Image: Sarah Walker

Stranger: a performance installation for an ensemble audience. 

A group of strangers arrive as guests in an unfamiliar place. Welcomed by their host, they exchange small gifts of listening and being heard, sounding and unsounding. Every gesture they make takes their individual action into a shared sonic space. So what can we make from this collective attention? 

Having arrived as a group of strangers, perhaps they leave feeling like a band.

Stranger is a finalist for the AMC Art Music Award for Excellence in Experimental Practice, and was nominated for a Greenroom award 2023 (contemporary and experimental performance: Design/Technical achievement)

Conceived and directed by: Aviva Endean
Live Sound: Tilman Robinson 
Video: Cobie Orger
Instrument makers: Clinton Green, Laura Altman, Carolyn Connors, Dale Gorfinkel
Lighting: Alexander Nguyen
Dramaturg: Madeleine Flynn
Production Management: Emily O’Brien 
Additional Collaborators: Aarti Jadu, Amaara Raheem, Kristoffer Svenberg, Peter Fraser, Afsaneh Torabi, Bob Zeal, Peter Farrar
Producer: Bureau of Works
Supported by: APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund, Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, The Besen Foundation, City of Melbourne. 

The Meat Market Stables Dec 15-18 2022

Trailer filmed and edited by Takeshi Kondo

Click here to read an article about Stranger published in the May 2023 edition of ADSR Journal, written by Emilie Collyer and Aviva Endean with contributions from collaborators and audience members

Teaser filmed by Cobie Orger

Stranger: Exticipation (24/12/2022) by Emilie Collyer

There is a profound moment towards the end of Stranger by Aviva Endean and collaborators that perhaps only I experienced the night I attended. The audience is invited to leave the space we have been in together, walk up a set of stairs, go outside. I was at the show with my partner who had taken longer than most to get the message to stand up from his peaceful lying position. So, we were the last to leave. As we exited the space, I turned to look back. 

soft rainfall
I roll the mountain of my body
thoughts subside

The remnants of the last part of the show lay on the floor and because of their size and shape (human-sized sheets of brown paper) they looked like graves. This sounds maudlin but in fact it was a calming and perfect moment with which to end this experience. I felt that rare thing, for a split second, of understanding and accepting mortality. The beauty of it, the way it connects us all. The actual humans in the show that night all left well and truly alive. But the moment of shedding our shrouds, standing and leaving was something akin to a rising. Aviva and her team had created a space where we could be together in ways people are rarely together and it was fitting that this active meditation concluded with a simple and stunning visual about the fragility, the earthiness, the connectedness of human life.

Talking with some other audience members after the show, I remarked that the work had not quite been what I was expecting. I couldn’t articulate what I was expecting. I wrote a companion piece to this one before I saw the show (titled Stranger: Anticipation) and had talked with Aviva about the work, so I knew the premise and something of the mechanics – what would happen in the space. What was surprising, I think, was the amount of care that had been taken to frame a participatory experience for us, the audience that was both open and contained. Not an easy thing to do. Interestingly, the week of attending Stranger, I had been to two other works with a participatory element. They were both very pleasurable. Garabari, presented by Arts House, Chunky Move and Joel Bray Dance, and Get it While it’s Hot by PON CAM. In each of these works, the audience was invited in a genuine way, to participate. By joining as dancers in Garabari and as either cooking competition judges or very interactive audience members in Get it While it’s Hot. Ultimately though, in these works, the overall shape was largely predetermined and the bulk of ‘performance agency’ rested with the performers. 

shy eye contact
we smile and nod
everyone is wearing cool shoes

In Stranger, there is a strong frame and the shape of the work is curated but the actual content is created by the audience. Aviva, the other audience members, me and my partner chatted afterwards about striking this balance, especially given Stranger is a piece where the audience collaborates to produce a sound work. Too much freedom and there would be no shape to the sound at all, simply a cacophony of enthusiastic noise making. Too many rules and it would feel tokenistic. 

A key part to how Aviva strikes such a good balance is in the set up and scale of the work. As an audience we were small in numbers. So it felt like an intimate and human experience right from the start. We gathered together and Aviva introduced the piece, why she had made it and what her hopes were – primarily to give an audience of (mostly) strangers an experience of coming together, being welcomed, and invited to make sound art in a way that would be playful and genuine but non-confronting. We could opt out at any time. There was no pressure to perform. There was, and this was stressed in a lovely gentle way, no wrong way to play the instruments that we would encounter.

