Two years ago, Melbourne Fringe commissioned the internationally acclaimed Australian artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey to create a work that would offer a playful way of grappling with today’s fragile democracy. What does the future hold for our public spaces when those in power seem hell bent on inflaming divisions rather than fostering confident, diverse communities? How can we make sure that the tensions emerging from cultural difference become constructive rather than remaining insecure, hateful and damaging? How do we find that balance?
Pivot is a field of boldly coloured seesaws that welcome you to stop and play – and then ask you to think deeply about the commitments you make every day to create this complex world of ours. Presented at both Federation Square and Chapel Off Chapel, Pivot invites you to slow down and take time. A generic female operating system voice – think Her or Siri – coaxes you into being calmly and happily honest about the life you’re leading, the decisions you’ve made, the reflections you can’t avoid. All the while, you’re gliding up and down with glee, either with someone you know or with a perfect stranger, making and re-making that balance together.
It’s a deeply ethical project that’s characteristic of Madeleine & Tim’s approach of rigour and care. Also characteristic of their approach is the confident balance between the high-tech and the low-fi, presenting a sophisticated semi-intelligent technology in the guise of the analog – the analog as non-digital, but also, as analogy to the familiar and the known. The texts they have chosen, adapted and written for Pivot touch us deeply.
The experience of riding the seesaw is one of sheer joy: your body, caught in that deliciously gentle rhythm of flight, is nurtured into open curiosity by a voice responding to the exclamations or thoughtful questions that enter your mind during play. Everything you say is captured, responded to by the embedded intelligence, and then recorded at pivot.centre as a people’s Hansard.
“The text you see in the coloured sections above is a live stream of what each seesaw is hearing and saying right now,” says the helpful website text. “If you read something unsavoury, we’re sorry, but hey, that’s humanity for you.”
Speaking at Chapel Off Chapel on Pivot’s closing day, Madeleine contrasts the FedSq experience of 15,000 people per day just passing through, experiencing Pivot perhaps primarily as giant sculptural installation rather than taking the time to engage. At Chapel Off Chapel’s expansive forecourt, on the other hand, there is careful consideration and less reluctance, with families from the social housing towers coming over from across the street to enjoy the public space as well as the chance to play.
“Given that seesaws have disappeared due to OH&S from pretty well the entire Australian landscape,” Tim reflects, “an artwork seesaw is possibly the only place you’ll ever see a seesaw anymore.” It’s a sad indicator of the sledgehammer approach to managing risks in public spaces that play is being lost – both as an experience and as a virtue.
Balancing play and risk is crucial to good physical and mental health, as well as the health of our communities and our democracy. While the Pivot seesaws are super-strong powder-coated steel structures, their welcoming form attracts you from afar; at rest, they sit in the landscape like giant anchors mooring the public space safely for us all, while in motion, they appeal to our sense of curiosity and adventure, and very quickly you long to join in.
The word “pivot” has become management- or politico-speak for the ability to shift your perspective while holding the same position, reorienting your thinking towards a new direction. Like any such word – think “innovation”, “agility”, or “there’s never been a more exciting time” – as soon as this association happens, it quickly empties of its meaning. When a dancer pivots with powerful elegance, we find ourselves in awe, astounded that such a graceful manoeuvre was possible from a centre of gravity we couldn’t imagine finding within our own bodies. The centre shifts as the balance is discovered, whether the performer is dancing alone or with another, and when dancing as a pair, the balance suddenly appears to us to be shared between the bodies, as though a new configuration of being were possible for precisely that one moment. It’s breathtaking.
This is the great strength of Pivot: at one and the same time, making it possible for us to question both our own sense of balance, and that of our entire democracy. When things seem perilously unstable, sometimes the best thing we can do is to devote our time, attention and care to the immediate and the local. Only then can we build the resilience to take on the world.
Pivot was presented as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 14-29 September 2017. Photographs by Esther Anatolitis and Tim Humphrey.