Tiny conversations: points of exchange at Tiny Fest 2021

Erin Harrington recaps three discussion-based events at movement arts festival Tiny Fest, which ran from Friday 26 – Saturday 28 November 2021 at Little Andromeda and the Christchurch Town Hall.

Tiny Fest in 2021 isn’t really that tiny. The 2019 festival, presented by Movement Art Practice, took place over a single day, starting early and finishing late into the night, in COCA (the Centre for Contemporary Art), with performances, installations, sessions taking place in various spots around the complex, sometimes simultaneously. This year’s event has expanded significantly. Even with the loss of a few works, due to the Tāmaki Makaurau lockdown, the schedule was jammed: a keynote at Little Andromeda on the Friday night, then 21 shows – dance, theatre, music, performance art, video work, durational performance, all of the above – featuring dozens of performers over two days, from 10am until late, plus a panel and an open discussion. Tiny compared to a full scale arts festival, maybe, but wearing big boots.

It’s apparent in this iteration that the ‘tiny’ aspect is as much about a sense of intimacy as its duration, about the literal and figurative gaps between performers and audiences as they sit side by side, face to face. The performance venue, the Christchurch Town Hal’s beautiful, high ceilinged Ron Ball Studio (which acts as the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s researsal venue), is a space with a dual sense of closeness and scale, tucked within a much bigger building with its own imposing sense of identity. An adjacent function space, the Victoria Room, is converted into a dim, welcoming and spacious festival lounge. It’s great for debriefing, running into people, sitting quietly. There’s exchange between the two spaces – it’s one of the nicer experiences I’ve had mooching about between shows at a festival –  but also a broader sense of exchange that permeates the events.

In her opening remarks in the verdant co-working space understorey [tuarua] on Friday night, festival director Julia Harvie describes dance, beautifully, as a form of research: of discussion, exploration, and the testing and articulation of ideas. The festival is made up of such tiny conversations, formal and organic.

Others will and are responding to the works elsewhere – not least through the festival’s use of ‘responders’, who create predominantly visual arts work in real-time, or post-show, indicating that the nominal boundaries of creative works are really more points of exchange and creation. Last festival these were very varied in form and medium: paintings and drawings, but also poetry and textile art. Three more deliberately conversational events map out the festival’s interests in developing audiences, performers and work, while acknowledging the structures and relationships that shape this growth, for good or ill.

***

Penelakeke Brown’s keynote – which you can watch in full here – is framed as a reflection on the tiny tranformations that have occured in the last two years, disruptive COVID time, since she was forced back home from overseas. Brown is a disabled, queer, interdisciplinary Pasifika artist whose practice draws connections between disabled cultural concepts and Samoan ones. She beams in from Auckland and I love her energy: she’s warm, wry, expressive. I want more than half an hour.

Brown is an excellent storyteller. She offers reflections on how her relationship with her identity and body has been shaped by her extended time in New York City, navigating systems, getting lost, and embracing the way the city’s anonymity absorbs and allows for a multiplicity of identities. Her reflections on immigration and migrant identities respond to the American and New Zealand political contexts, in which terms like ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’ sit in a racialised hierarchy. She describes, powerfully, reading her own medical files for the first time, which offer unexpected stories of her parents’ experience with immigration. She also brings us back to the body, as she describes interrogating the physical act of writing as movement as dance, and centralises the experience of crip time, care and collective work a way of highlighting the normative ways work and residencies (and festivals) are often framed.  

Brown wraps up with no call to action, no inspiration, but some tiny bits of advice. Ask for and share stories with friends. Bring your anecdotes into the archive. Pair stories with work. Talk about pay more: ask your able-bodied / white / male / more culturally privileged friends about your rates (then revise them). Recognise that tiny moments are just as impactful as big shifts. “If you need a sign”, she says, “I will be that sign for you, right now”.

