Fluid States Pasifika: Spacing Events through an Entangled Oceanic Dramaturgy

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Hannah, Dorita. “Fluid States Pasifika: Spacing Events through an Entangled Oceanic Dramaturgy.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv1n1a4

Dorita Hannah

University of Tasmania, Australia; Aalto University, Finland


In their individual journeys into the Void [. . .] artists, through their work, are explaining us to ourselves and creating a new Oceania. (Wendt “Towards a New Oceania” 60)

But one can say that there is no space, there are spaces. Space is not one, but space is plural, a plurality, a heterogeneity, a difference. That would also make us look at spacing differently. We would not be looking for one. (Libeskind 86)

Fluid States Pasifika addresses the role played in PSi’s 2015 Fluid States project by the Pacific region: a vast and generally disregarded oceanic territory that has radically transformed over the last 250 years through colonial encounter, settler culture, militarization, migrations, global capitalism, and climate change. “As a liquid continent, the region tends to image itself through the ocean, te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa: a connective space of currents, vortices, drifts, suspensions, sediments, tides, foams, and flows that resists fixity; performing in-flux” (Hannah et al. 90). Representing a fluid, enmeshed, and immersive dramaturgical condition, its Moana/Ocean culture complicates the recent emphasis on a performative interweave with that of fluctuating entanglement just above and below an unpredictable atomized surface.

In order to consider an oceanic dramaturgy, this article focuses principally on one of Fluid States’ fifteen events — staged over three days on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (July 8-11) — which I co-directed with Māori architect, Amanda Monehu Yates, and Rarotongan-based Cook Island artist, Ani O’Neill, who played the critical role of “event navigator.” Under the rubric of the 2015 Oceanic Performance Biennial (OPB), Sea-Change: Performing a Liquid Continent engaged with both sea and land as a contiguous “performative site and complex changing ecology through events, installations, film, panels, and papers, which addressed the ecological, sociocultural, and geopolitical nature of the Pacific as a region within the global imaginary and a contemporary site of change” (Hannah et al. 90).

While Sea-Change constitutes a focal knot that unravels throughout this paper, oceanic spacing is also established as a loose concept-in-formation via the macro-event of Fluid States, which I co-curated, as well as the Pasifika[1] micro-events in which I was creatively and collaboratively involved: including the first Oceanic Performance Biennial, Isle&, which established the Pacific as a PSi regional research cluster, and Tuna Mau, the performance walk it commissioned (Auckland, 2013); the breakwater installation, Aramoana: Sea-Path, that inaugurated the project in the Zooming Fluid States Festival (Rijeka, 2014); and Island Bride, a spectral and multifarious figure in Sea-Change who formed a critical trope and vessel of transfer between the Cook Islands event and its Pacific successor, Japan, as AnthropoScenic Bride (Tohoku, 2015).

Taking the Pacific Island region as the heart of borderless Oceania[2], this article establishes its influence, as a “liquid continent,” on the conception of PSi’s Fluid States project; leading to the proposition of “oceanic” spacing — relating to both ocean and Oceania, — in which we find ourselves, productively, “all at sea.”

At Sea

People think that we are separated by the sea. You could say that’s true, but it’s also false. People have always used the sea to communicate with each other [. . .] The ocean is the link [. . .] The Pacific is our “liquid continent.” We are larger than all the earth’s land masses put together. (Pihaatae qtd. in Hamlyn 2011)[3]

While the term “at sea” connotes a state of disorientation through loss of bearings, Sam Trubridge points out that being “within a fluid, unfixed, or liquid condition” involves submission to the sea’s unsolved mysteries, dark secrets and fluctuating possibilities (6). As one of nature’s most terrifying objects, the sea tends to sublimity in Western thought — evoking both dread and awe through its unknowability. Yet this boundless, formless entity is more knowable to those Pacific peoples for whom it is, as Margaret Werry describes, “a dominant fact of life: constant threat and sustaining medium, geography, and genealogy” (91). As a web of undulating pathways, the Pacific Ocean has interconnected communities through a long history of ancient migrations and more contemporary diasporas.

Before colonial Europe developed instrumentation to negotiate the sublime sea, Pacific navigators have long steered their course via an intimate understanding of the currents, swells, stars, sun, moon, clouds, colourations, wave patterns, and movement of fishing birds. What they cannot see with their eyes they feel with their bodies, lying in the bottom of the canoe in order to sense the macro-vessel on which their micro-vessel journeys. This embodied means of “taking place” — as temporalized space — within an oceanic sublime, relates to what Tongan theorist, ‘Okusitina Māhina, names the “General Tā-Vā Theory of Reality” in which tā (time) and vā (space) are inherently bound to nature for Moana cultures as a spatiotemporal convergence of reality, order and conflict.[4] Tā-Vā — entwining time and space — resonates with Jacques Derrida’s notion of “Spacing [. . .] the production of a space that no speech could condense or comprehend” (237).. Through such a fluid “event of spacing” (Derrida “Point de Folie” 335) — in which space becomes time and time becomes space[5] — Pacific navigation is dependent on a symbiotic correlation between non-human and human: involving a perceptual re-construction of, and engagement with, the immediate environment as turbulent, unpredictable, and variable “bio-object,” a term coined by Tadeuz Kantor for that which produces a “tissue of action of a special kind” (133), imparting agency to the non-human. Navigating the biotic bio-object also relates to the choreographic notion of spacing as a means of registering and apprehending a plethora of changing relationships between bodies in motion and the places they occupy. Human body and non-human environment become necessarily enfolded in order for both to survive: a spatiotemporal and improvised negotiation through navigation.

Those “all at sea” need to acknowledge that, within the seeming endlessness of an interconnected hydrosphere — “a performing subject in its own right” (Trubridge 1) — lie many isles, indiscernible on the world atlas, which offer safe harbour and new encounters. This is most prevalent in the Pacific Ocean, too often bifurcated on the world map in order to centralise the major geopolitical regions defined through continental land masses. An immense body of water, larger than the earth’s combined land area, the Pacific forms a “liquid continent” (Pihaatae), dotted with nations made up of islands, reefs and atolls that present relatively stationary nodes (currently threatened) within the oceanic flux and flow of our climatically endangered planet.

Fluid States

You show me continents
I see the islands

It was this liquescent, rather than continental, condition that inspired the overarching 2015 Fluid States project: a yearlong, globally dispersed event conceived as a one-off alternative for PSi’s annual conference, which is invariably hosted by a large institution in a well-established global centre — the preceding events being accommodated in the Shanghai Theatre Academy following assemblies in Stanford, Leeds, Utrecht and Toronto Universities. Devised as an alternative to the familiar corporatized conventions that gather 500-700 delegates, the 2015 “experiment” proposed smaller gatherings in regions yet to develop or unable to host local Performance Studies communities. As one of the project’s initiating co-curators, I was interested in challenging the continental model, based on the terra firma of a centralized nation state, with a more oceanic paradigm that created a buoyant platform for ostensibly marginalized regions as a strategy for de-centring and re-centring on multiple peripheries. This allowed us to rethink the constructed world map with distributed zones of action linked through a transitional dramaturgy — a spacing proposition — of islands, docks and vessels. Each autonomous zone constituted an island with a themed program of activities unfolding specific to its own cultural environment. These regional island events were interconnected through the dock as a moment of encounter where the preceding event exchanged experiences by way of a vessel: conveyed via sea, air, radio waves or visiting bodies. The linking vessel — as performance, publication, video, object, installation etc. — enacted a connecting node between the chain of events: a strategic approach to Fluid States’ dramaturgy that was spatiotemporally condensed for Sea-Change. One could think of these interlocking moments of docking vessels as a relay between canoes or the creation of a lei/’ei (pacific garland) threaded with objects and, as body adornment, offered as a symbol of affection and hospitality upon arrival and departure.