She asked each of us to think of a time we had been somewhere as a stranger and had, perhaps, felt welcomed. Or not. We each shared a short memory. It was a clever way to bring the group together. Not too demanding. Open, and yet contained.

The work began with a group walk outside, led by Aviva. Our instructions were to walk together, stay safe, and not speak. And further, to focus on listening. Aviva recommended varying how we listened, from wide to close, near to far. This is a rare thing to focus on. It is probably an instruction most common in meditations. But in daily life, I know I tend to focus more on visuals. Partly for orientation but also for my sense of place, meaning and identity. What do people look like? What colour is the sky? Can I make it across the road before that car gets too close? To walk and listen awakens different parts of the brain and body. It also acted to bond us as a group. Aviva would pause at times, as we passed a sound ‘of note’ such as an industrial fan, some birds calling, the rustle of leaves in the evening breeze in a quieter street. At this moment one of our number repeatedly kicked their feet against some dry leaves and twigs, punctuating the softer sound of the tree leaves. It was a great sound and inspired me to deliberately step on a few piles of leaves as we walked on. A small act of ‘call and response’.

the sign reads: silent alarm inside
we pass through a secret door
and back again

Another similar moment, beautifully constructed by Aviva, was on our return to the performance venue (The Meat Market in North Melbourne). We did not immediately enter the building but went first to the courtyard where a number of small, portable speakers were suspended, dangling from tree branches. I saw a few people were handed tiny, white cardboard notes. I wondered if I would get a note. I hoped so. After a moment, I was handed one by another audience member and I opened it to read a hand-written message that said something like: Another audience has left you a gift. Choose a speaker and then pass this note on. The speakers were playing snippets of stories similar to the ones we had all shared, along with an ebbing soundscape of whorling noise, bells and chimes. We moved in the open air, sharing speakers with each other, playing with how they moved and what this did to the sound. We were all smiling, lit up by this shared activity.

We entered the building via the stairs and had a moment of seeing the instruments set up for us in the space below. Another moment of care and of creating an unexpected perspective. A frieze, if you like, of objects, of a space prepared for us. We continued to move, together, without speaking. There was a sense of anticipation and this increased, joyfully, as we encountered the first of four instrument ‘stations.’ 

we crouch and open our ears
the floor thrums
play with clunk and whizz

The moment brought to mind a video I had watched as part of a workshop a few months earlier, Boys and Sculpture by Eva Rothschild. In this work (a 2012 White Chapel Gallery Children’s Commission), a group of pre-teen boys are invited into a space with about a dozen of Rothschild’s large sculptures, all of which are made of a number of elements that can be pulled apart. The boys take a while to warm up and then, perhaps under instruction or via permission, start to touch and play with the sculptures. They ultimately deconstruct and destroy all of them, using parts to rebuild new things or simply to play with, throw and bat around. In the workshop this raised questions about art and agency, respect and destruction. 

I knew that this group, attending Stranger, would not act anything like the boys, even though we had been given instruction and permission – that there was no ‘wrong’ way to play the instruments. And yet I did vaguely wonder what would happen if someone picked up a drum and left the room with it or pushed over the carefully placed ‘sounding stands’ at the far end of the room. Our social contract with Aviva was based on being well trained audience members and this sense of caution and respect permeated our group work.

Each station was accompanied by a simple video projection that suggested, either in written words or via performers’ silent actions, what we might do at that station, how we might interact with the instruments. There was a progression. We spent around 10 minutes at each station and then a new one would be gently lit, guiding us there. One of our audience members took off early and explored the entire space, all of the instruments, as soon as we arrived. My internal orderly found this irritating. ‘The space has been set up to guide us through!’ I wanted to say. But I recalled Aviva’s warmth and enthusiasm in talking about test audiences for the work, for people who ‘went rogue’ and felt confident and comfortable to do their own thing. Our rogue audient returned to us and participated, as we all did, sharing instruments, passing each other different objects, learning by watching, adding to sound, playing together. 

each moment a new body
she passes me a tin bowl
eyes shining

It was an interesting vibe. It didn’t feel like a completely communal activity. We were operating each on our own as well as together. I liked this element. That we could be both alone in our exploration of the beautiful instruments and have moments of connection without it feeling forced. Huge props must be given to the four instrument makers Clinton Green, Laura Altman, Carolyn Connors and Dale Gorfinkel who took such a huge amount of care to create truly interactive, playable instruments that required no expertise, simply curiosity and a willingness to experiment. Also to Cobie Orger who made the videos, Alexander Nguyen for lighting and to Tilman Robinson for operating the live sound. This aspect was another one thought through with such consideration. As we finished our experimenting and playing together and were invited to lie or sit on the floor, the sounds we heard were our own. Snippets of stories we had shared just an hour or so earlier, in among a soundscape that I assumed was also what we had all made together. 

