BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM attempts to break Wellington-based artist Sarah Jane Parton (and co-director Ellen Loui August) into revealing the mystery contents of their sci-fi multi-media cross-genre event, Belonging, part of Fringe 2008.

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BELONGING is the latest work by the highly prolific Wellington artist Sarah Jane Parton, and it’s all quite mysterious. No-one will tell me what it’s about, but it’s featuring a massive cast of well-known collaborators (up to thirty), from musicians to dancers to actors, and it’s all being brought together by Parton. But she’s not doing it all, that’d just be crazy, and help includes co-director Ellen Loui August, who also joins Parton for this interview. They settle on the description of their individual roles – August is the co-director and “The Recitalist” officially, a kind of choreographer, but doesn’t like to be called that. Parton is “The Instigator”. “Everybody has a title beginning with the word “the” she explains.

Parton has been making a name for herself in the New Zealand art world, and gaining excellent reviews for a number of her exhibitions (Guidance for example.) Parton admits to always having been deep in the art world. “I was one of those kids who always drew pictures. I was the art girl at high school. I did all the art subjects – painting, sculpture, and design which I was terrible at. For some reason I went and did a design degree even though it was absolutely awful and I hated it, but my career advisor really pushed that we do things that had a trade.” She “worked on that movie that everyone worked on for a while in the late 90s,” and after an overseas jaunt she came back and went to art school.

However, she’s never been content to just limit herself to a particular visual artistic medium. “I never really just saw art as the visual art. I always wrote as well. I was never really musical, but I thought I was for a while. I tried to do dance for a while, but wasn’t very good at that either. I was okay at writing and making art, relatively speaking.” This means she’s been actively involved in collaboration too, in the process she’s pushed herself into incorporating multimedia art. “I’m really interested in things other people are good at too if you talk with someone who’s really engaged with what they’re doing and really good at it. I’ve got this friend who’s doing his PhD, something to do with seaweed, and I’m fascinated listening to him talk about seaweed. He’s so interested in it and he’s so good at what he does, and it’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating.” It’s something she finds “really exciting” leading August to suggest that that “is the beauty of the collaborative processes. You’ve got a lot of different people working in different worlds, and if you’re bringing those kind of people together, there’s a possibility for different viewpoints and different tensions, so you can work outside your personal taste.” Parton wants to try and work with the seaweed man too, but hasn’t been able to convince him yet.

For Belonging, Parton kicked the process off. August, a frequent collaborator with Parton, said “often Sarah will come to a work and she’ll go these are my series of images and then we’ll all research together and separately, and re-direct and re-develop what’s going on. And so the work ultimately creates itself.” It’s certainly not the easiest way to create art, and Parton admits that this collaborative approach works better when dealing with performance rather when “I’ve been making work for gallery space. I’ve found that trickier. You need the momentum that happens with performative things.” She’s also found that she’s been able to keep the threads, the themes, the core of what she intended with a work through until it’s a completed piece of work, something that’s a testament to her vision and to the ability of her collaborators to carry it through.

And it’s been tested with Belonging given the size of the cast, especially as it kept getting bigger and more complex. “I didn’t mean it to. It was a total accident. I meant it to be this little experimental thing and then I couldn’t help myself. I kept thinking about things en masse, and everything had to be done by an expert.” For example, the sound design is done by Park Road Post’s Mel Graham, “who has worked on every large American film that’s come through here”, the recorded music was done by partner Luke Buda, while the live music involves members from Cassette, Lawrence Arabia and a former Head Like a Hole. She got Jo Randerson to sing because Randerson mentioned “not enough people take her seriously as a singer. And I took that quite seriously.” August said “when I first saw the list of cast and crew I thought ‘oh my good, what are all these people going to do?’” Parton replied “I just know so many geniuses. I’ve just been fortunate. It’s been a real challenge, the people who are involved though are phenomenal, just really great. Not one person is a rogue element.”

It seems rare to find a visual artist to be so in favour of collaboration. Visual artists have the connotations of tortured geniuses, singular visionaries, auteurs. “I have a real problem with that singular, visionary auteur thing, because I find it a really patriarchal kind of standard, the whole canon thing. A lot of female artists tried to break that sort of stuff down in the ‘70s, in a really overt way because they had to. I’m not trying to do what they’re doing. I’m just moving on. Moving on in a way that feels really natural, personally, to what I’m doing and not aspire to the patriarchal art values that the art world has had for a long time.”

