Field Theory are making some of Australia’s most important new work, and MASS: Site is Set was no exception. At once an occupation, a reinterpretation and an exaltation of the iconic speedway by the freeway, MASS brought together dozens of carloads of artlovers for an intimate dusk experience of heightened perception: across this place, across the outer suburbs to the city, across the choking weight of every metre of highway that has brought us all here, and indeed, across all space and time to this environmental moment.
There’s been an unexpected preoccupation with the car as cultural object this year. SAM’s Dream Machines presented some stunning design insights into the great American car, in partnership with the Shepparton Motor Museum and alongside a motor show. Also held earlier this year, the NGV’s Shifting Gear presented an exhibition on design, innovation and the Australian car. Controversially, this exhibition displaced Indigenous works from the NGV’s highly visible ground floor exhibition area, while by contrast, MASS began with an acknowledgement of country and smoking that located us unmistakably on Wutherong country. Quite distinct from a focus on the car, MASS invited us to focus on our bodies transported there by hard metal shells on heavily tarred roads.
Directed by Zoe Scoglio and led by the entire Field Theory collaboration, it was a structured mass we observed together, composed of: The Gathering; Entry Procession; The Hearing; The Ascent; The Descent; The Sacrament; The Dismissal; Exit Procession. We drove our cars with admirable discipline given where we were. We formed circles and lines with our cars and with our bodies. We walked together, listened, watched, found ourselves noticing new things. At the top of the mound we peered into the raceway with a headphoned soundtrack of absent racing, the seating below our feet overgrown by aggressive weeds while the road itself was clean. Who races here? Who watches? What constitutes the spectacle? Behind us one was forming just for us, and as we turned we saw five cars moving with choreographed care across the roughly turfed space below, culminating in an almighty earthy burnout. Every single one of us had been hanging out for an experience of car power; every single one of us had had to shake the desire to race our own cars around the raceway, do our own burnout, see what these machines can do. It’s a desire engineered by advertising, popular culture and the sheer power of the excess energy sitting under our bonnets. (My own car, the Regional Arts Victoria Subaru XV in orange, is built for endurance – and always ready for speed. Given my formative driving experiences were with Valiants, Toranas and a range of modified GTs, I have had to learn some restraint. It’s a work in progress.)
To trade places and prepare for The Descent, high up on this fabricated mound at the periphery of the Calder Park Thunderdome, our LED-baton-carrying leaders wordlessly led us in a head-on collision with one another. We charged forward fast, furiously avoiding one another as our eyes struggled to make out the shapes of moving bodies against the glare of the oncoming lights.
My favourite moment had been during The Ascent. In two groups we walked upwards, the spectacle of the vast raceway space taking shape beyond mere horizon glimmer the higher we climbed. At one point we were gestured to stop and face one another: two large groups of people having arranged ourselves into a line of bodies separated by a motorcross playground resembling a distant dark valley. As we looked across at one another, we were struck by the darkening forms of our bodies against the last brilliant rays of evening light, drawing our gaze upwards – only to be overwhelmed all of a sudden by the two oversized towers of steel that carry electricity into the city: an engineered mass of angles and parallel lines, beneath which our two lines formed a critical mass of focus, framed at incredibly large scale. The memorable poetry of The Hearing had prepared us well for the shifts in perspective we were about to experience, but this moment seized me, and I still have a vision of two continuous friezes of bodies silhouetted against towering frames of immeasurable electrical power.
The Sacrament saw us all gathered in rapidly misshaping circular configurations around and around the burnout ute, treading with our feet faster and faster into the dirt lines only just made by its tyres, and then emanating out again and back into our own cars to prepare for The Dismissal.
As political approaches to environmental catastrophe continue to disappoint, artistic responses to our edge conditions will rise in urgency. The outer suburban region, with its disempowered access to essential services and its overwhelming reliance on the car, will continue to tear up the landscape for the requirements of the car over the community. MASS offered us an evening’s communion at the edge of the city at the place where the car fantasy lives largest. As we hurtled back into the city at a hundred kilometres an hour, the full moon revealed itself for the first time: a massive circle of impossibly glorious light, now hiding behind a cloud, now swept across to the other side of the road, now gazing downwards in benign judgement.
MASS: Site is Set
Sunday 30 August 2015 at Calder Park Raceway
A new work by Zoe Scoglio made in collaboration with Marco Cher-Gibard (Sound); Katie Sfetkidis (Light); Jason Maling & Martyn Coutts (Dramaturgs and producers, Field Theory); Nick Coulson (Production Manager); Debris Facility and Crystal Diamond (Reflective Wearable Objects); Gene Hedley (Crew); Anna Schoo (Producer).
IMAGE: The Dismissal. Following a precision-engineered circle formation of every car on site, we got back into our cars to hear the final word. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.