Mar 24, 2018

Catacular – not to be confused with Spectacular

25 February - 4 March 2018

Auckland Fringe Festival
Produced, created and performed by Caitlin Davey and Sarah-Louise Collins

To get to see the dance performance Catacular, first you need to find the venue.  Once you locate the exact alley way towards the bottom of Queen street, the next step is to look for a door with a small sign that leads you up a flight of stairs to the cat café - BaristaCats.  I manage to get quasi-lost despite attending the same venue a year ago for Catacular when it premiered at Auckland Fringe 2017.  This potential for disorientation is totally worth it though, because … CATS!  The mission of BaristaCats is to provide refuge “from the hustle and bustle of city life” for humans and animals alike, check out their vision at  Catacular in part seeks to promote BaristaCats, where a big chunk of the doortake goes back to support this organisation in providing sanctuary for rescued cats, particularly hard-to-adopt-out cats from a number of animal rescue organisations around Auckland. 

Being a nontraditional performance venue, as audience I am not sure how we are expected to behave in BaristaCats, so I am looking for clues as I arrive.  There is a short briefing by the owner on handling the cats and certain vulnerable felines, then we are led to the big back room of the café where a human-animal interactive scene is already underway.  Cats are crawling, sniffing and pawing all over and around a very still reclining human figure, Sarah-Louise Collins, who appears in a state of peaceful ecstasy.  We also see the second performer, Caitlin Davey, moving around the edges of the space, delivering pieces of paper to attendees and welcoming folx.  I notice a cat with no eyes, ginger cats, white cats, a three-legged cat, black cats and multiple tabbys, they are mostly older cat and cats with disabilities.  This is clearly a space that celebrates the social, a scene of curiosity, delight and enjoyment.

I notice the cats are searching out and eating little treats that have been scattered or hidden in Sarah’s clothing and hair (I find out later that catnip was also rubbed on Sarah to intensify the commitment and physical closeness of the cats).  This strategy centers our attention on the social choreography of cats and the human-animal relationship.  It is a human designed encounter, which seems to be bringing the performer, a self-proclaimed cat lover, a huge amount of joy, AND, the cats get treats, which they clearly desire in this moment.  Mutually beneficial?  An equitable exchange?  I see cats vying for space and food, a clustering of sinewy bodies, with coinciding moments of apparent unison, rhythms of flinches, diverse nibbling styles, and movements of avoidance, resistance, and union.  I wonder if Sarah acquired many scratches in the rehearsal of this scene….? Finally, she makes a small movement, and the cat choreography dissipates. 

There are about 20 humans of various ages and sizes attending Catacular who sit around the edges of the room on couches and chairs. The objects in this back room are normally more dispersed, but here the center of the space is cleared becoming a performance arena.  I notice there appears to be about the same number of cats as humans occupying the space.  The humans are visibly delighted to be here.  I am not sure what is behind their smiles, but for me this performance event is a much-appreciated opportunity to spend some time around animals.  Spaced around the room are multiple cat towers, playgrounds, tunnels, cat beds, toys, ticklers, balls of string, scratching poles, perches and cushions.  My attention is drawn into the elaborate and creative architectures for cats, where multiple levels are created with bridges and walkways to enable trajectories around the space in the ways that cats like to move – around the edges, up high, into the corners, preferring less visible and less physically exposed spaces to dwell.  I am reminded that cats are predators and hunters, yet can also transform in an instant into a flaming queen.  In this way the wide-open space in the middle of the room serves as a kind a cat promenade – a runway to prance and twirl and roll, to be admired as the stunning and elusive cat that you are, slinking from here to there, choosing to interact with the humans or avoid them all at will. 

pussy galore
Sarah shifts into a process of slowly peeling back a surprising number of socks from her bulky feet, each newly revealed sock is presented to us with pride as a dazzling treasure.  No wonder her feet appeared so thick, I think I counted 14 sock layers on each foot?!  The peelings demonstrate the endless variations of cartoon representations of cats, where the loveable qualities that humans prescribe to ‘domesticated’ cats are on display. These same cat qualities seem to be reflected in the personalities of the two human performers.  We are watching live CUTENESS in action.  Adorability is also emphasised by the performers costumes with soft fabrics, sleep wear, eye masks and slippers creating an environment of cushioning, comfort and homeliness.  The sense of touch and tactility is indicated, with the furry cats nudging at our limbs and hands for pats, and these soft fabrics that envelop the dancers’ bodies.  I note the occasional sniff of Sarah socks by passing cats, prompting me to think about smell and the prominence for cats of certain perceptual modes.  I ponder to myself about how the sense organs of humans and cats are wired differently, with different functions and purposes.

