Thread of Voice

(Arf Arf, Australia, 1993)


Jacques Tati's final film, completed almost a decade before his death, was Parade (1973). It is a modest, low-budget swansong from the man who once placed his intricately staged gags within the elaborately designed sets of Mon Oncle (1958), or the vast, stereophonic, 70 millimetre screen space of Playtime (1967).

Parade is a modest effort, shot partly on video, completely theatrical in its setting. Different groups of performers come on and off stage, doing their time-worn routines; Tati meanwhile concentrates on the behaviour of audience members (some of whom are cardboard cut-outs) as much as the acts themselves.

The film ends with a surprising, ragged coda: children wander about the empty set, picking up discarded objects and letting out little noises that mean nothing and lead nowhere in particular.

Tati's film is utterly entrancing because – like Chantal Akerman's The Eighties (1983), another obscure oddity which mixes up film and video, and starts from the ground of the simplest, most incidental gestures – it gives the viewer the rare sense that, here, the very language of images and sounds, the potentiality of performance and space, the relationship of spectacle and spectator, is being discovered step by step, as if for the first time. Filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub described Parade as a film about "degrees of nervous flux – beginning with the child which cannot yet make a gesture, who cannot yet coordinate her hand with her brain, and going up to the most accomplished acrobats". (1)

Parade would make a good double bill with Arf Arf's wonderful performance film Thread of Voice. Although nominally this work could be taken as an innocent documentation of some of the sound pieces that Arf Arf have performed live since the mid '80s, the film confounds all categories. They use their sound work to transform the medium and language of film – and vice versa – just as the most inventive recent dance films, such as Mahalya Middlemist's Vivarium (1993), have done. Members of the ensemble justly speak of the film as being not a representation of their act, but an act in itself.

Co-ordinates of time and space, and all the usual connectives between these filmic realms, are freely, lyrically distorted in the rigorous montage plan of Thread of Voice. Physical gestures begin in semi-darkness, get carried on by another body in another place. The film constantly displaces itself from one register to another: direct filming, varieties of refilming, animation. A marvellous sequence, anchored in an aural performance of a blackly comic and unnerving piece about a violent domestic argument, visually weaves together ciphers, actions and motifs from right across the film. Silhouettes lumber and fly behind screens, a dream of silent cinema that recalls the shows of the Even Orchestra, or the childish pantomime of Wenders' buddy-heroes in Kings of the Road (1976). Words and drawings, forever cancelled, restarted and superimposed, hurl past frame by frame. Previously seen images of the performers are retrieved, slowed down, frozen, caught mid-production of some strange utterance or gesture. At one point the thread of voice seems to allow the sympathetic transformation of this Australian ensemble into another, the Konkrete Kanticle based in England (whose leader, Bob Cobbing, died late 2002).

Arf Arf refer to their sound pieces as songs, which surely makes Thread of Voice some kind of mutant musical. Their entire fugitive oeuvre, down this past decade, is difficult to place in an Australian context. The exploration of body and voice that goes on here, the haphazard constructions of multimedia assemblages, the merry deconstructions of sound, meaning and narrative draw their inspiration from some other bundle of influences and traditions than the ones we are normally used to recognising and citing in local performance art.

There are traces of art brut, arte povera, Grotowski's "poor theatre", Artaud ... and also the chiselling practices of the Letterists, plus Gianfranco Baruchello's visionary uptake on the legacy of Marcel Duchamp. (2) But, ultimately, a kind of hushed secrecy is the watchword of Arf Arf's art. If there is a complex archaeology of influences in their pieces – across all the media they work in – it is a mangled, shattered, thoroughly transformed lineage. There is an extreme Symbolist legacy in their work, as in the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage or any number of the dense, allusive, little known poets they so admire: the source of a piece has been lost or disguised beyond recognition, the key for its decoding has been buried, the "score" they use is a dizzying, compacted mass of lines, dots, letters and markings.

"We do not concentrate on any one medium as we are specifically interested in how a particular medium can be transported into another one." Arf Arf has always been interested in strange, cryptic, almost fantastic correspondences and exchanges between different art forms and media. Its members speak of certain exemplary works – Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and Aki Kaurismaki's La Vie de Bohème (1992) – as "literary films", not because they are actual adaptations, but because, in some fleeting frame or ambient texture, they concentrate the essence of a novel by Balzac or a poem by Robert Desnos. Just as easily, they talk of carrying on their film-work directly in some other medium: a painting, for instance, or a sound-piece.

The principal members of Arf Arf are Marcus Bergner, Michael Buckley, Marisa Stirpe and Frank Lovece. Between them, individually and collectively, they have worked in everything from post-punk music (the music of Melbourne's "little bands" era so inadequately mythologised in the film Dogs in Space [1987]) to CD-ROM, via all the visual and literary arts. They often draw upon the contributions of other collaborators who are poets, filmmakers, actors or musicians, including the fiercely chiselling artist Richard Frenken.

As an ensemble, Arf Arf bears out an old motto of Philip Brophy's – that it is better to have not artistic intention, just artistic tension. All the key members have different styles, approaches and strengths. Bergner's forte is his experimental animation – drawing and writing on film, and the like – and his radical approach to artistic collage (both evident in his masterly film Tales From Vienna Hoods [1987]). Lovece has a very distinctive, quite lyrical and aleatoric way of working with bodies, gestures and voices (as in his Te Possino Ammazza [1987]). Buckley's strength is in the poetic ordering of diverse materials in montage; his work is multi-layered, juggling anarchy and control (as in his excellent shorts of the early '90s, Witness and Forever Young). And, as one of the best songs in Thread of Voice memorably shows, Stirpe is a remarkable performer capable of amazing vocal gymnastics.

Arf Arf is a performance group who, it might be said, do not communicate easily. But on the other hand, there is an utter simplicity, directness and transparency about what they offer. In their sound pieces, words appear from random noises, are momentarily played with, and then disappear back into a sound-mass. They navigate a path through nonsense and absurdism, but what they do is reducible neither to Dada nor The Goons. Nor is it much of a theatrical spectacle: very drawn to an absence of slickness and the pleasures of what they call an "incidental" art, Arf Arf do their shows uncostumed, without fast or tricky transitions from one piece to another. They take their sweet time doing what they do, and they count on the audience's good will to do so. You see clearly all the moments of randomness and improvisation that go into their pieces; they hide nothing. When they use "props" or items of technology, these are deliberately primitive, clunky, exposed: bits of wood, transistor radios, sometimes a 16mm projector projecting diverse kinds of visual material as prompt, backdrop, poetic echo, or musical "score".

The artistic work of Arf Arf, across all the media they use, is vivid, kinetic, involving, very humorous, full of the rawness and randomness and mysteriousness of life. It is an extremely heterogeneous art, clashing different styles, timbres, textures. It is sophisticated, deeply considered, and also spontaneous and immediate in its poetic and emotional effects. It's full of almost violent juxtapositions and gear shifts – as well as sudden, lyrical passages of calm, poetic grace. Australia has produced few bodies of artistic work this captivating or internationally significant.

© Adrian Martin May 1994


1. See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Straub & Huillet’s Écrits (2012), link here. back

2. See Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin, Why Duchamp: An Essay on Aesthetic Impact (McPherson, 1985) back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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