***

The next day, multi-disciplinary storyteller Juanita Hepi chairs a panel on intersectional performance in Aotearoa featuring taonga pūoro legend Mahina-Ina Kingi Kaui, singer-songwriter Byllie-Jean Zeta, and poet / playwright Nathan Joe, who had opened the festival a few hours prior. Although she sets up ‘intersectionality’, reminding us of the term’s origins in a legal context (frequently forgotten) as a way of thinking about the intertwined gendered and racial violence experienced by African American women  – and the fact that it’s not about playing a game of identity bingo or oppression top trumps – the panel itself isn’t structured along a rigorous exploration of the concept. This is great; it allows the artists to speak for themselves from their experience and practice, and in doing so address the provocation in their own way, illustrating complex systemic and structural issues, rather than moving through a checklist of ticky box issues. It’s important that Hepi reads out each panelist’s extensive and deeply impressive bios: “we’re centring the artist and the mahi”.

The conversations are wide-ranging, critical, ranging from the powerful ways we inherit knowledge to the fraught nature of lumping ‘other’ identities together (such as in the designation BIPOC), which asks uncomfortable questions about the line between representation and tokenism.  A key theme emerges: the tension between one’s art and values, and way art is framed as commodity, or product, or output, in a deeply unequal social field where everything is about KPIs and filling out forms. When you’re the one doing something for the first time there’s no model, and funding schemes often reiterate classist structures and access issues through their application processes. As Zeta notes, colonisation has always been about the division of resources, about capital; this corrodes art and art making. We need less capital and more relationships.

It’s a rich and rewarding panel; the panellists are generous with their stories and expertise. Kaui plays for us, introduces us to her instruments, talks about the music in all things – folk clubs, singing at the sink, the thump and hiss of the factory floor. Zeta shares her preference for ‘whakapapa’ over ‘intersectionality’, pointing to the braided overlap inherent in raranga, and describes how it can be a model for composition. I’m moved by Joe’s account of his earlier plays, in which he tried to position himself as a ‘neutral body writer’ engaging with the Western canon, an act of erasing his identity as an Asian New Zealander so he would not be pigeonholed as an Asian writer, and how he has swung back and forward on his engagement with his identity in his later work. A key takeaway is that if we are thinking about centre and periphery, being in the centre is a boring space where you miss out and where you never have to relate to anything. Instead, it’s important to be good leaders, and keep doors open. And as Hepi says near the end – “when can we just talk about our fucking art!”

***

The Mother in Arts open discussion on Sunday has been prompted by the significant numbers of parents making work in the festival, but as facilitator Julia Harvie (a mum of two) notes, while the panel is about parents in general, the ‘missing in action’ implicit in MIA describes the “overarching scenario”. Harvie introduces the session by talking about how motherhood and her work have informed one another, and shares journal entries she has written to herself and her children; it’s generous and vulnerable, aspirational and messy. A key prompt, though, is a rather pointed letter her daughter had written to her a few days prior, here shared with permission:

Ouch.

The session runs as an interview relay, an exercise where someone asks an interviewee a question and cannot respond, interrupt or ask anything further (although this rule gets bent a little), before sitting in the hot seat to be questioned by someone else. It’s a great format that prompts spontaneity, discomfort, and candour, especially in a room where lots of people don’t know one another.

I am not sure that those who shared their stories would be entirely comfortable with their answers being repeated verbatim, but the questions indicate the direct nature of the session, which bounced between tearful stories (happy and raw), radical honesty, and fascinating diversions. What are people’s experiences of being mums (and not-mums) in the arts? Who are our ‘art mamas’? What support systems allow people the space and time to create work? How do children perceive of what parents do? Why did people choose to have kids? Why do women apologise about themselves and their work so much? When your work potentially exposes your subjects, how do you protect them? When you help others to develop their voices, do you need to use yours less? What’s your work about? What brought you to the session? What’s your relationship with your own mother?

It’s a source of mirth that Nathan Joe, the first male participant, is the last person up and gets the last word – “I didn’t intend this!” But these organic prompts and tiny conversations, which prompt some pretty extensive and in some cases heavy conversations afterwards, are a gorgeous and open-hearted way of embodying the festival’s interest in foregrounding exchange, in myriad forms, as a vital component of art, art-making, and living as an artist.

Tiny Fest ran from 26 – 28 November 2021. Livestreamed shows can be watched (or rewatched) on demand until December 14; tickets are available here.

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