Weekend Herald - Canvas
Today’s uncomfortable ideas are tomorrow’s social norms and the artists exploring those boundaries often test that work at Fringe festivals. Mary de Ruyter talks to creatives presenting topical work at the first Whangarei Fringe Festival.
If you’re thinking hairstyle, stop right there. Not that sort of fringe. Fringe festivals are a testing ground for quirky, experimental works that explore new ideas. New Zealand currently has close to 10 Fringe festivals, and this month Whangarei joins that arts circuit.
In a year of large-scale cancellations and delays, the Whangarei Fringe Festival has lined up 88 eclectic arts events for — fingers crossed — 17 days. Some are provocative, some silly fun. Others, such as those below, tackle topical issues with courage, curiosity and a healthy dose of absurdity.
A FANTASTICAL JOURNEY BY BOAT
In January, our skies turned yellow and orange — climate change had brought a deadly beauty to our doorstep. There are echoes of that in this immersive, multimedia performance art piece.
Artist Sarah-jane Blake and her husband Alistair Moore, both experienced ocean sailors, are travelling to Whangarei from Auckland in an international offshore racing boat named Darth Vader, on which they live, to present their surreal virtual-reality work, A Fantastical Journey by Boat.
The 20-minute experience takes participants across an ocean to an altered landscape, where whales fly and icebergs sit in a desert, says Blake.
“In our world, we’ve seen yellow skies from forest fires and pink seas from algal blooms — strange phenomena that present in candy-wrapper colours — but we know these dangerously beautiful skies or seas are not healthy ones.”
The atmosphere is at once magical, uneasy and nonsensical, an upside-down world inspired by Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat. Blake is drawing attention to environmental issues in a very different way from her father, the late Sir Peter Blake.
“We need a radical shift in the way we think about things, our systems and ideas, if we are to change the world,” she says. “Perhaps I’m trying to shift perspectives and shake things up just by doing something publicly odd.”
A Fantastical Journey By Boat will travel the North Island’s east coast from this month. darthandstormy.com
Laura Yakas has a lot to say about sluttery. An anthropologist who identifies as an Ethical Slut, she can talk about sex and psychology until the cows mosey in from the fields. Unsurprisingly, she also says f*** a lot.
Dargaville-born Yakas (PHD) is an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan’s school of social work and was visiting family here when Covid hit. Her show, Slut Songs, in which she sings folksy, sex-positive songs, was born at a postlockdown gig.
The 1997 book Ethical Slut discussed people enjoying sex in an ethical, open way, rather than as cheating.
“A lot of people think it’s about who you’re attracted to: man, woman or someone who’s trans. The authors expanded sexual identity to think about not just who but how you relate, sexually and romantically,” says Yakas.
Ethical is the key word, though. “You need selfawareness and really good communication skills to navigate a much more complicated relationship. Being an Ethical Slut is saying the slut part’s not the problem, it’s the ethical versus non-ethical part,” she says.
More than 20 years later, “slut” is still used as an insult, overwhelmingly against women. But Yakas believes ideas about sexuality are changing.
“People not taking the gender binary for granted is related to the reason I can get away with singing a set called Slut Songs in a small rural city in New Zealand.
“Twenty years ago I could not have done this gig. Now there’s so much more awareness about gender and sexuality being a spectrum.”
Yakas says monogamy is actually a very recent human construct, and the system of marriage that came from this was primarily created to control women.
“We are not a monogamous animal if you look at our history, and none of our closest ape relatives — chimps and bonobos, with which we share about 99 per cent of our genetic material — are monogamous,” she says.
“I’ve lived my life being ashamed of how many people I wanted to f***, because our culture tells us being a slut is a bad thing. Who created that standard? Was it an old white man 500 years ago? Yes, probably. Is that relevant and valid and fair now? F*** no.”
When people talk about diversity, most tend to celebrate difference. But for the three up-and-coming comedians of My Country, despite hanging their hat on the diversity angle, their show is actually more about similarities.
Auckland-based Corin Healy, Heta Dawson and Ed Amon met performing at open-mic nights at The Classic Comedy & Bar. (Insert a “A Maori, a Pakeha and a Pakistani walk into a bar ... ” joke here.) They began working up a show for the 2019 NZ International Comedy Festival called Get Out of My Country, sending up the anti-immigration mindset. Then the mosque shootings happened.
“Suddenly that name wasn’t great,” says Healy. “Cutting it back worked because the show is about our perspectives on being in this country that we love.” (Healy grew up in Te Puke, Dawson in South Auckland. Amon, a recent citizen, is from Pakistan.)
Their observational humour covers off religion, politics, and their thoughts on unity, stereotypes and political correctness. Not that they take it too seriously, says Amon, who also started comedic current-affairs podcast Baboon Yodel. “Our goal is to get people laughing together in these divisive, difficult times.”
Three mates, more similar than different, just having a laugh. Sometimes the best thing you can do is show, not tell. The trio is taking My Country to Christchurch in December.