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 has been 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
Teaser filmed by Cobie Orger

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.