"I Was Scared That It Would Be A Little Bit Too Self-Referential"

6 November 2015 | 4:50 pm | Simon Eales

"It's about the ethics of intervention, if you wanted an elevator pitch."

"Sydney Opening: tick," says Nicola Gunn the morning after the opening night of her latest work, Piece For Person and Ghetto Blaster, in the Harbour City. Those post-show comedown feels are real for the Melbourne-based performance artist. "It's champagne and six hours sleep. Plus you have adrenalin. I didn't sleep very well."

It's probably a good sign that things got festive, though. "I think the audience really dug it. I was scared that it would be a little bit too self-referential. I make work that talks about the process of making art, so it basically comes down to taste. Is this style of work your taste?"

Gunn's impressive collection of previous work consists of bizarre scenes, sociological provocations, filmic imagery and rambling monologue. In At The Sans Hotel, for example, she explores themes of presence and absence through a detective story. In Hello My Name Is, she hosts a community trust exercise in which the audience members are the participants. Her latest work Piece For Person + Ghetto Blaster jam this style with a new direction.

"If there is conflict, say in the Middle East, what are the ethics of the West intervening in that conflict? 

"I don't want to give too much away because it's basically unpacking this one incident," Gunn says, "this very brief encounter I had with a stranger in a foreign country. He was doing something I didn't think was right, and I told him so. And then we started yelling at each other. I am amazed that this kind of encounter with a stranger can end up in an aggressive, violent situation. I found it fascinating."

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It's no surprise then that the idea of 'goodness', which lies behind conflict and has baffled philosophers for yonks, prompts Gunn too. "It's about the ethics of intervention, if you wanted an elevator pitch," she tells, "and about where you draw the line between art and life. 

"If there is conflict, say in the Middle East, what are the ethics of the West intervening in that conflict? I'm taking a very small situation and, if you wanted to, you could look at it in a more universal kind of way."

That Gunn's audience doesn't need to experience the same level of confrontation she did is part of her artistry. The title signals the show's demonstration of this soft approach to influence. "I am really interested in the subtle hypocrisy of the ghetto blaster. If you look into its history, it kind of democratised music in some way. But conversely, it also said, 'Ok, everyone, you all have to listen to me because I've got the loudest thing on the street.' I kind of like the way it forces your thoughts onto other people.

Gunn's performed persona, she says, expounds the same kind of moral superiority. "It's just this kind of fucking verbal noise," she laughs seriously. "Everyone's hypocritical. Everyone makes exceptions for themselves."

Though it might be fucking noise and ethically indeterminate, it'll at least sound good, with crack composer Kelly Ryall playing his original '80s electro-inspired score live. "We were trying to find something that was quite hypnotic. The combination of music and this kind of rambling of words, and the movement, create some kind of empathetic feedback loop in the room, like you want to nod or tap along. It's slyly manipulative."