“I’m really interested in social observation, and, not even criticism, but kind of mild observation and inevitable criticism through observation. I’m thinking about utopias, and dystopias, and social change, and social stagnancy, and what happened, what is happening, what will happen and how we function and how we live and how we interact and all that crazy shit.”

The actual contents of Belonging are quite mysterious, and neither the Fringe Booklet nor Parton or August will give too much away. They recommend bringing a blanket. They’ll mention some of the elements though, and a lot of stuff is thrown at me. A live band. Dancing. Movement. “Multiple potential narratives”. Audiovisual stuff. “There are seven children thrown into the mix. Seven children you’d want to own.” Which provoked a loud “Shhhh” from August. Parton adds “there are moments of comedy. And tragedy. And comic tragedy. And tragicomedy.” I feel they are taunting me, but add “there are moments of drama and there are moments of stillness.” August rejoinders “and subtle menace.”
“Yes, not so subtle at times.”
“It’s operating on the boundaries of all of those art forms.”

Parton also wants to challenge how a lot of performance art is delivered up to an audience. “I’d like to see a lot more that operates, not necessarily in an intellectual framework at all, but more with a move towards work that has popular appeal. A move towards work that engages its audience and leaves them with a sense of satisfaction or fulfilment in some sense. It doesn’t need to mean they come out thinking ‘what a great thing, I feel so good about that’, but I feel a lot of performance art is completely insular, so removed. They talk about a relationship with the audience, but that relationship is so conceptualised that it’s flat”. Belonging has consciously sought to try and avoid being seen as “flat” and hold broad appeal, and it’s something Parton has sought to remedy with her visual art work too. “I think that sense of immediacy is lost a little bit in a lot of visual art recently.” (She mentions AES+F’s Last Riot on at the City Gallery as a really successful installation).

Even if Parton and August won’t tell me what Belonging is about, there are sure to be some of Parton’s key thematic ideas. For example, Guidance looked at utopias, and how these utopias are undercut by ‘reality’. Guidance showed its perfect family pictures, or tourist brochure photos, in a rather cynical light. And perhaps, demonstrating an auteurist, singular vision in this way, she admits that themes like utopias and the like often scratch recurring itches within her artistic vision. “I think that’s something I’ve been concerned about, and I don’t think I’ll stop being concerned with it either. I don’t feel a need to move on and investigate something new, to a certain extent, but there certainly are tangents, and hopefully progressions. But I’m really interested in social observation, and, not even criticism, but kind of mild observation and inevitable criticism through observation. I’m thinking about utopias, and dystopias, and social change, and social stagnancy, and what happened, what is happening, what will happen and how we function and how we live and how we interact and all that crazy shit.”

Belonging is a sci-fi piece, a genre that has basically been built around utopias and dystopias. “Science fiction’s always been a great vehicle for those sorts of ideas, and talking about such issues without being so blatant that you’re didactic and in people’s faces.” She mentions films like Logan’s Run, Zardoz, Dune (seeing the 1970s-1990s sci-fi films as the genre’s “peak” in cinema), and novels like A Brave New World and 1984 as being particularly important. Even documentaries like A State of Mind felt science fiction-like, with its twisted, nightmarish view of North Korean gymnasts.

Given her (potential) cynicism with her focus on the failure of idealism and utopias, I ask if she’s pessimistic about the future. Parton cites her child (and she’s pregnant at the moment) as preventing this to an extent, despite climate change, the Middle East being dropped into the conversation. “It’s sometimes hard to be cynical when you have a kid. It’s hard to be cynical when you see the pleasure, and joy, and wonder, of a life ahead to be. I don’t know. I reckon.” August, herself a mother, adds “I feel like having a child has given me this renaissance in my sight, even from the time I was pregnant, to see things from a child’s perspective again.” Parton emphasises “I know this is all ‘we’re mums da da daa’ but actually we’re talking about this as feminists. It’s not peripheral to us, and it doesn’t need to be in order for us to be successful and creative. It’s such a strong part of what we do, and that’s fine.”

Parton is someone who doesn’t seem to have a lot of time. But when you hear about her plans for the upcoming year, it’s hard not to see why. Gallery openings, and a number of shows, coupled with the fact she’s giving birth this year to her second child, suggests this will be another crazy year in the life of Parton. “But I never have time anyway, even when I didn’t have a kid and I was on the dole. I don’t understand how.” Belonging is one of the biggest things she’s put on, and given the undeniable talent involved in the show across the board, it could end up one of the big highlights and most exciting shows of this year’s Fringe.