Such temporal performative objects of scented flowers — redolent with making and meaning — were presented as ‘ei kaki (head garlands) to the international participants, locals, and visitors who gathered outside the University of South Pacific (USP) in Rarotonga’s Avarua township on the first morning of Sea-Change, as they readied themselves for three days of discursive, performative events. Waiting to be formally greeted and led inside for the welcome ceremony, guests were mindful of wearing what host O’Neill describes as “a live, fresh essence of our island [. . .] made with love,” while cognisant they would eventually lose perfume and freshness, exemplifying the ephemeral and unrepeatable qualities of performance.

Before outlining the specific event dramaturgy that unravelled across the island of Rarotonga between the evenings of eighth and eleventh of July, 2017, I’d like to dwell a little longer in the oceanic currents that contributed to conceptually shaping the overall Fluid States project, generally, and the Sea-Change event, specifically. This also helped articulate a move towards proposing a fluidly complex event dramaturgy, which both confronts the prevalent notion of “interweaving performance cultures” proffered by Erika Fischer-Lichte and contemporary scholars in The Politics of Interweaving Performance Cultures: Beyond Postcolonialism. Like a lei washed up in the tide, the event’s threaded form — where a loosely linear experience is accompanied by unforeseen encroachments and simultaneous actions elsewhere — begins to tangle as it is borne about in the fluxes and flows of time, space, and matter.

Navigating Aquatopia

Despite the cyclones, tsunamis and other natural disasters, which are common in the Pacific, our ancestors never saw the ocean as a barrier. They never talked about being “vulnerable,” “isolated,” “remote”: our drua [outrigger canoes] — our ability to sail at will — meant we were always connected. We were not “small,” “island” or “developing” countries. We were — and still are — Large Ocean Communities. (Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce)

Fluid States was conceived as a spatially and temporally distributed project, by recognizing a continuous and encircling World Ocean over the terra firma nature of continents upon which territorial boundary lines can be arbitrarily inscribed and contested. The vast aquatic continuity of this briny body — conversely defined via landfall — is apportioned oceanic zones identified by the Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern Oceans as well as the smaller seas: all evading clear distinctions between climatic atmospheres, shifting shorelines, wayfaring currents, and abyssal depths. Utopian in its borderless unity — where, as “no-place,” it is everywhere and nowhere[6] — this interconnected reservoir is also dystopian in its unpredictability and ability to diminish land mass by spectacular and more subtly invasive means, particularly as climate change asserts a fateful presence.

Recognizing the age of the Anthropocene, we are aware of the sea’s capacity to transform the planet from seemingly stable entity to unstable action: exposing its inability to be controlled as well as contaminating attributes that seep, flood, submerge, saturate, leak, deform, corrode, surge, and erupt; indexing what Julia Kristeva calls the “fluid states of structures” (16) that are political, social, cultural, psychological, and physical. Asserting paradoxical conditions of in-betweenness, this immense and unpredictable reservoir indicates “a non-respect of structure” (18). It is also home to seafaring craft, described by Michel Foucault as “the heterotopia par excellence” (356): navigating both the real and the mythological.[7] The canoe, in the case of Pacific space, has been voyaging long before the European ships of discovery to which the philosopher refers. As vaka/va’a/waka/wa’a (in Polynesian languages) the canoe is rendered that “floating part of space” (Foucault 356). Yet, far from Foucault’s “placeless place” (356) of plunder (epitomised by Captain Cook’s barque, the Endeavour), it is mobilized to bridge the multiple territorial nodes within the fluid continent. The canoe/vaka, as an abiotic bio-object, operates as island, dock, and vessel all in one fragile cultural construction, necessarily bound to the biotic bio-objects of sea and body: navigating the utopic, dystopic and heterotopic through aquatopic spacing: a fluid, yet arrhythmic, spatial negotiation that has been radically altered by climate change.

Ocean Is Us

Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding. Oceania is hospitable and generous. Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Ocean is us. We are the sea, we are the Ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth. (Hau’ofa 39)

Oceans in the end will control the destiny of humans, what are we doing to the big blue canoe? (Earle qtd. in Holman)

Diane Ackerman writes, “mainly saltwater, we carry the ocean inside us” (36). As the known universe limitlessly extends both within and outside our bodies — at micro and macro-scales — it tangs of salt. None know this better than the Pacific Voyagers — crew members of seven “vaka moana” (ocean canoes) built in 2010 — who come from Aotearoa/NZ (New Zealand), Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Hawai’i, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. By traversing great distances using ancient navigational traditions, the voyagers have reconnected with the biotic bio-object that is the ocean, aware more than ever how valuable and jeopardised it is. Their first yearlong voyage (2011-2012) — from Aotearoa/NZ, to Hawai’i, to San Francisco and back — became a mission to spread the message of ocean protection and make apparent that their homes are not on islands in a distant empty ocean but relationally housed in a “sea of islands” (Hau’ofa 39) under threat. This was conveyed by Māori navigator, Piripi Smith, at the Zooming Fluid States Festival in Rijeka where the yearlong project was launched along the port’s breakwater (September 2014). In a performance I co-directed, entitled Ara-Moana: Sea-Path,[8] Smith stands near the end of the breakwater’s long concrete arm in a shallow vessel of water surrounded by objects found onsite that, carefully arranged and lit by flaming torches, form a celestial navigational compass. Calling the gathered spectators with a traditional Māori flute, this Te Waka Te Matau a Maui[9] voyager describes a particular navigational knowing that avoids charts, instruments, and GPS. Articulating “waka time” as a sailing schedule determined by oceanic conditions, Smith rotates within the compass, gesturing to situate Croatia in relation to the Cook Islands where Sea-Change will be staged ten months later.

Renowned Pacific Island thinkers such as Papuan-born Tongan-Fijian anthropologist, Epeli Hauʻofa, and New Zealand-based Samoan poet, Albert Wendt have referred to the “sea of islands” (Hau’ofa) and a “new oceania” (Wendt) in which the ocean itself — acknowledged as the big blue canoe — is a coalescing vessel traversed by many smaller vessels. In Cook Island Māori, vaka/Vaka means both canoe (vaka) and tribal district (Vaka): a receptacle for identity within an oceanic state of many island states.[10] This identity is both ancestral land on the island of origin as well as the carrier connecting the vast constellation within which it is located. Wendt has referred to “scholar-shippers” — those crossing the region to gain new knowledge — and Cook Islander Marjorie Crocombe, who set up intra-cultural Mana Magazine in the 1970s, hailed contemporary Pacific artists developing art forms that were unique to their islands: “the canoe is afloat [. . . with] rich cargoes of individual talent” (1974 np).[11] While many islanders have been supported to study at Universities in Australia, Aoteaora/NZ, Fiji and Hawai’i, the Pacific Voyagers — gaining embodied and traditional knowledge from Master Navigators — are perhaps the truest scholar-shippers as they relearn and reinforce the art of navigation in order to know the world better; bringing together ancient past, troubled present and the hope of a more enlightened future.

In relation to the previous mention of Tā-Vā as a time-space construction, artists and navigators are bound through the Pan-Pacific spatial notion of vā (or wā) — the space between — as a siteless site of mobility; moving within, across and in opposition. Rather than a site of emptiness, its interstitiality is one of identity through connectedness. Describing vā as a social rather than territorial concept, Samoan scholar, Sa‘iliemanu Lilomaiava, maintains it resists binary construction, operating “beyond the geographic boundaries of nation-states or the dichotomies of origin/destination, rural/urban, core/ periphery, and local/global” (“Beyond Migration” 22-23). Wendt asserts its criticality “in communal cultures that value group unity more than individualism, that perceive the individual person, or creature, or things in terms of group, in terms of vā, relationships” (1999 402). Such a concept was crucial to the first Oceanic Performance Biennial themed around “perform_pacific_ecologies” and titled, Isle&.