The choice to have us experience this moment, each alone, eyes closed, in our own space was one I really appreciated. That we were not expected to ‘come together’ as a way of bringing the work to its conclusion. Rather, the effect was that we had made, together, a space that was shared and yet separate. It was this delicate balance that enlivened in me the state I have mentioned – a kind of bittersweet and deeply embodied meditation on our humanness, our bodies, our aloneness and our connection.

purple sky and evening chill
slow walk our ears soft
back into space and conversation

In the foyer, sipping tea and invited to jot words or record voice memos about the work, I wondered aloud, with some other audience members, what the opposite of ‘anticipation’ (the title of my first essay) might be. ‘Exticipation’? someone suggested. ‘Is that a word?’ I asked. ‘I made it up,’ he said. ‘I might use that,’ I said, ‘I’ll credit you.’ ‘Nah, no need,’ he replied. And this was the world that Stranger had created. One where something slightly odd was shared, something we had made up together, that was not about seeking or claiming credit but was based on generosity. From Aviva. From the artists and makers. And between us, the audience members, not so strangers for an hour or so, on a Thursday evening in December.

Stranger: Anticipation
by Emilie Collyer

We are sitting, some on chairs and many on the floor, in this huge space at The Substation in Newport (in the western suburbs of Naarm/Melbourne), where the eye is taken up, up. Aviva Endean is on a stage at one end of the space. She is seated. She places two clear plastic hoses into her mouth and begins to make sound. There is such vulnerability in the gesture. A body with attachments that make it awkward, strange and beautiful at once. The sounds are those of the breath and notes that growl and croon. The effect is one of invitation and generosity. This is an ordinary body breathing, moving, sounding, in quite extraordinary ways.

I have known Aviva for some years, as a musician, composer, creative collaborator, workshop leader. We have arranged to meet and talk about her new, upcoming work Stranger. The night before our meeting, this night, I attend this gig where she plays and launches her new album Moths and Stars, along with performances by Gail Priest and Haco. The main thing I notice about Aviva’s set is the way in which she invites the audience to be part of something (a little) strange and in doing so creates a connection rather than a barrier between performer and audience. I am someone who deals mostly with words and am always in awe and slightly envious of artists who create such meaningful communication without them.

Aviva and I meet on Zoom the following day to talk about Stranger. She says the work has been in her dreaming for a long time. It is described in the event information as ‘a performance installation for an ensemble audience’ and Aviva further elaborates that it is a participatory work where the audience is invited to activate instruments and effectively make a sound work together.

The title, she tells me, comes from a concept called ‘the stranger effect’ by anthropologist Michael Taussig. Aviva explains the idea as ‘the feeling of generosity that can exist between a stranger and a host when there is an acknowledgement of unknowing – the host understands the stranger will feel like an outsider so does what they can to ameliorate that feeling. And the stranger has the possibility to experience afresh and bring new insight because they are an outsider.’

I do some researching of my own and discover Taussig writing about the magic of strangers coming together for a week-long seminar in a short piece beautifully titled (quoting Walter Benjamin) ‘I’d like to write something that comes from things the way wine comes from grapes’. I then find the specific phrase ‘the stranger effect’ referenced in a short piece about Taussig’s book I swear I saw this at website which leads me to the direct quote. Taussig is writing about anthropology and the strangeness of being a stranger in a foreign place. What I love is Aviva’s memory of the phrase and what it awakened in her. How it set off a spark that would eventuate in a new creative work.

On being a stranger and being in a place of unknowing: ‘musicians get to have that experience a lot,’ Aviva observes. ‘When touring and improvising, you are often in that situation. Working with people or a form you don’t know much about. You are invited. You are not expected to know but you are expected to contribute and to trust that you will find a way of contributing.’ She wanted to see if she could create something of this experience for audiences who are non-performers. For whom this invitation, to be a stranger and to contribute to a creative event, a performance, would be a strange and unfamiliar experience.