Catacular has a clear episodic structure, where ideas are tinkered together, moving between more dancey sections, like ‘Cat-Mmitment’ & ‘Snazzy Dance Moves!’, to participatory tasks such as ‘Quiz – Catular’ and ‘Anthem’.  This structure works well to keep us attentive and engaged, Catacular is animated, fun and playful. 

In the next section, a large spindly drawing of a cat is laid out on the floor made out of brightly coloured pipe cleaners.  I learn this pipe-cleaner cat has a name, Binglebob.  With Binglebob so neatly placed, I am fashioning an impression of the creative partnership between Sarah and Caitlin.  Fond memories of antics with my best friend in high school are sparked, of hours spent laughing at absurd and outlandish things that we did or created together.  We are asked to read out loud the cat facts that were handed to us on paper.  The 10 facts are written out as a list on a huge flipchart, which are then composed before us in real-time as a choreographic composition.  Each fact has been paired with a pre-composed movement, repeated based on the number of cats we see in the room.  The outline of Binglebob becomes a spatial element that the performers negotiate in this responsive dance.  We see a flurry of cute movement details, delivered with personality and a tone of comfort between Sarah and Caitlin.

At the conclusion of the Binglebob section, we witness one of the cats gently place its paw on top of the pipe cleaners as Sarah attempts to clear them away.  The cat plays innocent, but as will clearly become an evident feature of Catacular, the BaristaCats cats perform repetitions of ‘accidental’ interruptions which pull our focus and attention (sitting right in the middle of the performance action is common).  Not to sound cold, but I’ve never been one to soften to the psychological attention-seeking games that cats play (I’m a dog person). However, in this context, sitting at a distance watching, I find the power play between cats and humans endearing and intriguing.  I want to experience each cat’s personality play out at a certain point in the performance, perhaps as a durational low-tone soap opera, or a reality TV show with multiple series (episodes featuring Black Beauty, Orson, Goldie, Bryon, Wednesday, Miss Molly Snugglington…).

Friendship based choreographic practice
What I am personally struck by with Catacular, is the way in which these two intelligent dance artists frame a friendship-based approach to choreographic practice with ease and confidence.  I am thinking here of other friendship based performance collectives such as Berlin based Female Trouble, who, like Sarah and Caitlin, are addressing questions about co-authorship, and the role of the audience.  A company of two, Sarah and Caitlin establish a way of working that foregrounds kindness and mutual support as integral to the performance making and choreographic material.  I sense layers of trust and respect that must have been built over years, a friendship that I assume to have been enabled through proximity and shared experiences in the local contemporary dance scene.  But maybe their connection goes back further, to high school, or even primary school?

There is one episode in Catacular which stands out for me when thinking about friendship-based modes of making.  The blindfold ‘solo’ by Caitlin, which ends up in my mind as an interesting example of an ensemble choreographic form.  I witness a multifaceted relationship between Sarah, who upholds the dance as a cat caretaker and with constant thoughtful presence, a cat (Banksy? Mango?) who inserts them self into the action, playing the zone of attention, and Caitlin, who exquisitely articulates full-bodied dance phraseology whilst holding another cat lovingly in her arms.  This ‘solo’ begins with attempting to locate the cat that Caitlin has pre-selected to carry.  That cat though must have other ideas, as it is nowhere to be seen.  Into the scene steps Lady Mary Clawley, a mighty white feline who doesn’t seem completely convinced about being carried around but does not fight the invitation in any way either.  Other cats step into the action (clearly blocking the pathway that the dance will take), softly setting themselves in the middle of the space as Caitlin begins her dance with the emotionally evocative song Toxic by Yaël Naïm.  These cat obstacles present a very real possibility that one of them will be stepped on by the blindfolded human dancer.  This potential for harm sets in motion a feeling of nervousness in the room, revealing the material tension built into this performance section.  Risk, protection, care, love, empowerment – contrasting energies swirl inside the interrelational performance score, a scene that stirs a mix of empathy and anxiety in my gut.  Sarah blocks with her arms Caitlin’s steps when necessary to protect the cats, yet in doing this she also enables the dancer and dance.  Is she a safe guard for the cats’ well-being, or an empowerment unit for dance?