Vā is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates, but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things. The meanings change as the relationships and the contexts change. (Wendt “Tatauing the Postcolonial Body” 402)

The Oceanic Performance Biennial (OPB) was set up in 2013 and led by Yates as an emergent platform to acknowledge the exponential development of this transoceanic imagination and to engage in contemporary critiques and re-imaginings of the region through performance as “a multi-modal tool that attracts, connects and communicates in playful or affective ways to publicly foreground pressing ecological issues.”[12] This event established the Pacific as a regional cluster within PSi, with the inaugural event in Auckland, Aotearoa/NZ, which was titled Isle&. Focusing on the constellation of Pacific Islands as sites of exchange and connection, the aim was to challenge the West’s structuring binaries — represented by this or that, islands or sea — which tend to determine islands as isolates: sites of exile that are estranged by the ocean. Instead Pacific thought was foregrounded as more relational, where islands and sea are interrelated entities that form both a nodal network and space of interstitial flows. Islands can therefore be understood as additive, engaged, and interactive conditions through an agential relationality announced by the doubled “and” of the ampersand — “&” — an indication of intimacy, cooperation, and alliance found in the very visual of its entangled cursive sign.

Isle& utilized contemporary performance practices as a means of relating to, and exploring, the cultural, political, economic, biotic/abiotic ecologies of Oceania. Sited on the waterfront of Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau — reclaimed land that was once the more fluid ground of sea — events took place on and around the Wynyard Quarter; a recently constructed public zone that previously housed the city’s petro-chemical, fishing and marine industries, which has been redeveloped to include nautical supplies and activities, as well as apartments, shops, restaurants, and bars; bordering and sustaining a landscaped urban park.

Notable guests at Isle& included members of the Pacific Sisters, a Māori and Pacific Island collective that began collaborating in the 1990s: described by Margaret Werry as “a group at the vanguard of Polynesian fashion, arts, and performance activism for the past twenty years” (93). Representing a lineage of sisters past, present, and future, Rosanna Raymond (Samoan), Lisa Reihana (Māori), and O’Neill (Cook Island) reconstructed their group history from a scattering of books, catalogues, old photos and posters, while Ani’s deft hands worked with green rauti leaves to create ‘ei rauti (traditional open neckpieces) given to all participants in the closing moments of the Symposium. In an interview a year previously, Raymond had summed up the intra-Pasifika nature of Pacific Sisters as creating “a space where we could all be our Polynesian selves. We all had Pālagi [European] blood,[13] we were all mixed-race, all urban kids, too, so even the Māori that were living with us had moved away from their tribe, from their tribal land, so it was a space that we felt safe” (Rosanna Raymond: An Interview by Chikako Yamauchi”).

This enmeshed urban-islander identity was played out in the performances that interspersed two days of panel and paper presentations, including Tuna Mau, a site-responsive dance-architecture event commissioned by OPB2013, which I co-directed with choreographer, Carol Brown. A telling of the pan-Pacific story of goddess Hine and the metamorphic transformation of the long-finned indigenous eel, Tuna Mau referred to the name of a lost pre-European stream, once renowned for its plentiful supply of eels, which were both a major food source and taonga (treasure) for local Māori. Over fifty minutes, an audience listening to Russell Scoones’ soundscape on headphones, alongside a gathering of impromptu spectators, watched and followed dancers that emerged from the waterfront architecture. Five elvers (young eel women), wearing reflective glasses and shiny hoodies, drew on hip-hop gestures as they inhabited the park’s periphery, playing guardians to three mythic figures: a dishevelled colonial bride, her widow counterpart and Hine, whose long red skirt billowed behind her as she zig-zagged across the Wynyard Quarter.

As an event dispersed across an urban landscape, Tuna Mau was performed over the sedimented histories of a radically transformed terrain — from fishing grounds, to toxic industrial site, to space of leisure consumption — ending when Hine’s skirt was released to drape, a crimson stain, over stone terraces that stepped into the sea. The audience cohered overlooking the steps while all dancers disrobed to basic black skins and threw a heavy rope into the water where it bled red from the frayed knot at its end — recalling Tuna’s dismemberment and an ocean in crisis — while they gazed into the harbour’s fading light. An iteration in a series of site-specific performances we have named Tongues of Stone — in which environments speak their difficult histories — Tuna Mau enacted what Brown and I call “a performative re-membering of the relation between the city and the sea: one that does not rely on mastery, control or discipline but on desire, recovery and survival” (237).[14] This approach is inherent to the Oceanic region’s contribution to PSi’s Fluid States, which addressed themes of the unstable, mutable, adaptable, and fluid.

“Oceanic Performance Biennial 2013”: Auckland: Aotearoa/NZ


Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope — if not to contain her — to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain. (Wendt “Towards a New Oceania” 49)

The fluid mixing of critical and creative work that the conference achieved was helped in no small part by its unusually rich engagement with the local community. This may be one of the (perhaps unexpected?) achievements of the year of PSi’s Fluid States: not only to test the power of thinking about performance in and through the so-called “periphery,” but to shape brief yet significant cultural “field” encounters that illuminate our analyses as much as the dialogue with practitioners does. (Chaudhuri)

Two years following the Isle& regional cluster, the Fluid States event, Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent, was established as the 2015 Oceanic Performance Biennial, inviting artists to consider “how Pacific-oriented performance studies and practices can disturb, provoke and extend thought and action in relation to the seascape and its attendant social and biotic communities” (Hannah et al. 90).

Over three days, Rarotonga (the island and community) hosted a series of public events, in which performance acted as a lens through which to “see change” via a public presencing in which the ocean was explored as origin, immersive medium, life-support system and mirror. The event gathered together local and international performers, activists, academics, scientists, public servants and policy-makers, elders, community members, and experts on topics as diverse as coral farming, choreography and celestial navigation, to discuss Oceanic ecologies. An event-in-motion, participants walked, bussed, boated, danced, feasted, swam, performed, presented and talked across the three Vaka (tribal districts of Te Au O Tonga, Takitumu and Puiakura) that ring the island. (Hannah et al. 90)

A hybrid festival structured around a hui/ta’okota’i’anga (ceremonial gathering/summit/meeting), Sea-Change combined academic paper presentations with a string of performances: all interconnected across time and space, responding to the complexities and unpredictabilities of sites. In her observations of “Conference as Confluence,” Una Chaudhuri refers to how the “event dramaturgy” involved “surprising [. . .] displacements” as the program moved participants through a range of varied spaces. Akin to Smith’s description of “waka time” in Ara-Moana: Sea-Path, the schedule was subject to fluctuations of weather, transport, mobility, and attention.

What follows outlines the three-day journey, I devised with O’Neill, who, playing “local event navigator,” was essential to the event dramaturgy in which spacing — as tā-vā, an inherent understanding of the island’s time and space in relation to an inseparability between nature and culture — is enacted for the delegates, local specialists, residents, and tourists caught in its ambit. This extended narrative — threading and looping performances, actions, and transitions along the event trajectory — establishes fluid dramaturgy as subject to unexpected spatiotemporal conditions and deviations rather than operating as an unobstructed flow. To vās spatial relationality we add tā as temporality replete with rhythm, beats, and movement.

The compositional frame for the three-day event was structured to promote a complexity of creative action and thinking that involve what Peter Eckersall, Paul Monaghan, and Melanie Beddie refer to as “processes of connectivity” — between material and immaterial elements of performance, the specificities of cultural expression, current socio-political issues and a continual and unpredictable permeation of random quotidian and environmental events — while aiming to deterritorialize their “lines of force” through “the complexity of a dramaturgical ecology or an ecological dramaturgy” (21). This involves a multi-dimensional awareness in which a sequence of (blind refereed) performances as well as the movements between them are viscerally experienced and perceptively “read” on manifold levels. The program for each day, spent in one of the three Vaka, was determined by each district’s physical and social characteristics as well as the specific alignment of terrain with performance: the first port of call being Te Au O Tonga as a semi-urban environment of “local fluxes and flows,” arrivals and departures; then on to east-facing Takitumu, popular with tourists for “dreaming paradise;” and finally, the grittier territory of Puiakura, where the sun sets, as a place for “divining real ground.”


