The realm of childhood is a liminal zone. Unable to fend for ourselves, we are beholden to adults to teach us about the world. Our character, our worldview and our values are already beginning to take shape, many aspects of which will stay with us through our maturity. And yet once we are fully grown, our memories of these formative years remain largely out of reach.
UK performance duo Fish & Game take us back to the transitory world of childhood in their latest show Alma Mater, which will be showing at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall from Wednesday April 18.
Alma Mater is a one-on-one performance, where audiences are guided through a replica of a little girl’s bedroom. Rather than an actor greeting us, we are given an iPad and invited to watch a 20-minute video that is filmed in what appears to be the same location. But don’t expect Barbie-pink furnishings, posters of pop stars or stuffed toys perched on the bed. Audiences are instead confronted with an uncanny space — an all-white room stripped of humanity.
“Is this the room that someone’s left?” asks Robert Walton, one half of Fish & Game. “Have they moved out of this room? Is it for sale now? The life is gone… and it makes you think, are you looking at ghosts that used to be in this room?”
We soon meet the room’s occupant, a little girl named Lyla, who ushers us into her world. She seems to want something from us, but how do we discern what? Is Lyla a ghost? Or is Lyla in fact an incarnation of our former self — a kind of corporeal alma mater? Walton says the video’s surreal imagery will cause viewers to experience and interpret the work in different ways.
“I’ve made a lot of work that are about dreams and dream logic and the subconscious,” explains Walton. “It’s about those dreams and where they take you… but it’s also essential this idea… of how do we receive knowledge? How is knowledge passed on between generations? How are we open to growth and suggestion, and how hard do we have to fight sometimes to earn knowledge?”
Alma Mater is the sister piece to an earlier production that Fish & Game staged at the Scotland Street School in November 2010. The iPad video guided you through a primary school and invited you to see the spectral traces that lingered there, exploring “how state architecture effects and disciplines this child’s body.”
Engaging with similar ideas about the internalisation of knowledge and power, Alma Mater explores how this works in the private space of the home. “This piece is about how the architecture of bedrooms and small rooms effects us,” explains Walton, “and how children can enter a kind of parallel relationship with the room. They decorate it; they create the way it should look by putting things on the wall and that, in turn, effects their own image of themselves.”
Fish & Game was formed by Robert Walton and Eilidh MacAskill in 1998, who met while they were studying at Dartington College of Arts in England. They created their first of many works in 2000, all of which have explored the idea of the “encounter” between performer and audience. “I make living things,” says Walton, “and they’re things that you have to do or experience. You can only experience them in a certain place and in a certain time and with certain people.”
Like much of Fish & Game’s work, Alma Mater skirts the boundaries between several artistic genres. “It’s a bit like a film. It’s a bit like a contemporary music thing. It’s a bit like a performance. It’s a bit like some kind of game. But at the same time, it’s not any of them.” Walton says it is up to viewers to decide whether or not it is theatre.
This is the first time that Fish & Game have integrated iPad technology into their work, but Walton doesn’t think it’ll be the last. Walton also holds a Masters in Science degree in Information Technology, and has had an ongoing interest in the relationship between technology and performance.
While several shows performed in Melbourne last year used video goggles, including And the Birds Fell From The Sky at Arts House and Half-Real at the Malthouse Theatre, Walton is fascinated by the interplay between physical space and video space that occurs when using iPads.
“The audience member maintains some agency in the relationship to the screen,” he explains. “With the video goggles you become a baby — you can’t actually see anything except what the video is… It takes something away from you.”
Walton is also excited by the flexibility afforded by using technology. Alma Mater will be showing simultaneously in London at the Arts Centre, and will also tour to Cologne in Germany later in the year. The intimacy of the “encounter” can be created without needing to tour actors, allowing more people to experience the work.
“I’ve taken part in a lot of one-to-ones as well as making them, and it’s absolutely true that they effect you in a very deep way. It’s much more intense, it’s much more personal, you feel that you’re getting 100 per cent attention… When you get to be with an artist and have that kind of experience, it’s extraordinary.”
BY REBECCA HARKINS-CROSS
Alma Mater will be showing at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall from Wednesday April 18 – Sunday May 13. For bookings and further information, visit artshouse.com.au.