In the section called ‘Cat-mmitment’, we learn of Caitlin’s allergy for cats, and her use of anti-histamines to manage her body’s reaction to cat fur, so she can follow through on her commitment to physically connect with these cats.  Her love is strong!  Catacular promotes itself as “an interactive contemporary dance show about friendship and a love for cats”.  I would add to this in contemplating what Catacular produces – that of an appreciation and understanding of human-animal and human-human companionship.  The performance event sets up a shared space of appreciation, generating a feeling of gratitude, for the rescue cats in particular.

Catacular is a choreography of personality textures, the friction of psycho-physical engagements between cats, and between cats and humans.  In Catacular/BaristaCats, every cat is loved unconditionally.  I feel a parental instinct kicking in somehow as I sit into a shared space of cultivating adoration for these companion animals without question.  These cats are accepted in the totally of who they are, their quirks and obsessions and edgy temperaments embraced.  So why don’t we do this for each other as humans beyond our childhood years?  Why are human behaviours that are considered eccentric or odd shunned or pushed to the edges of society, dismissed, rejected, ignored?

Human-animal performances
I have approached this writing about Catacular as a space to consider interactions between animals and humans in performance, in this case cats and humans, a common companionship-based relationship.  Internationally, there are many examples of contemporary performance experimenting with human-animal relationships.  Artists are developing methods for performance to understand animal experiences and convey these experiences to human viewers, with the goal of generating empathy for and identification with the animals.  I wonder though, how might society at large move towards a non-anthropocentric way of relating to animals, such as is seen in the work of Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey who have been performing for pets since 2014,

In Catacular, I see cats sitting and watching humans from a distance.  I also see cats sleeping, lying around, paw padding, and brushing up against humans or moving into closeness but not touching.  I see cats getting in close to look at the dancers, indicating a desire for pats, and gettin amongst the performance action.  So, who is performing for who in this work?  Are the dancers performing for the audience, are the cats performing for the humans, or are we humans all actors in a performance designed for and by the cats themselves?  We know that the model of spectatorship has traditionally occupied the distance between, where a hallmark space-between stage and audience indicates a theatrical performance, distancing observer/viewer from performer.  It is also common place to now conceive of performance participants as active agents, co-constituting the work.  Fischer-Lichte (2004) discusses the “feedback loop” between spectators and performers, defining a reciprocal relationship where the performance cannot exist without the spectators’ presence.  So, is the ‘starring’ gaze of cats in Catacular a performative gesture, a feminist statement perhaps, or something else altogether that can only be articulated by cats?

"I often ask myself, just to see, who I am - and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment"
-Jacques Derrida

Cats are visual hunters, biologically wired for observing and watching. When we see a cat unblinkingly looking at a human from a distance in this choreographic work, is this a sign they are expressing interest in the performance or asserting their dominance?  I wonder if we paid more attention to their meows, purrs, tail waves, fluffing of fur, head butts, and ear positions, what might we learn about a cat range of expression and communication? 

Cup choreography
There is a traceable development of cup games in recent years, and a longer history of children’s games that harness rhythms, clapping, and the flipping and passing of cups.  The well-known “The cup song”  for example became popular after the film Pitch Perfect in 2012.  I read the final section of Catacular as a contemporary dance version of a cup game.  It opens (and ends) with Caitlin and Sarah simply sitting quietly side by side on the floor in front of a coffee table with all the cups lined up in front of them.  I imagine the hours spent developing this section together, the laughter, the frustration, the discoveries and billions of shared mistakes, and labour to get it perfect.  A tribute to the culture of cafés, or to BaristaCats specifically, Caitlin and Sarah move and flip and slide the many many cups and mugs creating complex patterns and rhythms with their colours, and snazzy moves.  It is mesmerizing.  I think of all the rehearsal time spent together developing this section, and Catacular at large, and how this would strengthen the intuitive resonance of their shared friendship.  There is such a welling of joyfulness felt in watching this cup choreography, and the work as a whole, invoking the satisfaction of simply being together doing fun things.  A sustainable joy driven choreographic process.

by val smith

Feb 26, 2018

Queer Dating Sites - locationlocationlocation

Queer Dating Sites 

28 Feb 12-2pm
1 March 5-7pm
2 March 12-2pm

This event could involve getting down on the ground, which could mean you get 'dirty'. Given this, please wear clothing and footwear which is comfortable for you.

