A meandering Saturday made way for balcony tipples and good teriyaki tofu. We were running late, so we jaywalked. Jaywalking: a crime so tame, so banal, that you scarcely notice you’re doing it – let alone feel the pang of citizen’s remorse. No, it’s a pragmatic form of disobedience, devoid of message or interest. For the latter, you must try a little harder. We slunk over to the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Last week, our top shelf theatre/performance writer Chris Isaacs gave us a preview of the contained and chaotic world that is PVI collective’s DEVIATOR. Presented as an interactive art experience with a gently anarchic spin, it sounded like the sort of thing that might trigger those rule-flouting endorophins as jaywalking once did (when we were ten). Okay, I thought. “Turning your city into a playground” was the pithy premise. Fancying myself a dissenter of the road more bland, I felt it my duty to give deviator a go.
We were handed smartphones, headphones and given some tips. A video on the phone screen talked us through how to “play” deviator; it was, after all, a game, with a 45 minute time-frame, a scoreboard and a series of challenges. The challenges appeared as blue squares dotted around a digital map. We just had to hunt them down, like Easter eggs, and complete the tasks.
Through the train station, down the escalator; my stride is quick as I approach Forrest Chase. By coincidence or design this “chase” becomes the setting for its namesake – but this is a pretty warped game of catch-me-if-you-can. I scan a QR code beside the old Post Office building and a thin, feminine robotic voice begins speaking into my ears. Following its instructions I raise my left hand, wait until I see a clown emerge from the darkness, then drop my hand and run. I bolt around the area with the one, then two, then three athletic clowns hot on my heels. The dark shapes of Forrest Chase blur by. I reach Murray Street mall and suddenly realize I don’t know whether I’m allowed to leave the inital area. Deciding I oughtn’t, I double back, faltering. This hesitation is all the clowns need. Their t-shirts dub them “Motherfcukers” and they exist to make mischief. With a couple of seconds left on the clock for the challenge, they surround me, immobilize my limbs and lay a smooch on my lips. Dear diary, today I was kissed by a motherfcuking clown.
Bamboozled. I head back into the cultural centre. A game called “Hide” sees me distort my silhouette to become invisible in plain sight for a minute; “Boom” has me blow up a balloon until it “blows up,” and a passing group of girls shriek on their way to the club as the bang echoes through the night. I seek out the challenges in quick succession. I am guided through a public pole dance. I write chalk phrases on speech bubbles emerging from inanimate, oft-ignored objects. I lay my belly on an incongrous green circle in an altered, pared-back game of “Twister” – next, in “Squash,” I throw my body as hard as possible against a wall for two minutes (the bruises remain a nice souvenir).
I manage to squeeze in a few more challenges – planting a seed pod, “spinning the bottle” back in Murray St Mall to select a chain store to “exorcise” (though my smartphone lapses and leaves me hanging prior to my vocal spiel, so I stand there with a hand to the glass and one in the air for a peculiarly protracted duration). There are a few tasks I don’t get to – a sack race, a “follow the leader” game, a 2-minute lie down. To be honest, the time constraint bothers me, turning the process into a competition instead of sheer experience. I would have loved to have taken my time, reflecting as I went, completing all challenges thoroughly – but I can appreciate the practical need to wrap it up in time for the next session.
_deviator _is, at the very least, a fun and surprising outdoor game, an arresting 45 minutes of your life. The act of reworking commercial spaces (or narrowly-purposed cultural spaces) into sites for unlikely actions is, in its own harmless way, a subversive gesture. Where deviator becomes less convincing – but, simultaneously, more intriguing – is in its claims to harbour revolutionary potential and its allusions to contemporary resistance movements like Occupy. PVI cites John Holloway in “Crack Capitalism:” “Big changes often start with acts that look pointless at the time.” True, perhaps, but one begins to wonder whether the seed of genuine resistance, intrusion, subversion and ideological re-assessment can be sewn in such a state-sanctioned, “safe” context. Onlookers – most of whom are familiar enough with the quirks of the Cultural Centre – readily identify “contemporary art” markers and can feel immediately comfortable with whatever nonsense behaviour participants display. Likewise, public pole dancing for a few minutes barely differs from the sorts of things you might see drunken hooligans doing on a typical Saturday night. There’s a man a few metres away… he stumbles and pisses on a wall. He’s REALLY re-purposing public space and challenging social decrees, but no-one will applaud him for it. Meanwhile, the _deviator _activities in the less art-focused, more commerce-driven CBD feel more potent; they are more incongruous and implicitly critical, with odd looks and startled consideration being the order of the day.
I’m no cynic – I believe in the potential of art, indeed the potential of absurdity, to foster change within cultures and systems. deviator, for the most part, belongs to one of my favourite genres of art – the sort that cross-pollinates with public life and disrupts the predictability of the everyday. The opening up of possibilities within a city, within a 45-minute window, is a perfect entry point into what might be a revolutionary art tactic; one can’t expect an uprising from a single project. I’m reminded of Brazilian Tropicalia and the political importance of seemingly silly, fun or benign activities. Mind you, the state of Brazil in the 1960s can hardly be compared to Perth in 2013. We know our acts are green-lighted. We are not set to be jailed, as Tropicalia musicians/poets/artists were, by an oppressive military regime. But even if the relative lack of risk and opposition makes our gestures less explosive, does it make them any less worthwhile?
Returning to PICA, a little bruised, dirty and worn out, I return my gadgets, and head on into the night. The more I think about it now, the more deviator feels like an apt intrusion into Perth per se. Perth is a city of too many rules, not enough intuition; too much babysitting and not enough respect for citizens’ creativity and common sense. Crucially, it’s a city that says “no fun allowed” unless it’s the sort of fun that’s been sanitized and run through ten levels of bureaucracy. Sure, deviator had to get the tick of approval, but it got through with a hefty dose of critical and countercultural implications still in tact. Perhaps what we need is not necessarily riskier public art than deviator, but rather more in its vein, more often. A more consistent fight, for your right, to paaar-tay. Or whatever else you might feel like doing.