In Conversation with Abbotsford Convent Artist-in-Residence Luke George

    If you've been around the Convent over the last month, you may have noticed groups of people participating in unusual, unexplained actions – carrying logs, shifting heavy objects, or moving around as a group. What you might not have known is that these groups have been taking part in 'A Call To Actions', a project by Abbotsford Convent Artist-in-Residence Luke George. We chat to Luke about the intimacy of group movement, breaking down barriers between performer and audience, and how the Convent grounds provide the perfect space for experimentation.

    First of all, congratulations on being the Abbotsford Convent Studio Residency Program recipient for the first half of this year. Did you have a clear idea at the outset what you wanted to achieve during your residency?

    Thank you! I'm thrilled to be a recipient of the residency. As with most of my projects I start from a very open place. What I knew I wanted to do was to continue my practice in-situ here at the Covent and in particular my current work around intimacy, interactivity and groups in action-based processes, and to invite the public to be involved.

    How has your being based at the Convent affected the formulation of ‘A Call to Actions’? Did you find inspiration in either the physical environment of the Convent, or the community aspect of the Convent’s tenants?

    I've always loved spending time at the Convent and along the Yarra nearby. It's a nourishing space where you can (literally) breathe some fresh air into your thinking and being, and ideas start to flow. I really appreciate how people gather here and spend time, how they are doing their thing: lots of different things and different people, in the one space. I knew that I wanted to work from that and that I'd been working on ideas that involve action-based processes with groups of people. I've been interested in doing public actions, but also not quite ready to roll naked down the middle of Bourke Street Mall, you know ;-)

    So the Convent is a great place to be doing these Actions; it's public and yet also feels protected. There are people doing all sorts of things out here and are already quite open to seeing or interacting with different 'events'. The buildings and gardens offer us so much stimulation and textures to work with.

    ‘A Call To Actions’ takes place in a variety of settings around the Convent grounds. How important is environment to the work, and how does the work respond to the setting of the Convent?

    The varying environments we're doing Actions in are a key part to the way we are working. All of our Actions are in some way engaged in a 'two-way interaction' with the environments we are in; we are in an interaction with it and it is in an interaction with us. Kind of a level field. During our Actions, we are engaging our bodies and our senses to be in a constant interaction with our environment: grass, leaves, branch, dirt, brick, plastic, cement, table, staircase, statue, person, cow, bird, etc. Some of our Actions travel and sweep across all of the Convent grounds, other Actions are more stationary in one location and aspect of a building or landscape.

    The public is invited to take part in ‘intimate and organic performances’ each Wednesday and Saturday. To what extent does the work adapt in response to the people taking part in it?

    Each Action is quite simple – based on everyday movement, like walking, breathing, looking, hearing, touching, talking, lifting an object, etc. Each session a group gathers, we spend time getting to know each other, we spend time in our senses getting to know our environment. I'm working on proposing simple actions that can be done by whoever turns up on the day and, working from there, we work out how we can allow for each other and work collectively, finding ways to be together.

    I'm calling these things we're doing an ACTION
    It is not a dance class
    It is not a choreographed dance
    It is not a flash-mob
    It is not a live art or durational performance art installation
    It is not therapy

    It is an Action that we do as a group, together, in public. There is something social about it, because we're together and we're in public. There is something meditative about it. There is something sensual (of the senses and the body) about it. And there's something fun and pleasurable about it! You get to meet new people and try some things together that maybe you normally wouldn't try by yourself. Strength in numbers!

    The work seeks to empower participants to ‘reclaim our senses’. How have you found people respond to being involved in these performances?

    Some participants have described their experience as meditative, others have said it's focused them to think about what they're seeing, hearing and saying. Others have talked about a type of sensory enlivening, in that they feel like they can see and hear things in a way they didn’t before, and how they're appreciating things like the colour and shape of an individual leaf. I think the key thing that is happening is people are taking the time away from distractions to be in their bodies, to be with other people and to be in an environment, and to be present with that.

    Has the outcome of the work surprised you in any way?

    One of the most surprising things has been when someone who has participated in one of the Actions returns for another Action and brings someone with them to participate. And that their guest is someone I haven't met yet, nor anyone else in the group that day. A number of times we've had a group of people who haven't previously known each other and we've found a way to spend time, share things about ourselves, and achieve an Action together. I'd love to see this aspect of the project continue to grow.

    ‘A Call To Actions’ is part of ‘The Action Series’, an ongoing series of performances in which you explore collectivity and intimacy in public space and the theatre. Can you tell us a bit more about ‘The Action Series’, and how ‘A Call to Actions’ fits within it?

    In the series so far, there is PUBLIC ACTION and GROUP ACTION. Both these pieces are set in the theatre and they involve a series of singular actions by a group of performers that instigate the mass displacement and subsequent activation of the audience. A social choreography. A collective negotiation between bodies, objects, artist and audience. Through these pieces I began asking, how can the site of the theatre be reclaimed as a social space? And, can a choreography advance our understanding of relationality?

    For this whole series, I'm inspired and provoked by something that bell hooks (author, feminist, social activist) said in a talk at NYU's New School in 2014:

    "How can we embody and cultivate together a community that allows for risk?”

    The Action Series explores what is a 'space of risk' through a continuously evolving group process around individuality, collectivity, intimacy and action. 'A Call To Actions' is about sharing the process with anyone who wants to do it, through an open invitation to anyone to join me and a group of people to do an Action together, in public spaces.

    Your work is based in long-term research into ‘relational performance practice’. Can you elaborate on this concept and how your work has been shaped by this research?

    Sure. My history with dance and with artistic practice stems from a socially engaged practice. I first encountered dance as a teenager living in (pre-internet) regional Tasmania. I got involved immediately and stepped straight into a practice that was about participation, collaboration, creating and performing. I continued into dancing professional through more traditional study, training and an early career as a company dancer, performing in theatres and traveling the world. It was amazing but I was always very confused by the lack of collaboration in the process and the disconnection with the audience – performing to a totally dark auditorium of people I didn't know or have any connection with. 

    Since then I started making my own work. The whole time I've been pursuing forms of interactivity between the performers and the audience. I've been busy with questions and explorations that are about presence and the present, and how can this be possible for everyone in or at the performance? How can me and an audience become more intimate in our shared and connected experience with and of each other? I've been working on this in a conceptual way as well as through embodied action-research by myself and with many different groups of people from and in different places and cultures. For me, it's about the act of performance being relational, that it or the performer is more than an object to be 'gazed upon', or the audience more than something to be 'performed at', that the theatre doesn't exist in a vacuum, and that public space is a source and location of social choreography. I'm interested in these interactions and how relational politics play out among groups of people in different contexts.

    Your residency at the Convent comes to a close at the end of June 2018. What’s next for you?

    A lot! Haha. In July I travel to the Wudang Mountains in central China to study Taichi and Taoism, with my collaborator from Singapore, Daniel Kok. In August Daniel and I travel to Taiwan. We are working on a new project together after our last project, 'BUNNY' which we are touring and performing quite a bit (Brugge in December and Montréal in February). I am also hard at work on my new work GROUP ACTION (part of the Action Series) which will premiere in Melbourne in March next year – keep your eyes peeled!

    Luke George will be holding 'A Call To Actions' each Wednesday and Saturday at the Convent until 16 June. You can find out more about Luke George and the Abbotsford Convent Studio Residency Program here.