This letter regards details of the event's locationlocationlocation.
If you looked up 412 Titirangi Road in Google Maps it would show you an image of the block of toilets that sits on the corner of Titirangi Road and South Titirangi Road.  If you stand on the sidewalk outside these toilets you might be gifted with a magnificent view out to the Manukau Harbour. 

This image is useful in the task of locating Queer Dating Sites.  Let’s call these toilets a key marker in the search.  Behind them you would see a carpark that is entered by car off South Titirangi Road.  It has 21 marked spaces for vehicles.  If you had been intending to drive to Queer Dating Sites you might have looked for a space to park in there.  If you had been arriving by bus, train and/or foot you most likely would have entered the carpark a different way from up on the Titirangi Road Village footpath via a neat little set of stairs to the side of the toilet block.

One possible outcome though, if you had driven to the location, is that all of these 21 parking spaces may have already been taken.  In that case, I would have recommended driving a bit further down South Titirangi Road and pulling in left at the Library/War Memorial Hall carpark.  This carpark is listed as 500 South Titirangi Road on Google Maps.  Which is interesting.  Interesting in terms of property division and numbering, which is only really interesting if you are thinking about the politics of land, ownership, and this performance site.  In any case, where I had hoped you would end up for the start of Queer Dating Sites (until about half an hour ago) was pushed up against the back of the Titirangi Village retail strip in behind the toilet block and next to the carpark.  Does that make sense?

My plan was to be standing around the back of the Titirangi Village retail buildings to welcome you all to Queer Dating Sites.  I would have been wearing a long baby-pink sequinned throw to flag myself as ‘queer’ (as an aside that feels relevant, the throw has stains and holes and has been performed in many times in Oakland CA, Dunedin and Tāmaki Makaurau). I thought that in wearing this sparkly pink throw you couldn’t possibly miss me, or miss Queer Dating Sites.  After all there is nothing worse than getting lost when running late and looking for a queer performance event you plan to attend in unfamiliar suburbia (from experience).  Driving the creation of these location details was a strong desire that not one of you would get lost, miss the event or feel unsafe in hostile homophobic territory.  But Google Maps had complicated the numbering system for the area which was ironically invisibilising the site I wanted you to find.  Argh.

In the interests of precise directions then, I was going to tell you that if you had met with a family of chickens in your search for Queer Dating Sites you would know that you had gone too far.  With the chickens in check, I would have warned you to back up the metal driveway a little bit and wait for me in the carpark until the exact starting time.  
As it turns out all of this information regarding the location of Queer Dating Sites is no longer current.  So, there is no need for you to click on the following links to find me.  Unless you want to look closer at the image of the toilet blocks.  Which would be perfectly relate-able.  In that case click away.

412 Titirangi Road, Titirangi
500 South Titirangi Road, Titirangi

Before addressing what occurred half an hour ago, and with further regards to the location of Queer Dating Sites, I want to tell you that after welcoming you all I had planned to lead you past the chicken whanau and past the lease holder employee carparks.  I was going to invite you all in behind and underneath the retail spaces, buildings that would extend two stories above us, to experience the invisibilised b-side of the affluence of Titirangi Village.  As part of our time together in that semi-covered dark and damp site I had prepared for encounters with security guards, wild cats, and homeless residents.  I had intentionally not asked permission of the retail space lease holders or the property owners as I was interested to see what would happen in terms of enforcement, boundaries and transgressions (sorry Lydia and Fringe, I know I have been bad).

I had wanted to reflect on our embodiments and experiences in this ignored, excluded and forbidden(?) suburban space.  I wanted to consider places like this in predominantly white rich neighbourhoods that are mostly hidden, and generally considered to be dirty, ugly, gross, filthy, and not yet* worthy of attention, touch, affection or care (yet* in the sense that the space is not-yet seen to be potentially profitable).  I had become particularly fond of the things that had been discarded in this dusty space, thrown ‘away’ as ‘rubbish’.  If you are friends with me you will probably know I am not ashamed of my love of detritus, a marginalized subgroup of >>> things <<<.  I’ve always had a softening touch for the underdog.  I am pointing here to a perceived correlation between conventional perceptions of how things and bodies relate, normative pedestrian behaviours in urban spaces, and the socio-psychic-physical patterns of homophobia, transphobia, racism and misogyny.  So, yeah, I was curious about how it might feel for us all to hang out together in that particular site with its' pretty little piles of cigarette butts, cans, glass, weeds and wheelie bins, cracked chairs, dripping pipes, flourishes of tagging and bright security lights. 

