Back in 1998, the PVI (Performance, Video, Installation) Collective were a neat group and a fledgling collective. In 2004, seven years and eighteen major works later, the group has expanded to include new members, in addition to remote cells and networks of groups and individuals across Australia. The PVI refer to themselves as shape-shifters, and in this sense the shifting evolution of the collective has been influenced as much by the consequences of their national and international residencies as their addoption of new technologies.
In the beginning it was simple. A dark room. Sound. Light. A glimmer-curtain. Neo-plasticist design principles. Text on a video screen. Computer-generated speech. A jive-talking virtual performer (named b.u.d.d.i.). Three live performers. They do stuff verging on assault (to one another). One of them jiggers and sways while two of them watch (her). They drink tea out of a bottle of Jack. They talk (to themselves). They listen to jazz. We laugh when we know we shouldn't. Time passes. The lights fade. The performers disappear and they don't come back (for flowers). No one claps (because they don't know when, and then the opportunity is lost somehow). The audience is left to make their own way out.
A smiling bald man wearing glasses sticks his head into the theatre foyer where we are loitering afterwards, shocked-in-congregation. He politely thanks us all for coming. Outside in the street we skip along with glee and talk about how fucking fantastic all of that was. How it was so unlike anything we'd seen before. How it touched on something so potent and honest about contemporary human relations and technological advancement. How we were so sick of earnest contemporary dance about heterosexual relationships. Sick of video paraded through performance for no good reason (goddamit!). We wanted something more. We wanted more of this.
Back then, in 1998, the pvi (performance, video, installation) collective were a neat group with two directors; Kelli McCluskey and Steve Bull, and three performers; James McCluskey, Kate Neylon and Chris Williams. One of their first works (that I have described above from my fragmented memory), easy listening under the truth serum: track 1 held at Yirra Yaakin in 1998 as part of the Artrage festival, was an entirely theatre-installed project with very particular parameters, limitations. Their activity took place inside four walls for a start. The group itself was clearly defined within a set director/performer hierarchy, and from an outsider perspective seemed impenetrable – intriguing but closed – as if there were those members who generated ideas, and those who carried them out to the letter, in real time. Kelli and Steve researched, scripted, edited and directed. Chris and James performed while Kate danced.
At this stage the pvi were a fledgling collective, and Kelli and Steve were newcomers to WA having arrived from the UK only months before. In 2004, seven years and eighteen major works later the group has expanded to include new members Jackson Castiglione (performer) and Christina Lee (videographer), in addition to remote cells and networks of groups and individuals across Australia, all contributing towards the production of pvi projects. Core members of the pvi each wield creative control, researching particular facets of their work and sharing opportunities for overseas residencies, national workshops and participation in the work of other groups and organisations. Matching these changes, the work itself has also diversified and extended beyond the initial live, theatre-based performance. With Kelli and Steve still at the helm, their current line-up of projects includes two concurrent gallery-based installations entitled 'panopticon' for exhibitions in Perth (Drift) and Sydney (Primavera 2004), a rentable interactive DVD, tts recruit, and a nationwide bus tour of capital cities, tts australia (commencing February 2005).
The pvi make dead funny (that's black, deadpan funny) work. They have previously drawn from art-historical, philosophical, technological, popular and political sources as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Frederich Nietzsche, Charlie Parker, cyber sex and the Patriot Act, and it all seems to make perfect, logical sense. After all, everything is interconnected (so we are told). As project blue (2000) demonstrated, there are only four degrees of separation from an aesthetic aversion to the colour blue to a suicide help-line, and primed by reality television, people will line up for the confessional. The pvi refer to themselves as 'shape-shifters', and in this sense the shifting evolution of the collective has been influenced as much by the consequences of their national and international residencies as their adoption of new technologies, new collaborators and persistent scanning of the fluid social and political landscape that informs their practice (all this while dressed in Santa suits, matching tracksuits, blonde wigs or ex-American president masks). For Do it (2001) curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, pvi re-interpreted instructions by Critical Art Ensemble for a work, true crime, that tested the limits and extent of the law by lifting instructions for vehicle theft from the Internet and then attaching them to car windows with easy-peel stickers. The work specifically located the act of making 'an image of an illegal object' within the context of Western Australia's very own motor theft anxiety.
