersive melting pot of pop culture tropes, drawing on the B-grade and cult horror genres synonymous with the drive-in movie experience. From within their own cars, audience members can tune into a specially curated radio broadcast that narrates a story unfolding around them.

By drawing on certain psychological cues already innately associated with their drive-in medium, Webber and Millwood can be more subversive with the substance of their art, they explain.


“We have a love of that B-grade style of storytelling as well as high art; we like the combination of the two. There’s a great quote from the Wachowskis, who created The Matrix, about loving both highbrow and lowbrow art equally, so they call their work ‘monobrow’. And we’ve decided that we’re pretty happy about embracing that kind of duality as well, even embracing the bogan spirit in Throttle. We’re calling it ‘bogart'," Webber says.

“When you draw on those references and tropes, very quickly the audience understands the context of the show without having to be given a whole lot of additional information. And when we’re able to establish the situation in that way, we can then play with it and mess with the expectation of the audience. That’s a really key component of our work: defying expectations,” Millwood adds.

The idea of “accessibility” has often been sneered at within artistic circles, but Webber and Millwood believe such elitism is an outdated status quo. Their work uses the familiar as a way to introduce more heavyweight concepts to a broader audience. 

“Physical theatre and dance, which has been our bread and butter for so long, is something we’ve always been attracted to because of the power of it and what it can do. 

But we’re also very aware that it can be quite an alienating medium for people who don’t have a lot of experience with contemporary dance. So, it’s always been important to us to make work that’s accessible but can also still connect to those high art ideals,” Millwood says.

“And I think using contemporary dance and physical theatre can take the audience into a much more abstracted imagination,” Webber continues. “We start somewhere that often feels more concrete, and we journey into this abstraction where there’s more possibility for the audience to imagine. They’re not confined by being told, ‘This is what the show is about.’ It gives them, and us, more freedom.”

Cabaret artist and self-styled “psycho-siren” Leah Shelton has also turned to retro cinema for inspiration, in particular the sexually charged exploitation flicks of ‘70s grindhouse, muddled together with the classic Down Under-isms that have defined our national culture in the popular consciousness.

Terror Australis is a mercurial hybrid of a production that defies conventional definitions, but Shelton sums it up as a “fucked-up outback Contiki tour, a frothing hot mess of black comedy, anti-burlesque, live art and Hills Hoist pole dance”.

Terror Australis. Pic by Morgan Roberts.

“There are a lot of references in the show, but you don’t necessarily need to know any of them,” Shelton insists. “What I’m interested in exploring is how those impressions of Australia and of what this place is resonate in the subconscious for both Australians and non-Australians. These are iconic examples of Australiana: some of it we’re really proud of it, some of it makes us cringe, some it makes us feel ashamed. That’s a very complex way to connect to landscape and cultural identity and all the positive and negative responses that link to our history and the way we’ve inhabited this land.”

As in The Farm’s Throttle, horror genres have also been a potent muse for Shelton. “I wanted the work to explore the question of Australian culture, and whether we’re actually really afraid of otherness and ‘the outsider’. And I found that horror was a really effective metaphor for that. When you go to the theatre, you don’t often find work that is intended to make you scared or shock you. So I was really interested in how you could take the impact of a horror film or a suspenseful thriller and translate that for the stage, which all stemmed from wanting to explore the scale of the fear and paranoia that seems to underpin our culture even today.”

The Cleaners. Pic by Tao Jones.

Harnessing fear is not the only shock tactic being wielded at Bleach* Fest. Surprise is also a powerful tool. Sam Foster and Hayden Jones of Shock Therapy Productions, have pushed the boundaries of their practice to offer a unique and unexpected way for their audience to engage with their art. The Cleaners is part improv theatre, part evolving art installation, in which balloons filled with mud are fired at two figures hopelessly attempting to cleanse their once pristine environment of the ever-mounting contamination. Originally created as a three-day art event for Splendour In The Grass, the opportunity to create work for an itinerant audience opened up several creative possibilities for Foster and Jones.

“Coming from a theatre background, we naturally brought this theatricality and performance aspect to the installation. And it was just a great chance for us to think outside of our usual box, in terms of duration or creating a piece of art. What the piece became is both a pop-up performance and a carnival game,” Foster says. “We very deliberately didn’t call it a piece of theatre. We prefer to refer to it as an experience, because the audience’s participation is absolutely integral.”

The Cleaners has developed into a subtle, multi-layered piece, so long in its duration, it's unlikely any single viewer will witness it from beginning to end. Indeed, many of the people who happen upon the piece during Bleach* may only engage with the work briefly. Foster and Jones have considered this quirk of the piece carefully. “We always intend our work to have some depth to it; we start with a strong theme or question and build it out from there. But we’re also very conscious of the fact that art cannot, and should not, be just for art lovers or for those who are already interested in our kind of work,” Jones says. “People enjoy this piece on different levels: if someone just wants to come up and hurl a few balloons at us, that’s fine. They’re having a great time, and hopefully that leads them to look beyond the surface of the carnival game and start to think about its meaning.”