I guess you are still wondering though what happened half an hour ago that led to the irrelevancy of the location information.  That story begins a couple of weeks ago when I made contact with Te Kawerau ā Maki to consult over an acknowledgement of the site, check in about whether my plans for this event were tika with tangata whenua, and make sure I wasn’t going to interfere with the rāhui over Waitākere Ranges.  In visits to the site I had noticed a number of kauri trees nearby to where I planned for Queer Dating Sites to take place.  Some of the site floor was concreted which I knew to be safe for the trees in terms of walking, but most of the terrain consisted of dry earth that led out to the forest floor, a strip of bush where numerous kauri stood in between the Village buildings and the Titirangi Library and War Memorial Hall.

In the leadup to the event I had been thinking about the relationship between kauri dieback, manawhenua, and the concepts of ‘property ownership’ and ‘retail investment’.  I was also thinking about what it means to be a pākehā artist creating work on this contested ‘property’ site.  One particular aspect I was considering, was an ethics of accountability and the Coleman family who ‘owned’ 408-416 Titirangi Road and 490 South Titirangi Road from 1947 until recently, when they sold the site to Rotcol Enterprises Titirangi for ‘development’.

Titirangi retail investment for development or long term hold

This is not the end of the half-an-hour-ago story, but let's jump back into my imagined forthcoming event anyway. Maybe we could have admired the space and >>> things <<< together, as a kind of ‘queering’?  Perhaps we might have even moved towards the possibility of an intimate encounter with the site?

I imagine these intimate encounters as dates.  Maybe a romantic date if those kinds of feelings arose, but not necessarily.  Maybe the site would end up friend-zoning us anyways.  I wouldn’t be surprised given my flirtatious presumptions.  In any case, I had hoped to announce whatever happened in the encounters to be a collective queering of space.  And in this same line of thinking, I also wanted to name the site a Queer Space, where queer behaviour was welcomed.  But these kinds of anticipatory desires brought me right back to contemplating the ramifications of the event in terms of respect, kauri dieback, manawhenua, ‘property ownership’ and ‘retail investment’, my own whiteness, and the very colonial implications of naming this event as a queering of space, and the site a Queer Space.  You see my predicament, right?  My event is problematic.
 Whichever way I look at it, my practice in association with this particular Titirangi site invites the shady histories of the crown's land deals, dodgy Auckland City Council transactions, the impacts of colonization on local iwi, local ongoing racism and enforcement of Western ideals, AND the current urgent environmental situation of kauri dieback.

Most notably, my decision to park my physical association with the sitetonight was cemented when Waitākere Rāhui confirmed half an hour ago that walking through there is not safe for the kauri nearby since their roots extend up to 30 meters underground (!).  All hail the power of tendrils!

I want to reiterate the sensitivity and vulnerability of the whenua and taiao of the Waitākere ranges that Waitākere Rāhui and Te Kawerau ā Maki are working to protect and care for.  I don’t want to be part of a pattern of disturbance, where the land is being damaged by folks like me who might think that what I do won’t harm anything because I am just one person, or I am a harmless eco-liberal hippy or whatever (read whiteness).  Cos yeah, that's a BS irresponsible and short-sighted pov.

So I’m writing to you to let you know that Queer Dating Sites is not going to be performed where I thought it would be and that I am yet to confirm another site.  But likely it will be inside an institutional space, probably a concrete walled room at AUT on St Pauls Street in city central where I am currently enrolled as a PhD student in the Art and Design department.  Hopefully that is not too depressing a vision and hoping you still attend the event ;).  Stay tuned for confirmations on Queer Dating Sites' locationlocationlocation in the next 48 hours.

Kia kaha

Waitākere Rāhui video

x val

Feb 4, 2018

Down the throat of a megaphone: on NEON BOOTLEG, FAFSWAG, bodies, spaces, agency and decolonisation

Writing can be such a beaarch eh. This piece took me a a ages to complete but it was defs a labour of love. So many hearts for Faf Swag esp Moe Laga-Toleafoa and the team behind Neon Bootleg eh cos the show was dope.

This is a story about Moe Laga-Fa’aofo’s debut solo show Neon Bootleg, produced by Tanu Gago and FAFSWAG, directed by Cat Ruka, designed by Ralph Brown, and presented at the Basement Theatre in November 2017.  The story explores the productive forces of the bodies, spaces, performances and decolonisation practices of Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG. 