The event began in Avarua — Cook island’s capital — with a sunset gathering in a tavern on the harbour front where guests were greeted by a local island dancer, an iconic figure of the “dusky maiden” in skirt and headdress of leaves and feathers, who swayed deftly to the classic call of Cook Island drumming emitted from a portable CD player, while a be-suited man emerged from the waters of the darkening harbour brandishing a can of tuna fish. Commenting on the challenges of Rarotonga’s trade exigencies, Geoff Gilson’s Winds of Strain staged the economic pressure experienced within the context of globalization: a recurring theme in the following days, especially in relation to the devastating effects of purse-seine caught tuna (a large-scale fishing technique where a surrounding wall of net is drawn in like a purse string), which brings in money for the government while endangering non-target species and decimating the fishing grounds for locals. Una Chaudhuri writes, “The performance was light in tone and simple in form: a deft performance gesture, no more, but generative and delightful, opening a welcoming space for thinking together in the days ahead.”

Day One: Vaka Te Au O Tonga: Local Fluxes and Flows


The following dawn, prior to the formal opening event, another decimation is made apparent in a Reef Submarine tour chartered by media artist, Janine Randerson, whose Reef Sub Performance involved two dancers and a singer moving amidst passengers as they gazed on the skeletal remains of coral reefs, frequented by the appearances and disappearances of marine life, while young Rarotongans told stories of radical environmental changes they have experienced within their short life times.

The turou (ceremonial opening), staged outside and inside the USP building, returns us to the heady perfume of ‘ei, which were offered guests before being formally called onto the site and welcomed in Cook Island Māori and English. This was followed by academic papers and a panel of local experts discussing “Island Ecologies,” including the investment in Marae Moana, a marine reserve now planned to cover the entire exclusive economic zone of the Cook Islands. These interchanges were broken by feasts of food laid out — potlatch style in their excess — on a long table under the veranda. Prayers before every session and intervening repasts, reminded us of the impact, adoption, and adaptation of Christianity on Pacific nations such as the Cook Islands.

Latai Taumoepeau, Tongan Sydney-based Punake (body-centred performance artist), begins the proceedings with her keynote manifesto in which she introduces Stitching (up) the Sea, a performance she enacts three days later on Sunset Beach. Maintaining that the human body, rather than maps or charts, is the best means of communicating and understanding climate change, Taumoepeau endures significant physical strain in order to stand in for homelands at risk. Exploring the intangible heritage of Moana as a “sea of islands,” her ongoing series, Stitching (up) the Sea, is “a cyclical continuum of tauhi vā, the holistic practice of maintaining space through social relationships, and faivā, the practice of time-and-space through relational obligation in performance” (Taumoepeau “Stitiching up the Sea”). She shares alarming images of i-Land x-isle, performed from 2011 where her body is suspended from ropes — bound by techniques from Tongan architectural lashing — below huge blocks of melting ice; referencing water torture, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.

We Latai (reminisce)
Tau-moe-peau (battle-with-waves)
Stand for Moana Nui interventions
Stand for the baptism of the frontline
Stand for saltwater sovereignty
Stand for the embodied archive
Stand for 1 or 2 degrees of difference
Stand for the monstrous femme body
Stand inside shifting co-ordinates of the in-between
Stand for Stitching (up) the Sea[15]

(Taumoepeau “Artist | Performance maker | Provocateur”)

Later, participants cross the road to the Peace Garden where The Black Friars Polynesian Theatre Company from South Auckland performs Kiwa — exploring the floating identities of Aotearoa-born Oceanians through the story of a drowning — presented under the spreading branches of a 100-year-old Mango tree. This is followed by performances from the local Manihiki Cultural Group with performers of all ages in freshly made organic costumes, their singing and drumming filling the late afternoon air as locals and tourists join the delegates. For such groups, performance is a daily way of life as the Cook Islands prepare to battle between fourteen troupes in the annual Te Maeva Nui Constitution Celebrations: 2015 marking fifty years of self-governance. Already Avarua is filling with those who have sailed from the many outlying Islands to attend the celebrations, with dancers and musicians rehearsing in secret and communities beginning to collect materials for adornment.

A spectral figure, all in white, has been lurking in the nearby cemetery. She appears at the Peace Garden’s gate, beckoning to the gathered crowd with the same green leaves that garland her head and neck. This is the first Island Bride: one of three to appear on consecutive days and lead participants from one event to another. I devised this project with Hobart-based artist, Linda Erceg, and three local Rarotongan performers: June Baudinet, Brynn Acheson, and Henry Ah-Foo Taripo (HENZART). The Avarua bride is Baudinet — former athlete, local businesswoman and the original Miss Cook Islands from 1960 — who worked with the white plastic webbing of Erceg’s crocheted biomorphs (their looped structures based on coralline forms) to create a mythic guide, always just out of reach as she leads the onlookers across the lush Makea Palace grounds (past an indifferent grazing horse) towards a gap between two buildings before disappearing out of sight. A phantasmatic and anthropo(s)cenic figure, the Island Bride is also postcolonial construction — maternal/virginal and mythical/visceral — who resembles the ghost nets found washed up on pacific island beaches, which, left at sea by fisherman, entrap sea life and filter trash. Responding to each day’s specific terrain with her movements, she drags her tangled plasticated nets, skirt, and train across field, beach, and cancerous concrete.

“Island Bride”: Dorita Hannah (Aotearoa/NZ), Linda Erceg (Australia) with Cook Island artists, June Baudinet, Bree Acheson, and Henry Ahfoo Taripo

Following the runaway bride, the spectators find themselves in front of the Empire Cinema — the Cook Islands’ only movie house. Inside they watch a series of short art videos that address the Sea-Change theme as well as the documentary, A Lifetime of Change, chronicling the radical depletion of marine resources told by Cook Island elders. The screenings finished with OneOne (Ground), an interactive multimedia work created by Daniel Belton’s Good Company with a number of New Zealand artists. Belton and Nigel Jenkins live-mix video, digital images, and electronic sound, blended with the haunting echoes and material energy of ancient river stones — hollowed out over millennia — that resonate mournfully under their breath.

It is dark when the cinema is vacated to walk to a nearby harbour side restaurant for an “Island Night” dinner in an upstairs restaurant, where guests standing on the deck are treated to the first of Richard Downing’s It Worked Yesterday: a daily performative bricolage of onsite materials constructed by the Wales-based scenographer. Viewed from above, a jerry-rigged construction is lit by the headlights of a car, and long wooden planks (normally stored under the deck) are precariously arranged, balanced, and bound to each other through gravity atop improvised stands. Locals gather to test the installation’s stability by moving bottles of water along the planks that tilt and waver, threatening to collapse the improvised structure. This was followed with entertainment by the Te Korero Maori Dance Group, a group of students learning their cultural craft by performing for tourists; their young bodies vibrating in lavish costumes. Although a confronting touristic concert, such “shows” provide yet another training ground for cultural performance, which was being practiced that month behind closed doors in each Vaka as groups prepared for the upcoming competition.

“OneOne”: Good Company Arts (Aotearoa/NZ): Daniel Belton with Janessa Dufty, Richard Nunns, Nigel Jenkins, Jac Grenfell and Simon Kaan. Image: Good Company.

