Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review: Happy Hour

Created by Wendy Houstoun and Tim Etchells, Performed by Wendy Houstoun
Until 19 October

What a long way it seems Wendy Houstoun has come in the intervening years between 'Desert Island Dances' and 'Happy Hour'. Structurally, dramaturgically and stylistically, 'Desert Island Dances' is way in front. 
The subject matter of 'Happy Hour' is more profound, relevant and challenging than in 'Desert Island Dances' on the surface. What appealed, however, in 'Desert Island Dances' was its eventual universality, its transcendence of self-reflexivity and deconstructionism, to encompass something total and human.
'Happy Hour' was awkward, half-baked, somehow disingenuous and severely displaced within the Meat Market. 
It was developed as a site specific piece to be performed in bars. The Beck's Bar is a bar, no two ways about it. But it's an ad-hok kind of affair. What I really desired was for this to be performed at the Old Colonial on Brunswick Street or some such place, lurid carpet heady with the memory of indoor smoking, formica table tops, a sea of wood panelling and, perhaps most importantly, people actually going there to drink.
The Beck's Bar was full of us. Expectation writ large across our faces, positioning ourselves, craning our necks, full of anticipation and knock-about adoration for Wendy Houstoun.
It just didn't do it for me. It was such an artifice, really such a long way from being site specific. It wound up feeling totally nonspecific, could have happened anywhere. Why on earth would a 'site specific' performance be programmed within such a performance venue for three days? How is that site specific? It site specificity is not more than any live performance anywhere.
There was a part of the performance that occurred on a small rostra. This section was mostly dance and she is an incredible mover. Behind the rostra, however, were a couple of huge Beck's banners, which took my thoughts into a feedback loop of sponsorship, signage and double selling. I got really confused. 
Obviously the Beck's Bar is sponsored by Beck's. The MIAF website cites Beck's as a supporter of this performance. Now, what is the nature of this sponsorship? This must be the only performance that has such prominent sponsor signage. How was this deal struck? How did they score this kind of overt, totally unsubtle advertising? I sometimes resent what I call 'double-selling', where, usually in a glossy magazine, you find that you've paid for what has perhaps already been paid for by advertisers. Magazines pretty much full of advertising, advertising features, product reviews, you know... Newspapers rely on advertising, and its not so much of a concern to me in that context, newspapers are cheap, journalism is not. 
This is a context, however, where the lines are blurred, are they not? Festivals need sponsorship to subsidise the works they are presenting, particularly in Australia, where the costs of travel could otherwise be prohibitive to an arts festival. I'm not anti sponsorship, just one for disclosure. I am becoming increasingly perturbed at the blurring of the line and I really have not encountered it in live performance before. And it scares the whatsit out of me.
Is it not enough that the performance occurred in The Beck's Bar? That the Beck's logo appears on the web page and the program? And that Beck's was the only beer available?
I mean come on. We're not idiots. They had a captive group of people waiting eagerly for a performance, with not much else to do besides buy a beer. They didn't need to erect banners reminding us of their branding.
And this seemed a strange kind of union, between a piece that is sort of critical of drinking culture - certainly doesn't romanticise it - and a big ole liquor company, in fact, the largest brewery company in the world.
I'm really interested to hear what others make of this. It was a kind of controlling, under-handed, yet unsubtle kind of sponsorship. I imagine that anything programmed for this venue throughout the festival ends up doing some nice business for Beck's.
After I'd stewed on this I found that I'd missed a good five minutes of the performance. Oh well. 
And I have never seen a performance whose backdrop is a couple of Australia Council banners.


Anonymous said...

i agree with pretty much everything you say. in some ways putting the becks banners up was just a way of blocking off the back and in some ways you could see the last section as a kind of anti advertising.
however, i also agree with the fact that this is a created bar so the kind of collision you get from the piece running up against the real location is lost. also agree with you about the structure etc of the piece related to desert island dances. thanks for this.
wendy houstoun

Martin White said...

Really? Wendy? Is that you? This is very exciting to me. I would love to be able to correspond some more about the piece - my email address is
Thanks for commenting.

Chris Boyd said...

I once freaked out when I got a comment from Raimund Hoghe. To this day, I don't know if it was RH or someone quoting him.


Anonymous said...

hi there, yes it is me-although i guess pretty hard to tell if it is not someone trying to be me- but that is something we just have to live with. will mail you anyhow but , now, quite like this dilemna of trying to be authentically myself.
will mail you anyhow as i did get that via arts admin- maybe that is a bit of proof.
anyhow. more soon i imagine.
wendy houstoun

Martin White said...

This reminds me of the story (may well be a myth) of Charlie Chaplin anonymously entering a Charlie Chaplin look alike contest. He came third.

Anonymous said...

also reminds me of a story of Ken Campbell- fantastic reconteur in england- being asked to play himself if a play- and hiring an impressionist to do a version of himself so he could learn himself back. ( the real) wendy houstoun