We should be used to arts events being cancelled by now, but in Melbourne it still stings | Festivals

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It’s quiet. More quiet than you’d expect from the Melbourne CBD just after 5pm. Occasionally there’s the sounds of birds and at one point I hear children laughing and playing. I think, fleetingly, I can hear the water of the Yarra River gently rippling, but it’s probably just my mind filling in the sounds it expects. Then, suddenly, a voice rings out clear and haunting – and even though it’s starting exactly on time it comes as a shock.

For a moment I am completely immersed; in the music, in watching the water gently move in the breeze, in seeing the sky slowly darken. But then the camera pans, ever so slightly, to get a better shot, and my attention is once again brought back to the computer screen, the split between the view of the Yarra, and the accompanying window showing me the ebb and flow of people logging on to the Instagram stream.

This is The Rivers Sing, a commissioned audio work created for Rising festival. It was composed by Yorta Yorta/Yuin opera singer Deborah Cheetham, with artists Thomas Supple and Byron J Scullin, blending echoes of the natural world with myriad human voices. Over the course of two months the work has made its way along the Birrarung and Maribyrnong rivers, the sounds and music evolving and changing across its journey. It started off at Tarrawarra in March, then moved through points including Mount Lofty, Abbotsford, and Footscray, until it reached its final spot in the CBD.

It’s one of the few remnants of Rising festival to have made it through Melbourne’s unexpected fourth Covid-19 lockdown, comparatively unscathed. It seems ridiculous, but it never once occurred to me that Rising wouldn’t go ahead. It had already been delayed by a year, and re-planned meticulously with the pandemic in mind. Outdoor events. Social distancing factored in. When I tentatively started venturing back into the city this year, one of the things I noticed were the splashes of blue on different buildings showing that it was going to be a Rising venue.

Two days before Melbourne’s most recent lockdown set in, I was making my way through the Flinders Street ballroom for a preview of Patricia Piccinini’s new show. Everyone was in masks and carefully spread out, but it felt, for the first time, as I moved between mirrors and sculptures and past the weathered walls of a long-hidden building, like things were on their way back to normal. Twelve days of what promised to be a truly spectacular festival of theatre and light and interactive art stretched out in front of us. We only got one, then the first round of lockdown was announced.

The Rivers Sing was originally set to have two performances a day: one at sunrise and one at sunset. In the evening, it was accompanied by the light of Wandering Stars, a gigantic eel sculpture made out of lanterns stretched across the Yarra. When lockdown was announced, the morning performances were cut. However, for those within 5km – and, as of Friday, 10km – they could still visit the site during their two hours of exercise, and hear the sound in the environment it was designed for.

Images of Melbourne’s Yarra River waterfront for the Rising audio work, The Rivers Sing.
The Rivers Sing was originally set to have two performances a day: one at sunrise and one at sunset. Photograph: Thomas Supple

I am fed up with screens. I am exhausted by the barrage of sadness and bad news that peppers the infinite scroll of social media every time I open my phone. I am tired of living my life through lenses. But I am also grateful because screens offer connections where there otherwise would be none. Sometimes these connections are a pale imitation of what real life can offer, but a slice is better than none at all. And sometimes they offer something that would otherwise not be possible.

All week I have been hearing snippets of The Rivers Sing through screens and other people’s cameras as friends share their experience of the work. I’ve seen it from different sides of the river. From different vantage points. I’ve heard different parts of the soundscape; I’ve had the experience filtered through the eyes of loved ones and acquaintances, their opinions, their choice of framing, their location, shaping my experience of the work. I love this, in its own way.

Until they finish up on Sunday, every night at 5.15pm on The Rivers Sing’s official Instagram page they are livestreaming the performance. It’s both beautiful and sad to experience, in real time, what is happening in a place far away – to be there, but not be there.

The emotion of the work comes through even at a remove, though I know it is not the same feeling I would have standing on a bridge overlooking the river. Over the 10 minutes of the performance, the right-hand side of my screen fills with comments and emojis and I am conscious that it is a look into the minds of those experiencing the same thing that I am, something that I wouldn’t get in person. A screen is not the same and a livestream is a different experience, but it does offer a connection to other viewers, to strangers, that would be impossible in a physical space.

Experiencing The Rivers Sing through my computer is a darkened joy; a beautiful remnant offering a glimpse into a bigger celebration of art that was snatched away.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: We should be used to arts events being cancelled by now, but in Melbourne it still stings | Festivals

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