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Underbelly Arts 2010: Public Lab & Festival retrospective

So here it goes, a reflection on producing Snail Piece at Underbelly Arts: Public Lab and Festival 2010.

We began by intending to develop a piece I had performed at an Appleloft late last year where I essentially implied that I was going to kill this snail but, lacking an ending, I asked the audience whether I should. Once we’d started work during the Lab period we also began a two-week process of negotiating our position and finding out exactly how we would create this piece, and what it would look like by the Festival. We tried various discussion/decision making models, and by the second week had settled in to a plan and a way of working with the Lab format, which invites audiences in twice a day to observe/work with artists, to produce the final piece. It was a rewarding and educational experience professionally, and a great experience personally.

One of the most valuable experiences we had over the course of the project was negotiating, as a team, our changing understanding of the opportunity we were working with. Snail Piece began during our work on Sexy New Urban Design Team… Erskineville at the Tiny Stadiums Festival. This was the first major project Applespiel had undertaken, and bolstered by our perceived success, we looked around for the next opportunity. Submitting Snail Piece to Underbelly Arts was a move to keep producing more Applespiel work, and most importantly, to show the public more of our work.

Upon commencing our fortnight in Chippendale we quickly had to come to terms with not only what we had come to Underbelly Arts with, but what our process was going to be for the next two weeks. Tellingly, it was only in the second week that we began to have a unified, retrospective story and mission statement. During the first week our approach was to build on an undeveloped piece, and when it didn’t receive the reaction that we were expecting, we began breaking out into generating new material. We drew upon previous notions of the process, referring to interviews we had done and discussions we had had in the lead up to Underbelly Arts for direction. However, as time went on, we realized we had to leave behind planned notions that, while valuable in many ways, were not taking shape. We began working with a more current notion of the process… we placed the ideas we had coming in to the process in a less sacred position, giving us the freedom to return to the ground and to negotiate the Lab situation (which by this time we’d become familiar with) in order to build Snail Piece towards a final shape. It was after this turning point that we were able to tell ourselves, tour groups and other artists the most honest and productive account of our project: we were excited and interested by a piece that happened at Appleloft a few months ago, and were using the Underbelly Arts structure, with its built in audience exposure, to find, reproduce, quantify and build upon that experience with Snail Piece. A little more complex than bringing a snail and a hammer to Underbelly arts and asking the audience what happens next. We had to have two whole fishbowls of snails.

The process of negotiating our position, not just theoretically  but as we worked and put our ideas into practice, was invaluable to Applespiel. Individual members had varying degrees of involvement, but everybody involved benefited from learning how the team worked, and the experience gained will feed back into the collective in a way that benefits even those members who were not available for Underbelly Arts. The strengths of a solid collective.

We were constantly reminded of the volatility of the work we had chosen to do. To begin with, staking the essence of the piece on the audience provided severe restraints in preparing for the two weeks in Chippendale. Once we began working with the audience, developing the piece based on audience reactions to our showings was full of unknowables: what if the audience is much larger? What if it’s later at night and they are generally drunker? What if we only need one outspoken person to ignite debate, and what happens if we then don’t plan for that person and they show up? Should we then consider a plant instead? Etc. In the end it was a matter of finding something that worked every time, but even then, each success was still only a ‘thus far’… there were definitely more and less successful shows, with a big disparity between the two.
In terms of the challenges we’d chosen by choosing this type of work, there was also the not insignificant matter of the snail.  From the beginning, the power of the piece lay in the gravity of consequence, that the decision of the audience actually mattered. On the other side, the power also lay in the act of ceding control over to the audience… for the decision to actually matter, we had to give up our own opinions if they differed from the audience’s decision. The first time the snail was killed was a little shocking for us, and dealing with it was certainly a new experience in our creative lives.
The most important killing was the second one. It was a very different killing. Throughout the piece, the audience had to negotiate a story which began with them finding a snail, and progressed as they made choices about what to do next. Along the way, the snail in the story died and they had to go back and re-think a previous choice. We used live snails as counters for these deaths. The story ends with them saving a snail but their final decision is what to do with these real snails whose lives were lost in the ‘game’. Duffy hovers over the snail with a hammer, the lights go off, Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’ plays loudly (“Are you ready motherfucker, we’re gonna kill yo arse”) and I ask “would you like to take the snail with you, or leave him here with us?” Previous audiences had responded to the menace, and when choosing to leave the snail with us, were aware that they were inviting us to kill the snail. However, for whatever reason this audience did not read the option to leave it with us as a death sentence, and due to previous success with this section I did not make sure that they were aware of this with a simple clarification… and so when they chose to leave it with us and Duffy killed it, some people left and the reaction was generally one of shock. And not the good type of shock. While some people think this is awesome, I feel that it was unfair and counter to the piece for it to have gone down like that. The first snail was the audience’s decision, so I feel less guilt about that one. It took me a while to reconcile with the guilt I feel about the second death by realizing that such guilt is a product of the work we chose to do.

We are proud of the work we did and the project that we produced. It’s a great feeling to come off the back of one project feeling like we are better equipped than ever for our next project, and eager to begin (Appleloft is coming up soon as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival, check back here for exciting details soon). We are also extremely grateful to all of the Underbelly Arts staff, Serial Space residents, audience and artists. As well as having a rewarding professional experience we had a fantastic two weeks.

– Joe

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