FAFSWAG was the first official Company in Residence at Auckland’s Basement Theatre, a programme initiated in 2017.  This prolific collective of queer Pacific artists used the opportunity to mount three significant full length works: Moe Laga's Neon Bootleg being the final work of the three, which followed Akashi Fisiinaua'sFemslick, a translation of a Pacific vogue ball scene from horizontally composed space in Te Puke O Tara Community Centre in Ōtara to the performance space of Basement Theatre in central city Tāmaki Makaurauand Pati Solomona Tyrell's Fa'aafa, which immersed us into a metaphysical world using a traverse staging set up.  In all three works, an intentional holding of space for a reciprocation of energy between artists and audiences was palpable, a FAFSWAG signature.

(Just as a casual aside - the collective was also recently presented the Excellence Award for Overall Body of Work, at the 9th Annual Auckland Theatre Awards 2017.)

I attend FAFSWAG events, shows and exhibitions as a White non-binary pansexual artist with a background of involvement in predominantly Pākehā activist scenes such as anarchist collectives, anarcho-feminist performance groups, Wicca worlds, experimental dance scenes, and other DIY sub-cultures. So it is through these lenses that I reflect on FAFSWAG’s work here.  My White cultural perspective (Pākehā Irish English) limits my reading of, and understanding of the significance of FAFSWAG’s art, activism, and all that they do.  With this in mind, I echo calls by other artists wishing for more visibility of queer People of Colour (PoC) writers on the art scenes of Aotearoa.

I walk up a steep set of stairs to enter ‘The Studio’ space at Basement Theatre.  Neon Bootleg divides the space in two - performance space, and audience space - with chairs in rows that face the wall farthest from the entrance.  This spatial setup signals to me that we are to witness the performance and performer, rather than be invited into the space of the performance as co-participants, as in Akashi Fisiinaua's Femslick and FAFSWAG Balls.  The space of Neon Bootleg is wider than it is deep.  And in this way, I anticipate our potential closeness to Moe.  This is an intimate space where I feel welcomed to really see and sense this “unauthorised autobiography of Mistress Moe Laga”. 

I want to invoke in this writing the particular dialogic exchange instigated by Neon Bootleg, with attention to the relationships between movement, bodies and things inside of the performance environment.  Moe’s movement and activation open up a conversation about her past and everyday embodiments as a Performance Artist from South Auckland.  The work is instilled with specific knowledge and the culturally located experience of Moe’s life in Sāmoan family spaces, and Pacific, queer and gender diverse communities.  It is through the content of Neon Bootleg that we enter into an exchange of the ephemeral, the mystical, the relational, and the fleeting sparks of insight that arise in the space between us and Moe.  Is it possible to map our interweaving social and psychic behaviours as Moe’s audience?

Neon Bootleg is episodic and accumulative in structure.  Moe comes and goes from the space, adding ideas, scenes and props.  I want to refer to four small fragments from the performance through this piece of writing.  Moments which touched me, reaching across the space to stir my breath and pulse, misplacing my sense of certainty.  This is the TOUCHING SPACE of Neon Bootleg.


Fragment 1: hair dryer


Moe stands in profile and blows her hair dry electrically.  Mesmerizing because she is captivated in the doing.  In absolute conviction.  Blowing and being blown.  Head-hair-neck swing and flip delicately, meticulously, fluidly.  It is beautiful. 

I want to sit inside a huge cocoon made of sticks with Moe Laga-Fa’aofo.  The cocoon is woven tightly with thick black rope.  It smells like ferns, sea wind and blood. Moe and I laugh maniacally for a long time, and then begin to talk around ritual actiVAtion* and Fucking Shit Up.  Someone unseen plugs in a plastic red hair dryer, and points the warm blast directly at our faces. We begin to flick our hair.  Flicking in unison, then canon.  Flicking with grace and force.  Flicking with the intention of fucking shit up. 

*concept of actiVAtion coined by artist Rosanna Raymond

As Neon Bootleg begins to unfold, what opens before me is a liminal space that invites the involvement of all levels of my being –sexual, emotional, metaphysical, psychological, visceral, intellectual.  I read this as a communal queer Pacific spacetime that dances outside the norms of Western capitalism, and heteronormative temporalities.  In this spacetime, we are carried someplace else, where utopic and dystopic tasks occur, and blur.  Since it is night time, it is also queer time, and I notice an embodied absorption into the languid buzz and sway of a queer sensibility and sensuality.  Bodily rhythms compose the space of the performance, with Moe's valiant strides moving in direct and unswerving pathways and softer ambles that snake the edges of the stage.  Wherever we are seated in Basement theatre’s upstairs studio we are held in the relational space of Moe, Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG.

