Emilie Collyer traces the multiple collaborations behind Chamber Made’s bold new work SYSTEM_ERROR
I’m sitting in the semi-dark in the main hall at Arts House in North Melbourne, watching a development day of SYSTEM_ERROR. It’s a new Chamber Made work being created by artistic director Tamara Saulwick and dancer, sound designer and choreographer Alisdair Macindoe. Other collaborators include data visualisation artist Melanie Huang, choreographer Lucy Guerin, and me. Right now, in the dark, I am scribbling in my red notebook:
Watching the problem-solving is key to this process.
It is a system creating itself.
The sequence about what to do with the tables.
How to collapse them.
What is the motivation for collapsing them (this is a joke, off-hand, convivial)?
“Can we have a bit of light while they play with this?” (Lucy asks Bec, the production manager).
I make note of the text that is being projected on the gigantic screen, now, in this moment:
activity within that network. We can send in different patterns of stimulation and look at how the network changes as a result.
This is how I have observed the building of this work: as different patterns of stimulation from each collaborating artist interacting to create the network, which is the work itself.
It began with a seed of an idea, in a conversation between Saulwick and Macindoe. The name of the investigation was always SYSTEM_ERROR. The idea was to explore bodies, sound and technology. That was as much as they knew. Slowly over a few years, in short bursts of development that brought in other collaborators at different stages, they built a work of performance.
This particular development took place in March 2021. As I write now, the show is a few weeks away from its world premiere season at Arts House in July. Keen to get a sense of what the collaboration process has been like, I have been talking via email to the key artists.
“I hadn’t worked with any of these artists previously,” says Saulwick. “I’ve really loved the process of finding points of connection and shared preoccupations. In some ways our practices are quite disparate, but there are also these lovely rich veins of overlapping interest.”
I find this so compelling. Saulwick is an established artist with more than 20 years’ experience. Of course, she does at times collaborate with artists with whom she has an existing creative relationship. But her keenness to explore new relationships and possibilities and to make a work with artists from different artforms and disciplines demonstrates a genuine desire to explore what collaboration is and how it works.
For data visualisation artist Melanie Huang, this is her first performance project. She reflects on what it has been like to come into collaboration with Saulwick and Macindoe, highlighting that the process has been open rather than prescriptive.
Huang created visual elements in response to the sound design and the physical world of the piece. “I found it super beneficial to create the visuals as we discussed each new scene that was unfolding. This is different to what I’m used to as a designer or coder,” she says. “I’ll be honest, it was a little bit terrifying at first – the ambiguity. However [it was] ultimately liberating to be able to explore concepts and visual directions untethered from a client brief or style guide.”
Expanding networks of collaborators is a crucial part of the Chamber Made ethos. “I enjoy having someone in the room who comes from a completely different scene,” Saulwick says. “They can bring a different way of thinking into the process and tend not to follow the expected pathways. This has definitely been the case with Mel and I really love what she’s brought to the piece.”
Huang agrees that this “taking a chance on an outsider” has great benefits. “It is not only a great opportunity for individuals to explore what their craft/talent can provide a new space but also what a new area has to gain from looking outside the usual talent pool to create something unique to that team and that performance.”
Working on this project, I’ve been struck by how all the artists are able to “hold ambiguity”. I recall an early conversation with Saulwick and Macindoe, eating noodles at a North Melbourne café, as they talked in and around the themes of the work. Was it about bodies? Their bodies? About their frailties or obsessions? Both spoke of past and present vulnerabilities as I took furious notes.
The text went through a number of iterations. For the most part it is based on found texts sourced by Saulwick and Macindoe, interviews and documentaries about questions of what it is to be human and what the urge towards “transhumanism” might be. As a collective we generated more texts, digging into other areas of inquiry about systems and personal relationships, testing the poetic boundaries of language as it related to these themes. Ultimately, much of this has dropped away. The process of deliberation and selection, as text slots in as one element among sound, vision, body and space, has been fascinating.
