Chamber Made Opera: Captives of the City

Adam Pierzchalski. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Adam Pierzchalski. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Sarah Kriegler and Ben Grant’s Captives of the City is a political fable set in the bowels of a dystopian regime. The show has a simple message about the power of citizen journalism and artistic freedom that is cleverly and cleanly communicated through digital puppetry and stunning musical performances. The piece has been through several stages of development and reflects the Arab Spring and Wikileaks, as well as more recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The audience is met in the foyer of the Melbourne Arts Centre by an officious usher played by Adam Pierzchalski. Pierzchalski clowns about masterfully, disposing of a dead pigeon and checking the cuffs of audience members for recording devices. The audience is taken in groups into the basement while a video screen mounted on the wall of the lift shows security camera footage.

The basement of the Arts Centre is a warren of cages. The entire space is miked up, a sonic microcosm of the authoritarian state above. Two musicians, Mark Cauvin and Matthias Schack-Arnott, are captives of the city. They are taken in and out of cages by the usher and made to perform graphic scores by David Young. I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be a punishment, a moment of restricted freedom or indentured labour for the musicians. The standout performance for me was Schack-Arnott’s solo improvisation on a close-miked cage with knitting needles. Schack-Arnott conjures silvery tones, phasing swathes of sound and deep bass notes out of the bars.

As the performers go about their musical servitude, a magnificent rat made out of fragments of text scuttles around the walls, designed by Dave Jones and projected by Jacob Williams. The rat has moods, increasing the font size and style of its skin as it responds to the musicians. The rat is befriended by the musicians, who cleverly pick the projection off of a wall with a score and “place” it onto Cauvin’s double bass. To cut a short story shorter, the musicians break free with the help of a swarm of digital rats, who write words on the walls of the basement that became famous after the revolution in Tahrir Square:

Oh regime that is scared of a pen and a brush
you’ve been unfair to the people you crushed
if you were honest
you would not fear paint
the best you can do is fight walls
and claim victory over colors and lines

It is tempting to read Captives of the City as a liberal fable counseling artistic freedom without surveillance. However, doesn’t the piece contrast two different problems, that of artistic freedom and that of freedom of information? These are the priorities of two different denizens of the city: the musicians, who have a degree of freedom and whose art is valued in some part by the regime, and the underground activist-rats. The aims of these groups are not necessarily aligned and the slowness with which the musicians befriend the rat in Captives of the City seems to recognise this. Ultimately the musicians achieve liberation through making some particularly loud and threatening music with the pylons of the basement, an ending that only seems to highlight the political futility of their art form. As the rats overrun the city, a montage of citizens on their computers forms the shape of a giant rat. The musicians become a symbol of courage while the rats become agents of political change. As the artists write in the programme of the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “Regardless of opinion of the ‘correctness’ of their work, there is no doubt the artists working for Charlie Hebdo were unflinching in their right to use art to make a statement about the world around them.” The world of surveillance and security moves quickly and since the performance of Captives of the City some of the most far-reaching data retention laws in the world were passed in Australia with bipartisan support, despite there being little evidence that easier access to metadata will stop attacks like those on the offices of Charlie Hebdo or the Lindt cafe.

As Helen Razer recently wrote for Crikey, the data retention laws recently passed in Australia with bipartisan support will have a chilling effect on artistic practice. As Razer writes, Australia’s fascination with censorship extends well beyond the often-cited justification of stopping child pornography: “From Piss Christ to Pasolini to the novels of Zola, artworks are treated with more revulsion in Australia than any other western liberal democracy. Adult consumers of video games were not permitted to legally play items with an R18+ rating until 2012.” The metadata retention laws will raise the stakes of artistic courage.

Captives of the City
By Sarah Kriegler and Ben Grant
Directed by Sarah Kriegler
Chamber Made Opera
Lemony S Puppet Theatre
The Arts Centre
11 February 201

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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