Day Two: Vaka Takitumu: Dreaming Paradise

Muri Lagoon / Avana Habour

The second day began on the eastern side of the island, affording early risers a picturesque dawn overlooking Muri Lagoon and two motu (small islands) from a white beach ringed with hotels, bungalows, and makeshift shacks providing leisure activities for the tourists. Participants gathered outside Te Vara Nui Cultural Village: a constructed south-sea idyll designed for weddings and evening Over-Water Night Shows. Knocking at the heavy wooden gates the manu’iri (guests) were ushered into the tropical gardens housing the History, Witchdoctors, Carving, Fishing, and Costume Huts as well as “a sacred Marae.” Those hosting (Re)constructing Paradise tour were a group of the Pacific Sisters (O’Neill, Raymond, Taripo and Aroha Rawson), dressed in what could be called “indigenous drag” (Chaudhuri), accompanied by the Short Family drummers. Guests were led past the huts where site-specific ethnographic burlesque coalesced with a righteous rage as they encountered garments, hanging from huts and strung across footpaths, printed with the words “No Fish, No Future.” Chaudhuri comments that the Sister’s “energy and intelligence seemed to index — even, perhaps, awaken — the true spirit of that place, its genius loci.”

“(Re)constructing Paradise … No Fish, No Future”: Pacific Sisters (Cook Islands, Samoa and Aotearoa/NZ): Rosanna Raymond, Ani O’Neill, Aroha Rawson and Henry Ahfoo Taripo

The rest of the morning was spent listening to paper presentations in a light-filled room overlooking the large scenographic water feature with its hovering stage where the evening show takes place. The comforting whirr of ceiling fans and tropical exterior were countered by a certain tension that arose in response to the academic papers where some scholarly words butted heads with issues of embodiment, heritage, identity, and cultural ownership. This was interrupted by Breath of Air, a performance on the floating platform where Zahra Killeen-Chance — her body completely sheathed into a dark silhouette — moved slowly within the environment so as those watching became aware not only of her breath and their own but of a contiguity between human and non-human.

Muri Lagoon beckoned as delegates left the constructed paradise for the “real” and readied for a boat tour, hosted by keynote artists Local Time — a four-person Auckland-based collective, comprising Danny Butt, Jon Bywater, Alex Monteith, and Natalie Robertson — who collaborate “with maintainers of local knowledge in specific sites.” While waiting to board, Downing treated onlookers to another installation that Worked Yesterday: having spent the morning tidying a patch of the beach; raking it, arranging shells and sticks according to size and shape, and precariously balancing corral rocks on each other. He was left to his Sisyphean task, as participants waded into the lagoon to board the boat that diverted from its usual tourist route. Local Time: Muri 9th July 2015 1400 (-1000) provided a lunchtime “cruise” to a series of significant sites where local leaders discussed current challenges to their customary maintenance in relation to shaping the development of infrastructure and fishing practices. The façade of the “real” shimmered thin on this fast-changing lagoon.

“Local Time” (Aotearoa/NZ and Australia): Muri 9th July 2015 1400 (-1000): Video Stills

As the boat made its way back to the beach, another Island Bride appeared on the lagoon astride a paddleboard, her white veil trailing behind in the water as she circled the craft. By the time the participants disembarked onto the sand, she stands waiting: ritually swooping a long red tangle of plastic overhead, which spins like a clot of blood in the air. Brynn Acheson — an instructor in fitness and water sports — is garbed in white netting, presenting a hyperbolic bride on a beach popular for celebrating destination marriages. Werry writes: “In the Euro-American imaginary, Polynesia is everybody’s bride, a pliant, virgin possession — a fantasy relived daily in the Cooks by the island wedding industry, in which white tourists tint their unions with the primitivist brush” (92). As the group gathers around the bride gathers her train, heavy with trash, and hauls the catch away from the beach, past hotels and tourist signage, crossing the road to shed the nets outside a small gallery, where she enters to hang the red biomorph (her umbilical lasso) amidst an exhibition of Erceg’s improvised constructions, fashioned from plastic and rubber waste gathered around the island.

An ever-increasing crowd walk the single road circling the island, north towards Avana Harbour where the Cook Island canoe, Vaka Marumaru Atua, is berthed. There, Master Navigator, Tua Pittman, is waiting on a long jetty, from where he gestures, describing aspects of traditional navigation utilized in the expeditions he has undertaken as a Pacific Voyager, including sailing through the Pacific trash vortex on route to San Francisco where the Voyagers were emissaries against climate change. Pittman likens his island of Rarotonga to a vaka in which a community survives under trying conditions. The sun lowers as guests are welcomed into Takitimu’s Palace, which is home of the tribe’s Queen, Pa Ariki, where they enjoy a meal prepared by chef, Sam Timoko, who organizes the food stores for Vaka Marumaru Atua, on which he has also travelled as cook.

The day’s final event takes place near the Palace, outside the shell of a small, roofless, limestone house illuminated by the projected work of local artist, New Zealand-born Tabatha Forbes. Combining video and live performance, Forbes’ 700 Days at Sea refers to the Cook Islands’ Government granting a South Korean fishing company 400 days of purse-seining as well as 300 days to a US fleet. Combining movement with spoken and projected text, the performance unfolds as dancers move through the house and onto the entry where their monochromatic costumes, traditionally inspired while exquisitely wrought from plastic bags, merge with the rough white wall in the video’s shifting light. In her introduction, Forbes spoke of “empathic rather than apathetic bodies,” throwing out a challenge to those who watch from a distance.

Day Three: Vaka Puaikura: Divining Real Ground

Vaima’anga / Highland Paradise / Betela

During the three days of Sea-Change, a figure is seen walking counter clockwise around the island, dressed in black tupenu (cloth), ta’ovala (woven wrap) and sandals, he carries a 10kg sack of sand that leaks from a hole, leaving a trail behind him. This is Tongan artist, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, performing Tangai ’one’one. Walking against Greenwich Mean Time, ‘Uhila is following nature’s time, asking locals permission to refill his sack when emptied, despite their consternation because the sand belongs to everyone. His performance of seemingly futile labour recognises how hard islanders work to survive “in a time of dwindling local resources and environmental challenges.”[16]

“Tangai ‘one’one”: Kalisolaite ‘Uhila (Tonga and Aotearoa/NZ). Photo: Natalie Robertson

On Saturday morning, Sea-Change participants gathering at the border between Takitumu and Puaikura meet up with ‘Uhila who has already been labouring under his sack. They congregate on a roadside encroached by an eroded coastline, outside the spectacular ruin of the Sheraton Hotel, which was abandoned by a foreign construction company in the 1990s before completion, leaving the Cook Island Government with a massive debt. New Zealand dance artist, Christina Houghton, leads the group through heavily graffitied corridors, derelict rooms and overgrown courtyards, enacting a “walk to higher ground” by rehearsing a tsunami evacuation drill that highlights the site’s psychotic psychogeography.

The evacuation is interrupted by the distant sound of Bjork’s song, Oceania, coming from the upper story of the dilapidated hotel entry, drawing attention to the third Island Bride, whose white garments billow as she moves on the empty platform, drawing the audience towards her. Rising through the network of concrete stairs, columns, and floor plates, led by Bjork’s plaintive voice, spectators move closer to the bride, played by Henry Taripo, yet cannot quite reach where (s)he stands. A seasoned performer, Taripo gestures elegiacally adopting traditional Cook Island dance movements that counter the discordant Icelandic voice while matching its melancholy. Cradling a tivaivai (handmade applique quilt crafted for the matrimonial bed) like a lost lover, the Bride moves down a stairway and out of sight followed by the audience, many still wrapped in the emergency blankets handed out by Houghton in her performance walk.

The Bride has vanished into the cracks and crevices of the deserted construction, but Downing awaits to reveal his final installation created from a plastic container, petrol drums, timber beams, rubber tyres, wooden pallets, rope, and a three-legged chair. This crude contraption designed to activate a chain reaction is triggered by pouring water into the plastic container that sets the objects in motion across the ruined lobby, finally triggering a coconut to swing around a column and knock a bottle of sea water off the broken chair. As tyres bounced, barrels rolled, and pallets fell like dominoes, Downing’s exercise in precarity — referring to devastation wrought by a causal chain — seemed to work . . . almost! Two attempts, accompanied by gasps and cheers from the audience, failed at the final moment to topple the container from its rickety pedestal; a malfunction agreed by all to be a hopeful sign for Pacific resilience into the future.