Macindoe reflects on how this collaboration has stretched him beyond his usual approaches: “Working with Tam exposed me to a process in which materials are formed predominantly through discussion, research, thinking, transcribing, collating and writing,” he says. “Coming from dance and music, where concept and ideation are generally a starting point that are explored through physicalisation and musical play, this was new to me. At first it was jarring and unfamiliar, but I got a lot out of it, and I can’t imagine how we could have made the piece without said processes.”
This “colliding” of artistic process is something that has interested Saulwick for a long time. Over many years she has built a practice that invites artists to meet the boundaries of their artform as it comes into direct contact with another, to see what new processes and forms might emerge. “I think if you want the various modalities/threads/disciplines to be genuinely integrated with one another then you need to allow time for that to occur,” she says. “It’s one thing to abut elements up against one another, but allowing them to become a new combined language can be a slow process.”
Macindoe concurs that creating work in this way takes time and patience: “The greatest challenge of this piece has been clarification and crystallisation of the intent, theme and creative rationale of the work,” he says. “I have really enjoyed the musical challenges of this work and where they have taken me both technically and creatively. Trying to whittle down the entire work into 36 discrete cc channels has forced me to explore how to compress complex musical ideas into a streamlined instrument interface.”
As Saulwick observes, one of the main complexities of both making and performing the work is that need to “navigate being inside and outside the work, moving between those two modes and perspectives”. “This is why it has been great to be joined by Lucy in the latter stages of the process,” she says. “Her presence has allowed us to an extent to hand over that outside perspective and focus more on the performance component.”
Watching Lucy Guerin work with the performers in crafting the shape of the piece provides another layer of insight. From my personal experience as a playwright, it’s unusual for a director to come late into the development and building of a work, not be there from its genesis.
“The process with Tam and Alisdair was really unique,” says Guerin. “Working with two artists who were so deeply embedded in the ideas for the work and the creation of the ‘machine’ that they used to deliver the ideas meant there was immediately so much to work with. The fact that they built, operated and became part of this circuitry spoke so clearly to the content of the piece.”
Guerin has great skill in looking at the mechanics and structure of the work, identifying what is there and how each part relates to the next. I can see that she is not taking overall responsibility for the artistic drive of the piece, but rather using her expertise to help Saulwick and Macindoe craft a cohesive work. “My role was really as an outside eye for Tam and Alisdair, so that we could thread together the content and strip back a bit the complex layering of multiple ideas that had emerged in their previous developments.”
Guerin’s role was crucial, as Macindoe observes. “Bringing Lucy in as an outside eye and to direct the work really clarified a lot for me about the work,” he says “Also, Lucy is just amazing and somehow managed to clarify and streamline our creative chaos in a really engaging and thoughtful way.”
Opening out the process generates a richness. Guerin says that working on the project had positive flow-on effects for her broader practice. “It’s a great way to question your own position on ideas and creative process,” she says. “It can be time consuming but it’s so worth listening and working through. I find it really fulfilling and it shifts and re-forms my practice, which keeps me interested and engaged.”
Many aspects of the project intrigued her, “The correlation between the human biological system and technological systems and how they overlap, prompts me to wonder if humans design these systems based on their own bodies and minds,” she says. “They seem to reinforce yet confound each other. The fact of touch itself – which is used to activate the instrument – can produce an onslaught of sound or a delicate static. Touch is now such a triggering action and seems very relevant. It offers reassurance and connection but is also threatening and powerful. I have always felt quite disturbed by the radical futures proposed by technology, but this work made it seem intriguing, rather than a dark and scary fiction.”
I return to my scribbled notes from the development, seeking connections, the trail of “evidence” that has led to what is now a pretty much final version of the work. My involvement has been light and minimal. Mostly I have provided another perspective, offered thoughts on how the text of the work is functioning, or acted as a sounding board as the artists worked through their own questions, their ambiguities.
A series of absurd machinations to keep life going.
How do you “avoid” the system (should you want to).
Why and when does language emerge.
The word “years” really jumps out, should it be: “It’s been – as long as I can remember?”
Take it out of this endless present into something more quotidian.
I watch a full run of the show and the sense of fragmentation dissolves. What emerges is a whole system, one both strange and compelling, where I am reminded of all that is odd about being human, and all that is possible.
Chamber Made’s SYSTEM_ERROR premieres at Arts House July 7-11. Bookings and information