Is Moe’s hair dryer scene intentionally fucking with a Western voyeuristic gaze?  Is Neon Bootleg intending to fuck with the virtuosic traditions of local contemporary Western dance, music and theatre?

The va of Neon Bootleg sparks our eyes alive.

“Va — or vā, va’a, vaha — can be loosely translated as a spatial way of conceiving the secular and spiritual dimensions of relationships and relational order, that facilitates both personal and collective well-being, and teu le va as the ‘valuing’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘looking after’ of these relationships to achieve optimal outcomes for all stakeholders.”
(Melani Anae, 2007)

Through the room, the glint of perceptual arousal stirs.  Third eyes, brown eyes, virtual eyes.  This va holds our hand and slaps our face.  It awakens revolutions, reveals, and the thud sound of Death Drops.  This va allows our queer and gender diverse bodies to move and swell and melt.  A space that acknowledges the way we orient ourselves towards each other.   It initiates a friction between all of us present, a gritty surface to grip and “walk forward into the past while walking back into the future” (Yuki Kihara). 

The movement of affect in queer/queered spaces.

Moe re/appears in the room whispering the boniest of spells in movement, to dis/appear again in shadow.  Articulations move against and with memories of family, church, rugby, idols, mentors, friends, years of performance training, and a list of the artist’s accolades.  A dance that shifts and morphs in multiple directions, we are called into the life of Moe Laga, towards the magnetic play of a self-determined embodiment.  An embodiment that is culturally and socially specific, and yet shares the potent feeling of possibility for owning my own cultural and gendered expressions and identities.  A corridor of music temporally lines the pages of this performance, from tracks that chant back the past, and more current feels, the ghosts of vogue.  In relationship with the music and all of us here in this moment, Moe’s body is the space of the event.

I would like to beckon you down the rabbit hole of philosophies and theories of bodies in this moment.  I am thinking in particular about an essay by Portuguese Philosopher José Gil called The Paradoxical Body.

“Depth is the primordial dimension of the dancer’s space. It allows the dancer to mold space, to expand it, or to restrict it, to make it acquire the most paradoxical forms. … although invisible, the space, the air, acquire a diversity of textures—they become dense or rarified, invigorating or suffocating. It is as if they were enveloping things with a surface similar to the skin. The space of the body is the skin extending itself into space; it is skin becoming space—thus, the extreme proximity between things and the body.”
(Jose Gil, 2006)

The Paradoxical Body leads this story into a political courtyard, the ‘frictitious’ garden of bodily actiVAtion that Neon Bootleg tends to, and that FAFSWAG has cultivated for the last five years in various spaces and contexts.

Fragment 2: whip

The certainty of Whip in hand, she is Mistress Moe Laga, Mother of the house of COVEN, seducing us to submission.  I am not sure if Moe was actually wearing big boots in this scene, but I imagine she was.  Big Black Shiny Boots, CLAIMING and COMMANDING the space.  Stomping and strutting around and around a determined circle.  Then, turning the delight of sting against her own body, the repetitions begin.  A rotation of Whip strikes from left to right, to left again.  We wait, in breathless pause, for the snap to begin again.  Intensity rising, the force of wrist, wrench of shoulder, twist of torso.  A throaty base of endurance, and resolution.  A sovereign body flogging the weight of gendered empowerment, then lashing in silent cries for solace, security and self-rule.

This scene excites and exhausts.  The heft of whip collides spines with walls, to sink quite low to the ground really.  Quite low indeed.

Fragment 3: orange on red stool

“fucking up the patriarchy, one Caucasian space at a time.”
(Akasi Fisiinaua in VICE Documentary)

Tearing at the skin un-self-consciously, eating to be filled.  Out of hunger, as if that wasn’t enough.  The steady drip of juice descends our attention slowly to the floor. There is something very satiating about the casual simplicity of this action - to eat an orange whilst sitting on a red high stool.  I would have welcomed a full bowl of fruit in fact.  Pealed and consumed in a duration that plots a taxonomy of fruit; performing categories by shape, colour, taste, tautness, and texture of rind.  