For Tactical Intervention Strategies (2001) at PICA, pvi's a watching brief: your guide to cctv challenged the notion that (in surveillance terms) 'being young, black or an attractive woman makes you statistically more likely to be watched'. Gallery visitors were invited to choose one of three briefcases in which were stored disguises and a telephone number to call for instructions on the kind of behaviour (young, black or attractively female) to exhibit while walking in disguise near the closed-circuit cameras outside the gallery. Trusterbuster (2002), staged in PICA's performance space trialled ex-Israeli military lie-detection software to test an individual arts worker against new homeland security laws arising from the 'war on terror', the US patriot act and its counterpart laws in other countries. In the late nineties, pvi's focus was surveillance technology and other subtle, insidious machinations of social control. But these days it's terrorism, the notion of terrorists as the 'superentertainers of our time' and, more pointedly, 'terror' as the filter though which all these previous concerns are now applied as political tools both locally and on the world stage.
For the tts (terror[ist] training school) projects of the last two years, the pvi have eschewed the theatre entirely for the production of a night bus tour that utilises each state's capital city's most significant urban landmarks as targets for performance. Arising from the post September 11, media-fuelled hysteria about whose city was most likely to provide likely, popular targets for terrorist activities, each core member undertook specific research towards producing an initial tour of Perth, tts route 65. Members James and Jackson began by signing up for a try-before-you-decide recruitment drive with the Army Reserves while Kelli and Steve hit the road, visiting each capital in Australia to undertake surveillance on guided bus tours disguised as British tourists, and to devise tts routes for each city. In the background, Chris and Kate watched endless movies and trawled popular source material for terror stereotypes and characteristics.
Jackson and James investigated physical and mental training parallels between legitimate armies and terrorist cells through participation in the Reserve trial, and by scanning declassified CIA papers and other available recruitment information in print and on the Internet. Kelli and Steve's state capital visits enabled pvi to present their work to local artists interested in assisting the group with local insight and also to provide text and pictorial content for the critical reader for tts australia. After meeting during the Performance Space/PICA hybrid workshop, time_place_space in 2002, Kelli and Steve also invited Melbourne-based sound and network artist, Jason Sweeney, to source and edit site-specific audio components for each tour.
The pvi group dynamic has evolved to a point whereby their increasingly hectic schedule is managed by a working methodology that utilises each artist's strengths. James and Jackson undertake a physical approach to active research while Kate and Chris explore the live art component of the work. Kelli and Steve meanwhile underpin the entire operation with conceptual leadership, regular cups of tea and the management of a dynamic workshop environment. Over time the group has maintained its strong collective identity but also allowed for the creative growth of each of its members. This year Kate and Chris were invited to participate in the National Review of Live Art: New Territories in Edinburgh, James travelled to the Adelaide Festival for a Blast Theory workshop, while Kelli and Steve ventured twice to Sydney to film and then install panopticon at the MCA – a project that was in itself the result of an Asialink residency in Taipei in 2003.
With a full complement of engaged practitioners, tts australia continues to develop towards February 2005 while tts recruit is due for imminent release during Artrage in October 2004. The DVD includes such menu items as the art of super entertainment, believe in yourself, experience the excitement, arm yourself and have a go, covering everything a potential terrorist could want to know from how to throw stones at moving targets, to fitness training and making a threatening phone call. Brutality served with a smile. Ever since their first performance in Perth the pvi collective have consistently poked through the structures that define the spaces in which they perform through the use of devices such as video live-feeds intersecting on-stage performance, performer recruitment from the general public, connection to live phone-lines (and unsuspecting soft targets), live internet, utilising software in live performance, CCTV technologies and testing performer endurance (feats of strength). All of this bringing the real world back into play and implicating their audience right there within it.
- ^ 'Terrorists will always have to be innovative. They are, in some respects, the superentertainers of our time'. Walter Laqueur (1977).
Bec Dean is an artist, writer and full-time Exhibition Manager of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.