Liveworks experimental art festival plays with gender stereotypes

As bodies lash on stage, the experimental art festival Liveworks demonstrates that movement is not just how our bodies traverse through space, it also forms and challenges our gender identity.

"We're really interested in new perspectives on gender and sexuality," said Jeff Khan, the director of Sydney's Performance Space, where Liveworks is held.

"Artists who push the boundaries, who think about new ways to create queer and feminist performance practice, and, performance around masculinity.

"For me it was really important to have a strong thread of those works represented in the festival, alongside the Indigenous works and artists engaging with technology, works by culturally diverse artists."

Hissy Fit, a three-piece who came up through Performance Space's Stephen Cummins Bequest Residency, launched the three-week festival on October 22 with I Might Blow Up Someday.

They employed the lens of a female punk rock gig to interrogate hysteria — the medical condition once used to control women of the 1800s and early 1900s.

For Hissy Fit artists Jade Muratore, Emily O'Connor and Nat Randall, researching the now outdated condition led them to old photographs of patients trapped in fits of hysteria that were taken for the research of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in the 1800s.

While the condition was once thought to be caused by disturbances of the uterus with symptoms ranging from nervousness to erotic fantasies, it is no longer recognised and the term is now perceived as an insult.

"In the 1800s, the women being analysed at the time were particularly repressed," Muratore said.

"There's no wonder they lashed out, lost control in different ways. So then our work became very much about creating these controlled moments and being pushed to a limit where we split apart out of control."

The striking similarity between the faces and poses of the institutionalised women in Charcot's photographs and images of punk rock queens like Chrissy Amphlett in the 1980s seeded the idea to explore hysteria through a female punk rock aesthetic.

"Mass hysteria often occurs at gigs so everyone is part of this big screaming mass, and that's the way we wanted to position the audience," Randall said.

"It's about the push and pull between watching female aggression, and how we can traverse this spectrum of being deeply sexualised and objectified, but also maintaining a certain agency and control over our bodies."

Inspired by Charcot's four phases of hysteria — epileptoid, hallucinations, grand movements and delirium or return to normalcy — I Might Blow Up Someday traverses four distinct tones that move between the states of control and release before concluding with a head-banging battle of endurance.

The audience's gaze and expectations of how a female body should behave and be read are challenged as the girls move the performance from onstage to the floor, wrestling as the audience surrounds them.

Khan said the artists play with the idea of hysteria being a transformative force rather than a medical condition, "the anger and out-of-control elements being an energising, empowering force — something that released the female body from the constraints of gender".

Filipina artist Eisa Jocson presented three works in Liveworks program that played with gender stereotypes: Death of a Pole Dancer, Macho Dancer and Host.

In Death of a Pole Dancer, Jocson, dressed in black hot pants and patent platform heels, carefully constructs her portable pole and then repeatedly throws herself against it. For Jocson, Death of a Pole Dancer is a performance that plays with spectatorship and voyeurism, along with empathy.

Jocson says there is more to a pole dance performance; that it is "a body and not just an image". Rather than viewing the dancer's body as a sexual object, Jocson challenges audiences to "see that it is a feeling body".

After working her way up and down the pole, the show concludes with Jocson's body tangled and sprawled on the floor as Dusty Springfield's I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself winds down into silence.

"This idea of gender performance as an economic transaction really plays on the gaze of the audience and at the way the audience looks at a performing body as offering itself up," Khan said.

Jocson displays the fluidity of gender when she moves from a pole dancer to a macho dancer in a muscle shirt, cowboy boots and crotch-led stride. In Macho Dancer she takes on the exaggerated masculinity of the Filipino male dancers who perform at nightclubs for audiences of gay men and straight women — a practice unique to the region.

For Jocson, as it could be for many macho performers, switching between gender stereotypes for performance is a prerequisite skill when working as a dancer.

But experimental art festivals like Liveworks allow her to explore the performance possibilities of those dance forms.

"I'm interested in the movement vocabulary and how it informs the gender performance," she said.

Khan adds: "Eisa noticed that both of those styles of dancing — pole dancing and macho dancing — are ways Filipino performers, specifically from working class or lower socio economic backgrounds, are able to perform their gender as a gesture of economic mobility."

I Might Blow Up Someday, Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer are performances that challenge our expectations of how genders should perform and be read. And like the performers, we are all artists of our own gender, playing with and to the expectations of our audience.

"For me the queer, feminist and gendered work that we present is about work that challenges those norms and argues for different positions on gender and sexuality," Khan said.

"For different kinds of bodies and different kinds of identities."

Clint O'Hanlon