As participants left the site, retracing their route through the ruined courtyards, they are confronted with Amanda Yates’ See-Level, an installation of sea-level indices on the concrete columns that predict a rising ocean forced on small Pacific Island nations through the use of fossil fuels by so-called “developed nations.” A bus arrives to take everyone to higher ground: Puaikura’s Highland Paradise Cultural Centre — a 600-year old village site, rejuvenated, maintained, and managed by descendants of the Tinomana Tribe who moved to the coast with the introduction of Christianity — where another turou takes place before an afternoon of site exploration, paper presentations, and a local panel on “Cultural Tourism.” Chaudhuri remarks, “The presence of a critical mass of artists and scholars with expertise in the indigenous performance traditions of Oceania made for exceptionally rich conversations about the challenges these traditions face — and the opportunities their forms represent — for a rapidly, and dangerously, changing reality.”

Such dialogue was exemplified through a visit to the site of a disused spring between the Highlands and seashore for Local Time’s second event, Puna o te Vai Marau 11 July 2015 1630 (-1000), which continues the collective’s enquiries into puna wai (traditional water sources) and associated issues of sovereignty. This involved a consultation with elder Tangianau Tuaputa who is ta’unga and tumu korero — ritual expert and historian — for Tinomana Ariki of Vaka Puaikura. Moving amongst dense undergrowth Tuaputa emotionally demonstrated his commitment to chronicling tangible and intangible heritage as he gestured in the landscape with a handful of rauti leaves, a lifetime of knowledge flowing from his body and shifting the scale of reception between intimate conversation and an epic telling within a landscape.

“Local Time”: Puna o te Vai Marau 11th July 2015 1630 (-1000): with ta’unga Tangianau Tuaputa (Cook Islands). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

The final leg of the day, and indeed of all three days, was a stroll to Betela Beach renowned for its sunsets, where the final communal meal was cooked in an umu (earth oven) and served in a dilapidated beach shack recently constructed for a movie filmed on the island. This is where the threads — unfurling through peripheral actions, distant sounds and drifting aromas — were drawn together with lone labourers, such as ‘Uhila and Downing, joining the assembly, which had swelled in numbers, having fluctuated in attendance over three days. While the food was cooking in hot rocks under the sand, chanting from a solo singer drew the gathering to the shore. Dressed in a simple white shift, sound-based artist Olivia Webb, intoned In Paradisum (Into Paradise) from a Latin Catholic Requiem Mass as she moved into the sea and out of sight under the waves before reappearing and singing her way back to dry land. Reminiscent of the song-filled air on Sundays in the Cook Islands, when the many Christian churches reverberate with hymns, Webb’s action also drew our attention to the threat of rising sea levels as her voice was absorbed by wind and washed away by water.

“In Paradisum”: Olivia Webb (Aotearoa/NZ). Photo: Soloon Mortimer

Another sound draws the spectators further away from the beach towards a small stream beside which a white tarpaulin has been stretched. Far from Webb’s ecclesiastical chant, the irruptive noise is of breaking glass as Taumoepeau — also dressed in white and seated under the awning — is pounding white sandbags full of discarded glass bottles with an ‘ike (mallet), traditionally used to beat mulberry bark into ceremonial cloth called tapa or ngatu. Waste glass is being transformed back into sand and, as each sack is emptied of its disintegrating contents, the artist places it around her neck, accumulating on her body to form a grotesquely frayed lei/’ei/sisi. Stitching (up) the Sea is another iteration of what Taumoepeau calls “a durational performance ritual and meditation, exploring the fragility and vulnerability of people, the physical environment and intangible cultural heritage of the Moana” (“Stitching up the Sea”).

“Stitching (up) the Sea”: Latai Taumoepeau (Tonga and Australia). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

The closing performance that accompanies the umu, now spread out on a table in the shack, is a re-presentation of Good Company’s OneOne: this time live-mixed outside and projected onto a suspended sail that flaps its own rhythm with the evening breeze, accompanied by the sound of nearby waves; providing a truly intermedial experience for those sitting in the sand. Reality and illusion eddy around each other in the final commensally shared moments for this Sea-Change community sheltered by a film-set and surrounded by nature’s elements: “This was the still-point of the conference: time dilated, refracted, cut through with other times — geological time, genealogical time, celestial time, the time-out-of-time of absolute attention” (Werry 94).

Fluid Dramaturgy

As event navigator, co-dramaturg and metaphorical key to opening the many opportunities on an island foreign to most participants, I held an understanding of the cultural nuances of this place — its tā and vā — safely navigating our vaka of delegates over three days, three Vaka, and approximately 27 sites of encounter. It took hours of planning in which I ran the proposed performances through my mind: imagining, walking, timing out the journeys between them all — thinking and feeling — how they would all fit together with amazing flow [. . .] without this navigation and following of the set path (through its “entangled ecology”) — the “dramaturgy” would have essentially stagnated at one of the many spots. (O’Neill)[17]

In “Oceanic Geographies, Kevin Brown writes of “a kind of ‘liquid dramaturgy’”:

[F]luid in its structure, form, content and production. The script is poetic and choral, and does not contain delineations of lines. Tides of energy ebb and return, and waves of emotion oscillate from peak to nadir. Topics coexist layer upon layer, not as the strata of rock in a landscape, but as thermoclines in the depths of a waterscape. Themes are deliberated within the language of the play, but are also brought to contemplation through visual dream signs, inventing a new kind of dramaturgical language. (Brown 121)

While far from a text-based play, Sea-Change’s three-day event-structure aimed to encapsulate Fluid States’ “dynamic and transitional dramaturgy, inspired by the oceanic metaphor and devised to provide opportunities for encounters and experiments with interrelations of discrete ‘intra-cultural’ performances, events and research practices.”[18] Gathering performers from a range of Pacific nations within the specific conditions of Rarotonga allowed for sharing individual, discursive, traditional, and contemporary expressions in order to, as Rustom Bharucha suggests, “echo one another through their differences [. . .] whereby cultures within, between, and across regions can be translated, transported, and exchanged within the larger framework of the nation” (118), or, in this case, the region, which, while sharing socio-political concerns and aesthetic convergences, is by no means homogeneous; necessarily constituted of “multiple Others” (119) and complicated by postcolonial and global realities. However, the shared experience accrued over three days did cohere academics, artists, local and visiting publics around the urgencies and exigencies of climate change, made more urgent through the uneven string of unfurling events within a vulnerable terrain integrating landscape and seascape.

By way of a generally improvised site-responsive engagement — with minimal time to rehearse and little control of the environment — the event dramaturgy incorporated both the dramatic structure associated with theatre — as an essentially linear temporal experience — and non-scripted encounters with quotidian life and open environments: constantly factoring chance and change into the experience. The conjunctions and disjunctions between performance and surroundings created experiences differing from those where performance is explicitly developed and practiced as site-specific, because most presenters in Rarotonga were deftly adapting to the given environment, rather than creating especially for it.[19] Such extemporizations, working with the oscillating fluxes and flows of place, time, and action, were predicated on the lack of conventional and technologically equipped spaces, as well as the exigencies of time and budgets; relying on communication between artists and event convenors, especially via the local tā-vā knowledge of Ani O’Neill and the generosity of her community.

