In March 2016 as part of the Festival of Live Art (FOLA) sociocreative trust presented Speak Easy, a participatory art performance.
We trialed our first Speak Easy in 2014 as part of Critical Animals (creative research symposium) at This Is Not Art Festival (TINA) in Newcastle, NSW and wanted to rework the project. With fine tuning we were open to be part of FOLA in Melbourne and supported by the Footscray Community Arts Centre, an alliance we considered to be aligned with some of our own investigations and philosophies.
Speak Easy is so much more than ‘a dinner’. It is an experiment. We invite the audience to leave their expectations and to enter the performance space with an open mind and a willingness to contribute. The food is such an important part of Speak Easy, and we were excited with the support from Feast of Merit and Young Generation Against Poverty (YGAP) who provided the food for the event (and Cake wines and Two Birds brewery) for the drinks. Seating people together at a table with shared food and drinks is an integral part of the concept of Speak Easy. To create moments of intimacy and comfort and connection around food, the breaking of bread.
We are also influenced and inspired by the slow movement across all areas of social and cultural impact. Slow food, slow relationship building – having the privilege and space to make our own rhythms. Feast of Merit designed a vegetarian menu and we also incorporated some ugly food, supporting Melbourne’s ugly food movement.
Teasing out narratives
Being a performance piece and within a live art context, we wanted to push the audience out of their comfort zones and for them to connect with each other beyond who they were, ie. their jobs, or where they lived. Through our actions and interventions we directed the audience to connect as people rather than as their usual roles in their lives. We were more interested in their ideas and their thoughts and contributions around the provocations.
We had a set of questions prepared around themes gentrification, place and environments. These themes held a lot of significance for the people who came along, and for us to host the work in Footscray stemming from many conversations between us as the artists and Footscray Community Arts Centre and friends and others – teasing out narrative and peoples’ first hand experiences locally around these themes. We were highly sensitive to the diversity and complex nature of Footscray’s communities and how the area is ever-evolving and wanted to explore the impact of this more closely.
It’s important also during Speak Easy that participants come prepared to engage and to break away from their normal social selves. As the MC, I was leading the conversations via curated provocations we’d prepared earlier. This was timed and formed the structure of the performance. I had a bell and from observations if people were getting too comfortable we changed direction, or the other sociocreative trust artists who were working the floor would take selected individuals outside for interviews and then return them to a different seat at the table. Participants were also invited to write their own questions for discussion.
The whole while, food and drinks flowed to bring a certain level of bonhomie to the process.
Generally people didn’t know what to expect and were gracious and open to our direction. It’s confronting to be taken out of your comfort zone but within a Live Art performance, we create the environment and then open it up to the outcomes quite intuitively. We’d created an environment with each detail considered. It was important for us to maintain our ethical and philosophical ground. There were projections and sound/music and we set up a social media activation space where people enacted with Speak Easy through live social media activation. They were later invited to ‘take a place at the table’ an action we used as a statement about ‘there is room for everyone at the table’.
This performance was different to the first one at TINA and I think each time we do something like Speak Easy should we take that direction at other festivals and events, it would be completely different depending upon the setting, the food, the people and the provocations.
To some people the performance could reek of privilege in an ironic way feeding back into itself, but we question this and each of our own points of entry into the dialogue. Supporting local makers and each of us coming from marginal areas and understanding our place within this with respect and with acknowledgement. Also from that idea that anyone should have a voice.
Like the think tanks in corporate America, overall we aim to bring people together (individuals rather than groups) and to hear their thoughts and ideas on futures and around ideas being valuable and to provide a platform for them to be heard. The next challenge is for us to document this process with more impact for wider audiences to hear about what we think and how that can influence further conversations.
A sculptural process
It is always a different approach and really has to be experienced to be understood. In future projects the recording and broadcasting and documentation of the performance would add value. My dream is to take Speak Easy around the world, in the corporate environment, bringing together disparate groups and to create more networks of partners and friends.
We invite different ways of looking at the same situations. We are also influenced by so many other artists before us who step outside a traditional gallery format and use energy and space into plasticity and it becomes form. A sculptural process of making something from nothing.
Words and image by Melissa Delaney