Also important for Aviva was the notion of community, the musicians and sound artists with whom she has collaborated for years. ‘These improvisors and sound artists are my community. It’s a culture that I am part of, and this work Stranger is an invitation for the audience to step into that.’

Offering an experience created by multiple artists has been a key element in how Aviva has imagined and built the work. ‘When I applied for funding to create this work, I was pragmatically listed as the ‘composer’ – a title we tend to associate with a singular individualistic vision, but I quicky realised this work needed to be made by a group of people. If I were to imagine all the scenarios alone I was worried it would be a bit didactic and limited – come to the weird world of Aviva’s brain! The work hopefully feels more like stepping into a culture of practice rather than one person’s vision.’

The project has a large team of collaborating artists. Those who have made instruments for the audience to play are Clinton Green, Laura Altman, Carolyn Connors, Dale Gorfinkel. Aviva speaks about this act of generosity whereby the artists are distilling years of practice, performance and knowledge and creating an experience that will be simple and satisfying for ‘ordinary’ people (non-performers) to interact with. ‘I asked them to imagine how to turn their work into something participatory.’ She acknowledges the tension in this request, and at the heart of the project, between wanting to make it accessible for people but not reduce or diminish the years of research and artistry. 

I watch a short video about the work and the participating artists speak about the openness and accessibility of experimental sound practice. It can be, they observe, less excluding than other forms (for example classical or jazz music) as there are really no rules, it is about engaging with objects and exploring notions of sound. Aviva reiterates this as we talk, mentioning that most of the objects in the work (and indeed often used in experimental sound work) are ordinary, found objects. They are items people might interact with every day as opposed to rarefied, specialised instruments.

Another strategy for making participation easy is the addition of video to the experience. Aviva muses about what to name this element. ‘It is not exactly a video score,’ she says. ‘It is more like a vocabulary of movement which will lead to certain sounds. They are invitations not instructions. Seeing bodies up close and the detail of movement is important to the work. The intimacy of seeing the bodies on screen can make you feel more aware of your own body moving through the space and creating the sound.’ Video artist Cobie Orger is key to this aspect of the work. 

I have participated in a previous work that Aviva and Cobie made called Vibrato Virtual. In this work, which I experienced once online and once together with people in a space, we the audience were invited to use our mobile phones as instruments. We watched a video with four performers each doing slightly different movements and chose one to follow and imitate. It was liberating and did – as Aviva hopes it will in this work – alleviate any anxiety about singing or performing because it was more like following a number of physical tasks. The addition in Stranger is that there will be several screens in the space which may offer differing or even contradictory ‘invitations’, allowing audiences to engage with them as much or as little as they choose.

Aviva is hopeful that audience members will interpret the broad invitation of the piece in vastly different ways. She speaks about the sense that has developed with test runs of the work where ‘audiences form their own culture. Some are very kind with each other.’ Her eyes light up when she recalls a person who went renegade. ‘One person decided to break the frame – wandering off into the darkness – I loved that they felt they could do it. It was sonically really wild.’

We finish our conversation and Aviva talks about a recent experience in The Kimberly where she was in the audience at Alana Hunt’s project nine hundred and sixty seven where Waringarri dancers performed Wangga and Lirrga (song and dance ceremony). After watching for an hour, the audience was then asked to get up and join in. She describes it as both generous and humbling for host and guests, this offer. Relating it back to her work and the deep thinking that accompanies it, Aviva says something she is interested in, is creating spaces to develop different ways of knowing- and in particular the kind of embodied knowledge you get from moving your body, making sound, finding different ways to listen. We talk about the differences between cognitive understanding (following instructions, trying to get something ‘right’) and embodied understanding (responding in a more immediate way, being less outcome focussed) and how this is both a vulnerable and a freeing state to be in as an audience, listener or reciprocator.

I think about this as I recall the feeling of watching and listening to Aviva play at The Substation those few nights earlier. How even in that context as a more passive audience member that invitation to listen differently was present. To slow down. To let my body and mind both focus and freely associate. To let the space between performer and audience be alive with communication and possibility. 

Works cited:

Museum Fatigue (2014) Michael Taussig on Field Notebooks—I swear I saw this, Museum Fatigue website, accessed 12 November 2022.

Taussig M (2019) I’d like to write something that comes from things the way wine comes from grapes, New Writing, 16:4, 400-403.

Taussig M (2011) I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.