Performances at Auckland Zoo are part of its marketing engine, A strategy to maintain or boost numbers - not so much bums on searts but eyes on animals. Usually performances are by musicians playing in publicly user friendly zones of the zoo. However the marketing dept at Auckland Zoo have taken a big risk with a very subversive event. Amsterdam based De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank (translation - The Last Bank Work Group) have created something of a performance art coup. Paying homage to and going way beyond Janice Claxtons 'Enclosure 44 - Humans at Edinburgh Zoo' this 48 hour long installation not only evicted the divisions between animal and human, it also slammed culture and species together with head fucking simplicity.
De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank is a seven strong group of performers headed by couple / co - directors Femke Bathhuis and Matz Van Doorn. This is a collective of independent artists, a format typical of the networks of European artists that have functioned quite happily outside of the antiquated 'company' model for some time now. This particular constellation seems to have referenced the 90's European dance movement which itself strongly referenced Judson Church. The Judson artists deployed pedestrian movement and heavily deconstructive conceptual frameworks to depart from previous era's of dance. However this group has stayed true to two movement languages that emerged from that time: Contact Improvisation and pedestrian gesture. Those two movement languages were used to construct a vocabulary that connoted a dying culture and species. Although a decidedly conventional movement pallet, it was deployed with devastating effectiveness.
Van Doorn and Batthuis have created a kind of cultural anti-statement in response to the age of spectacle. Known around Europe for their politically subversive performances, De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank's new work is an event that is almost too good to be true. Reminiscent of shop front window performances where the performers would live on display for twenty four hours a day, this group have taken that format a step and a half further. Housing themselves in an enclosure called Giraffe Valley at the Auckland Zoo, the colony of seven humans cohabited an enclosure with relatively benign zebras, giraffes, and ostriches.
The dancers looked both terrifyingly vulnerable and at the same time discomfortingly 'normal'. They also accomplished a deeply natural sense of disinterest in their surroundings which made their integration into the enclosure almost seamless. Miraculously the animals reciprocate this disinterest and were not intimidated by the presence of the colony in the slightest. They simply wandered around, ate, and did their thing as did the dancers. There were no predators, bar the audience.
Over the course of a day the dancer's employed an improvisational loop structure that allowed them to navigate a consistent world of material via endless theme and variation. Familiar activities such as gathering and preparing food, sheltering in bivouacs, and walking in meandering choreographic patterns, were blended with contact duets, trios, and even a group unison phrase that consisted entirely of everyday gestures. The members of the group interacted only with each other, never with the animals, and never with the audience. The shifting and confused crowd of onlookers were largely disregarded - eye contact between performer and audience was incidental, even accidental. Occasionally the dancers spoke to each other but it wasn't really possible to discern what they were saying, or even if what they were speaking was a made up language.
Within this terrain there were elements that seemed so natural that they were easy to overlook. The most obvious being that the performers were naked. To a seasoned punter nudity is de rigeuer, to be expected. However in this situation the placement of naked humans in an animal enclosure desexualised them, turning the performers into a crude cultural artefact. This played havoc with deeply entrenched notions of packageable entertainement housed in comfortable environs. 'Pro - Man Renaissance' not only subverted the tedium of spectacle that saturates performance across most media, it also reframed human beings as an endangered species to be ogled for entertainment and consumption.
This work was an outrageous social experiment. But polarising the ourageousness was the 'typical' New Zealand muted emotional response. I didn't see parents pulling their children away, rather most adults were either ignoring the performance outright, or just pretending to look at the animals in the enclosure. The strongest reactions were ones of faint embarrassment or discomfort as if some reality tv cameras were present. Which they weren't.
Call me cynical but I wasn't surprised by this. I was however deeply impressed with the multilayered audacity of the event. I had one question as I moved on to see the kiwi's in their little night house enclosure; if on the one hand a zoo is a place where humans view animals, and a 'zoo' is a metaphor for a place where chaos and unrestrained behaviour takes place; how can an audience remain so complacent or even just socially awkward in the face of imagery that is so spectacularly ironic, confronting, and profoundly questioning? Oh well, I soon lost track of that thought as soon as I saw the ocelots, my oh my they were just too adorable!