Mycelial Dreamings at Cementa15

by Anna Gibbs


Photo credit: Nell Schofield

Cementa15 is the second iteration of a biannual arts festival held in Kandos, NSW, a ‘postindustrial’ town out back beyond the Blue Mountains. Originally established as housing for the workers at Australian Cement, Kandos was abandoned by the company – though not by its residents – when the former closed around 2012. The town is also home away from home to  Sydney art writer Ann Finegan, who runs Kandos Projects, a shopfront in the main street, as an artist residency, and home to artists Alex Wisser, Christine Macmillan, co-directors (with Finegan) of the Cementa festival which this year attracted several hundred visitors to view work by forty artists over a period of four days and four nights. Installed in a variety of locations around the town, the work could be visited as a part of a series of tours timed to coincide with artist talks at the different venues, or visitors could make their own way around, since exhibitions were open all day and everything was accessible on foot.

The festival focuses on the visual arts, though these days this term is perhaps less relevant than it used to be, since artists now tend to work in an interdisciplinary way in different modes and across media, using various combinations of object, electronics, image, sound, text and/or performance depending on the aims and needs of the particular work. I’ll talk about some other text-based work in another post, since while text-based work is not a major feature of Cementa15 (curators’ funding applications to present a dedicated program of this kind of work were unsuccessful this time around), text did make its way into the festival through some works, especially where performance was involved.

Programmable media and the advent of electronic literature in particular seem to be re-invigorating live text-based performance as new forms of interactivity, data-driven and/or algorithmically-generated work introduce new possibilities into the medium and even give rise to new theatrical forms. In this case, though, the technical element was minimal, simply providing an amplified ambiance for an outstanding performance by writer Virginia Barratt. Barratt, a compelling and sophisticated performer, was a member of the pioneering cyberfeminist artist group VNS Matrix, and her experimental writing has been widely published, including in Mud map: Australian women’s experimental writing, published as Special Issue 17 of TEXT Journal online, Banquet, Coastlines 5 and Otis Rush.

At Cementa15 she presented a performance titled ‘cryptocrystalline: technomancy (divination)’ featuring a new work of experimental writing called ‘Gold’. This work was presented within an environment created by Barratt in the cavernous, Spartan front bar of the Railway Hotel that hosted the evening of music and performance. It featured a large-scale video projection of moving, morphing red and green skeletal figures floating in starry space as if seen through x-ray specs, and a delicate sound surround from which the performed text seemed to emerge without at all being overshadowed by it. Moving flecks of light fell like a light sprinkling of snow or perhaps drifting detritus over the whole scene, while Barratt, futuristically clad in black leggings imprinted with gold circuit boards and Lucy Oliver, her collaborator for this performance, drew out golden threads as if from the air and silently stitched them to Barratt’s sleeve, so that their two bodies seemed to be linked in occult communication. Or, since Oliver had the image of a skeleton on her top, as if Barratt were a projection or a kind of avatar for her rather ghostly figure. Fleshy bodies were conjured in words while the images splintered subjects and reformed them into new and ever-changing configurations.

The work, ‘a lovesong for the future’ was oracular, conjuring another world into being out of the postindustrial ruins of toxic coal mines and deathly boardrooms created by capital. Yet rather than performing as the singular figure of an oracle, Barratt’s presentation seemed to be – as the subtitle suggested – more a matter of divination, of sensing, tuning into and channelling other voices, both human and beyond-human, both plant and implant. In the world brought into being by the work, the clouds, birthed by trees, were ‘long legged wraiths that stalk across the valley’ then ‘grow a dank warm skin of green velvet, nodal, a matted earth body’ and ‘make mycelial networks’ whose ‘telepathic exchanges’ can be sent in packets as information over the internet.

One of the beauties of Cementa15 was the way certain works seemed to resonate with each other, especially as so many of them found ways to address to address the situation of the town itself, struggling to survive after the collapse of the cement company, its surrounding districts under threat by new coalmines, while neighbouring towns have already been ravaged beyond all repair by existing ones. Barratt’s images of mycelium resonated strongly with the work ‘Myco Logic’ by artist Elizabeth Day, who instigated and co-ordinated highly skilled local communities of knitters and crafters to make numerous mushrooms in a variety of sizes and colours. Other artists also contributed mushrooms made of papier maché, wild plastic frills, or in the form of readymade parts of rusted machinery, lamps, or whatever came to hand. Day then installed all these so that they seemed to spring out of the huge mass of mycelium she created from knotted strips of tape and string. Mycelium is the rhizomatic root structure of mushrooms, capable of transmitting nutrients and chemical messages to other plant species, and also of absorbing toxins from the environment. In Day’s work it suggests the complex processes of communication and translation from which community is produced as a living network.

Barratt’s work seemed to re-activate and amplify this powerful image of communication and detoxification, lending it yet another kind of body, revivifying the philosophical concerns it referenced (those of the new materialisms, accelerationism, cyberfeminism) and recharging the moment with a burst of hope-generating energy: pure gold.