I enjoy the skin REMAINS of the orange, in all of its thickness and sturdiness, scattered across the space. 

What does the work of FAFSWAG do politically?

This moment with the orange, and it's remaining in space, has me thinking about the political intention behind one of FAFSWAG’s sayings - “fucking up the patriarchy”. Somehow, Moe Laga’s low-key DIY orange-eating action captures for me the spirit of her particular approach to fucking shit up.  Can the political force of Moe’s embodiment be pinned to an essence of style?  I read her performance mode as a sorcerous language, where feelings are facts, and qualities of being in the body hold a potency* beyond words.  If you didn’t get to see Neon Bootleg, perhaps this usurped image of Moe Laga, from Taleni Mapu of FAFSWAG’s MAKE SPACE / The Visibility Project (2017), offers an insight into her embodied powers. Video link here.

*dancers, and their powers

In my view, the artists of FAFSWAG, with their distinctive creative approaches, are broadening notions of what it means to fuck shit up, fuck up space, and “fucking up the patriarchy”.  Through a framework of decolonisation, these artists are creating nuanced responses to the policing and violation of gender non-conformity and the representation of Pacific stories, bodies and identities.  Simultaneously, they are celebrating the public and private lives of Pacific queers living in Aotearoa.  It is through the negotiation of Pākehā-centric spaces such as Basement theatre and art galleries that I see FAFSWAG provoking and dismantling the oppression of non-white, non-cis queer folk, drawing attention to a system of white supremacy.

Fragment 4: neon cross

To be ignored in my opinion.  Though the harsh neon glow of Christianity will no doubt continue to shine into our eyes.  Blindly dilating itself up on top of that mountain, resistant to the sharp cut of axe, or a chainsaw’s tooth, the neon cross is pervasive and cruel.  A tinnitus squeal in the background of our attention.  Throughout the 60-minute duration of Neon Bootleg, Moe does not acknowledge it, not once.
I am told it is a popular backdrop for selfies post-show.  I give it a go but have to force a smile.

What affects and effects do the spaces created by FAFSWAG have on audiences, on other queer POC, on gender diverse folks, on artists, and on Pacific and rainbow identities? 

What is created and enabled through the indigeneity and queerness of FAFSWAG’s artistic endeavours?  

What if, how we care for each other in queer/queered space was archived?

The show sees the solo dancer as a productive entity, but the performance wasn’t really a ‘solo’ as such.  Neon Bootleg is a between-space that pings with afe, aroha, manaakitanga.  The aliveness on stage is nourished by everyone in the production and support crew, and who showed up on the night. There is a profound social dynamic that also lingers after the performance ends in the extended space of Neon Bootleg.  I notice that the prevalent contemplation in chats I am privy to outside Basement is a shared feeling of gratitude.  I sit with my friends, not really feeling a need to talk, but wanting to linger in collective time, if only to bask a bit longer in the alofa of Neon Bootleg.  The sound of the HEART SPACE is deafening.  

It is a feeling of utter joy that this work has been made, and that FAFSWAG is, as Louisa Afoa puts it in the exhibition notes of Social Matter, “creating important self determining spaces for the queer brown body through art and their now iconic balls”.  Being held so carefully by FAFSWAG, these PoC queer spaces and events enable a Pacific-designed community to grow.  I am particularly gripped by an emphasis on collectivity as integral to FAFSWAG’s art-making processes, which accentuates togetherness, and processes that uplift the artists’ mana in layers of protection and backing.  FAFSWAG creates, translates, takes, holds, commands, and touches space in ways that uphold and amplify Pacific principles, a social world enriched with diversely gendered feelings. 

Neon Bootleg is also a space of experimentation.  A vibrant statement for being and becoming whatever and whoever the fuck you want to.  A space of communal expansion where fragments of Moe’s life are felt up close and personal; graphic, epic, and raw.  Passionate and alive.  Vulnerable.  Noble.


A huge thank you to Tanu Gago, Caitlin Scott, and Lance Cablk for your support, editing and feedback on this piece of writing.

val smith

Neon Bootleg
21 NOV - 25 NOV 2017
Basement Theatre

Creator: Moe Laga-Toleafoa
Produced by: FAF SWAG
Directed by: Cat Ruka
Stills & Video by: Ralph Brown
Styled by: Honey Logan Collis
Sound by: Jermaine Deez

TIME: 6:30PM