Moving from space to space on the island of Rarotonga one was aware that the events could not be tightly scheduled as they relied on an ambulatory audience — planned and accidental — of varying mobility alongside inconsistent temporal notions such as “island time,” which, like “vaka time,” challenged any precise itinerary. Away from the controllable interiors of theatres, galleries, and seminar rooms, performance time became mutable, elasticizing space itself. Performances and the passages between them adapted to shifts of temperature, sunlight, and air movement. Sudden gusts of wind and fluctuating cloud formations defined variable and unpredictable effects as did passing traffic and pedestrians. The environment itself, as a variable multiplicity, was inherent to how the overall event and its many performances were planned, enacted, and received. This is predicated on attention to a “fluid dramaturgy” as inherently unpredictable and ungraspable: one of liquidity that ebbs and flows, revealing currents and counter currents formed by anticipated and unforeseen obstructions and enchantments. As Moana voyagers are aware, journeys are undertaken by responding to, rather than resisting, nature’s many dimensions: recognizing the environment as autonomous and real; radiating its own material existence and life-force. This returns us to the relational nature of (inseparable from tā), explored in Isle&, which Rosanna Raymond explicates (emphasizing VA) in her SaVAge K’lub as a “philosophical understanding of space as ‘active,’ not as empty and passive, but activated by people, relationships, and reciprocal obligations” (“Eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Pacific Art 2015: About Artists”).[20]

The fluidity of space and time is as corporeal as it is locative. Writing on “The Body as Fluid Dramaturgy,” Stephen di Benedetto reinforces dramaturgy itself as a “constantly fluctuating form” made apparent when bodies, fluids and bodily fluids become the dramatic medium (11). Sea-Change’s ‘fluid dramaturgy” drew upon the environment itself as mutable abject body that recalls Julia Kristeva’s mention of “fluid states” as dissolution (16) — where spaces and things are no longer, static, secure, or durable — transforming objects from stable entities to unstable actions through the natural environment’s contaminating presence. A dramaturgy of encounter between humans and non-humans therefore defies predictability and a direct, undeviating line of action. It also challenges the notion of a tidy weave as either production or outcome of any ethical performance encounter within and between cultures.

Entangling the Weave

Like the fringing reefs and beaches of our ancestral islands, we are in constant motion with the tides of change and growth. (Vincente Diaz qtd. in Teresia K Teaiwa 349)

While weaving is a dominant physical and conceptual paradigm for Pacific art-making — visual, spatial, and performative — this is challenged by oceanic fluidity. The intersection between the woven and the nautical can be found in Pacific Island stick charts (mattang, principally utilized in the Marshall Islands); mnemonic devices that indicate sea swells and island disruptions, allowing ancient and contemporary Moana mariners to traverse space through an intimate, learned and embodied understanding of multiple elements, described by Sa‘iliemanu Lilomaiava as “an act of imagining, knowing, and remembering the ocean” (“Remembering the Ocean” 57). Paul Carter points out that European colonizers, who relied on instrumentation to navigate the oceans and “gain a firm foothold on the world,” required the “shipwreck of reason” in order to cooperate with and/or surrender to the elements (71).

Through the Berlin-based International Research Centre — Interweaving Performance Cultures — the interweave is established as a metaphor for interaction and engagement, in order to question identity within our contemporary global condition and enhance diversification rather than contribute to the homogenization of cultures.[21] However, such a utopian metaphor and its visual representation tends to be predicated on an even strength between warp and weft in order to create a stable textile as an ostensibly shared meeting ground, potentially denying and obscuring cultural differences and their inherent contestations, power plays, and disconnections. Such failure of the interweave occurred in Aotearoa/NZ in the 1990s when Wellington’s Taki Rua Theatre — named after the taki rua double weaving pattern (translated “to go in twos”) that signified the theatre’s bicultural kaupapa (underpinning principle)[22] — recognized that Māori had not yet been able to explore and understand their own theatrical traditions in order to create a truly robust double weave. Such acknowledgement of a lopsided biculturalism resulted in Taki Rua becoming a Māori-led production company. This highlighted the ever-present potential for the structural warp of the dominant culture to dictate the other’s weft, potentially reinforcing hegemony rather than promoting diversity. Positing the sea as a dynamic force — its formlessness presenting a continually ruptured contiguity of a borderless hydrosphere operating above and below an unstable surface — this article concludes by asserting fluid entanglement, rather than the interweave, as a means of recognizing meeting grounds as necessarily turbulent, tainted, and unpredictable. Fischer-Lichte and her colleagues do acknowledge that “a process of interweaving does not necessarily result in the production of a whole. In it, mistakes, errors, failures, and even small disasters might occur when unintended knots appear in the cloth, when threads unravel or flow apart, when the proportion of the dyes is off, or the cloth woven becomes stained” (11). Pacific scholars in the 1990s proffered “messy entanglements” as a contradictory and non-unitary concept, more suited to agonistic rather than utopian models, which was the title of the tenth Pacific History Association Conference held in Kiribati in 1995 (PAC). Nicholas Thomas also considers cultural entanglement as a shared history in his book, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific, which discusses “mutual entanglements” (9) in relation to issues of appropriation and recontextualization. Ecological entanglement between biotic and abiotic, between human and non-human, suggests an interdependence as well as an unknowability, described by Timothy Morton as a “mesh” representing “the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things” (2010 28). Entering our social, psychic, and scientific domains, the mesh stirs ecological thought — haunted by the “strange stranger” (Morton 17) of the unknowable ocean, with which we are inextricably intertwined.[23]

The ultimate entangled mesh in relation to oceanic objects is the fishing net inadvertently set adrift to collect organic and inorganic matter: most profoundly seen in abandoned ghost nets, lost and drifting in the sea, which ensnare marine life, smother reefs, foul beaches, and introduce invasive species or diseases. This recalls a photograph of Mara-i-Wai (Lost at Sea), a three-day performance-art event staged by Moce Islanders of the Korova squatter community on the foreshore of Suva, Fiji, in 2007 (Brunt et al. 419). Women move in the tide dragging nets of gathered debris in front of a traditional outrigger canoe as a ritual of re-sanctification, recognising how they sailed from the Lau Islands in 1989, using only ancient navigational techniques.[24] The image inspired Sea-Change’s Island Bride with her biomorphic garments that drag on sand, float in the tide, and threaten to snag on rocks, vegetation, and concrete ruins. Appearing and disappearing as a spectral thread on the periphery of action, she accentuates the lopsided weave as cultural entanglement. Such open-ended adornment — simultaneously ravelling and unravelling — also evokes the leaking hole in ‘Uhila’s sack, Downing’s precarious constructions, the Pacific Sister’s ethnic bricolage, Good Company’s multimedial projections on a flapping sail hung from the rafters of a faux shack, and Taumoepeau’s tattered sandbag leis created from smashing glass on Betela’s Sunset Beach.

AnthropoScenic Bride & Digital Lei

[I]t does not matter how maps are redrawn unless they are drawn differently. Unless they incorporate the movement forms that characterize the primary experiences of meeting and parting, they continue to territorialize desire even when they seek to establish common boundaries. (Carter 7)

Just as the Pacific Ocean is conceived as the Big Blue Canoe upon which many canoes navigate, we might also perceive of it as a net, within which multiple nets are entangled. Such knotting, twisting and snaring in motion was spatiotemporally enacted through the event-dramaturgy of Sea-Change in order to acknowledge the dystopian and disputed reality of a Pacific Ocean in jeopardy. The islands in this sea of islands are on the frontline of climate change, already disappearing and losing patrimony through acidifying sea, bleaching corral, depleting marine life, and an ever-increasing gyre of debris gathering just below its surface. As the Pacific regional event for PSi’s Fluid States, Sea-Change mobilized debate on these issues through a three-day event between a number of key Cook Island players, visiting artists and academics, local community, and interested tourists. Constructed of multiple events, performance was the principle medium for playing out the matters in question. Rather than default to conventional technically equipped cultural sites, Rarotonga’s oceanic terrain was incorporated as critical participatory bio-object, with its varying features and specific qualities, to enact a relational and durational dialogue as a series of experiences, daisy-chaining around the island, with paths criss-crossing and, at times, looping back on each other, while some focused on more durational tasks away from the loosely set itinerary: recalling the aforementioned image of a tangled lei washed ashore.

Encouraged by Paul Carter’s challenge to redraw maps differently through “the primary experiences of meeting and parting” (7), the Sea-Change directors looked to the lei — customarily associated with greeting, welcome and transfer — as the Pacific’s gestural object par excellence for marking arrivals and departures. This became the vessel sent to Japan’s Fluid States event in Aomori, Tohoku, along with the Island Bride’s nets and biomorphs for a docking ceremony connecting the two events. The notion of AnthropoScenic Bride as abjectile (abject-object) — contiguous with terrain and emergent as theatre-of-matter — was conveyed to choreographer, Katherine Mezur, who collaborated with dancers Megan Nicely, Tanya Calamoneri, and Tanya London to reconfigure the body objects as events within the specific landscape of Aomori before processing into the auditorium, where the opening ceremony was taking place. Descending towards the stage, the brides drew a net over the audience while carrying the Digital Lei, fabricated by Amanda Yates with 3D sound-print software designed by Gerbrand Van Melle and Stefan Marks, onto the podium. As performative vessel of transfer, the large, white, digitally-printed techno-garland — its shapes generated by sounds harvested from Sea-Change performances — was then placed around the neck of Hayato Kosuge (Director of the Fluid States Japan conference, titled Beyond Contamination: Corporeality, Spirituality, and Pilgrimage). The lei, as materially manifested event-sound, included a data-stick that transmitted still/moving images of Sea-Change, which were projected before the audience.

“AnthropoScenicBride & Digital Lei”: Performance and object as vessel of transfer (Tohuku, August 2015)

As docking vessels, AnthropoScenic Bride & Digital Lei elasticized the time and space of Sea-Change, along with the many events preceding it as well as the overall Fluid States project within which it floated. Sea-Change enacted an event dramaturgy as a form of ‘spacing,’ taking into account Gilles Deleuze’s notion that aesthetic performances intersect with other more quotidian events framed out of a “chaotic multiplicity” (86). The string of planned events over three days therefore necessarily included manifold unplanned occurrences that intertwine and contribute to Sea-Change’s overall reception. This is linked to new dramaturgical practices focusing on ecologies, diversity and collaboration in order to address the unrepresentable “Real” — in this case the actualities and escalating threats of climate catastrophe — through a density of the very “real.” Reception of the staged event is predicated on the unpredictable realities of nature and everyday actions through what Joseph Danan calls the “power of crude reality” (5). Event dramaturgy has here been theorized as a critical spatial practice in which the aleatory is welcomed because its crude reality makes us continually aware of ecological entanglements, especially in relation to Pacific performance practices and that mutable oceanic mesh under threat. 

“AnthropoScenicBride & Digital Lei”: Performance and object as vessel of transfer (Tohuku, August 2015): Choreographed by Katherine Mezur with dancers Megan Nicely, Tanya Calamoneri, and Tanya London

Works Cited

“About Local Time.” Local Time: Art collective based in Aotearoa New Zealand. Accessed 15 May 2017. http://local-time.net/about-local-time/

Ackerman, Diane. The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us. Norton and Company, 2014.

Bharucha, Rustom. “Under the Sign of the Onion: Intracultural Negotiations in Theatre.” New Theatre Quarterly. 12:46 (1996), 116-129

Bjork. “Oceania.” Medúlla, One Little Indian Records, 2004.

Brown, Kevin. “Oceanic Geographies: The Fluid Dramaturgy of Caridad Svich.” Performance Research. 21:2 (2016), 118-124.

Brunt, Peter, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon, Lissant Bolton, Deidre Brown, Damian Skinner, and Susanne Küchler. Art in Oceania: A New History. Thames and Hudson, 2012.

Carter, Paul. Dark Writing: Geography, Performance, Design. University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

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[1] Pasifika is a term that connotes the region of Pacific Islands, which includes Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, as well as the people indigenous to these islands. In the case of this article and the Fluid States project, the emphasis and focus is principally Polynesian.

[2] The composition and boundaries of Oceania as a region are shifting and multifarious with three principle sub-regions of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia that make up the Pacific Islands, which are geopolitically aligned with Australasia.

[3] Rev. François Pihaatae, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC).

[4] Helen Ferris-Leary writes that “Western and Moana cultures conceptualize ‘time and space’ differently. In a Western framework, the intersection of time and space defines reality as very specific, amounting to actual points in time and space, in a type of ‘here and now’ material version of reality that is both rigid and unchanging. In a Moana framework, the intersection of tā and vā creates an entirely different sort of conceptual reality, one that is holistic, non-material, non-linear and involving human interactive social relationships [. . .] to generate a Moana version of reality that is both flexible and ever changing” (66-67).

[5] For Derrida “spacing” denotes “the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space” (68).

[6] “Utopia” was coined from Greek by Thomas More as “no-place” for the title of his 1516 book, Utopia: outlining a fictional island society, structured and operating as an ideal community.

[7] Here, Foucault refers to the ship as “a floating part of space, a placeless place, that lives by itself, closed in on itself and at the same time poised in the infinite ocean, and yet, from port to port, tack by tack, from brothel to brothel it goes as far as the colonies, looking for the most precious things hidden in their gardens” (356).

[8] Ara Moana: Sea-Path was devised with performance designer, Kasia Pol, and developed onsite in Rijeka with navigator, Piripi Smith, and Michelle Smith.

[9] The name of the Pacific Voyager sailing canoe from Aotearoa/NZ.

[10] In Aotearoa/NZ waka, broadly translated as “vessel,” “container,” or “vehicle,” refers principally to the Māori canoe, but also denotes the confederation of iwi (tribes) descended from the people linked to each large migratory canoe that sailed from Eastern Polynesia 1250-1300 CE.

[11] Coming out of the South Pacific Creative Arts Society, Mana began as a four-page section in the news magazine, Pacific Islands Monthly.

[12] Curatorial Statement in OPB2013 Call for papers and presentations.

[13] Pālagi (pronounced paalangi) is a Samoan term, which generally refers to White/non-Samoans/Europeans (as a noun) and to the non-traditional (as an adjective).

[14] Tuna Mau developed an earlier project, 1000 Lovers, produced for the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival.

[15] Latai Taumoepeau’s “Manifesto,” delivered during her 2015 keynote address, later presented in a paper, “Saltwater Sovereignty”(2016) with recording online: https://soundcloud.com/qpradio/lapping-at-our-doors-02-latai-taumoepeau

[16] Kalisolaite ‘Uhila: Tangai ’one’one: Performance Abstract in Sea-Change program.

[17] Excerpt from email to the author: 2 May 2017

[18] Fluid States: Dramaturgy (http://fluidstates.org/page.php?id=19)

[19] While Miwon Kwon notes a proliferation of terms — “[s]ite-determined, site-oriented, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-responsive, site-related” (2002 1) — and a tendency towards an uncritical adoption of “site-specific,” Sea-Change performers were expediently sited, generally through long-distance negotiation, requiring that they more intuitively respond in-the-moment to the locale than devise the performance by engaging with its histories and the complexities of its contextual conditions through extensive research.

[20] Rosanna Raymond set up SaVAge K’lub in 2010 as a multidisciplinary performance and installation vehicle in response to the London gentlemen’s Savage Club founded in 1857, an exclusive institution that tended towards cultural stereotyping in its décor.

[21] Freie Universität Berlin: International Research Centre << Interweaving Performance Cultures >> http://geisteswissenschaften.fu-berlin.de/en/v/interweaving-performance-cultures/about-us/project_description/index.html

[22] As a bicultural nation, and through the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi/Tiriti o Waitangi, Aotearoa/NZ acknowledges a partnership between Māori (Tangata Whenua – people of the land) and Pākehā (Tauiwi – people from another tribe, generally Europeans who are also referred to as Tangata Tiriti – people of the treaty).

[23] In Ecological Thought, the “strange stranger” occupies “the limit of our imagining” as both interconnected and disconnected (Morton 17).

[24] This three-day event utilised song, poetry, dance and action to tell stories of loss and survival in relation to the Moce Islanders’ journeys to Suva on canoes in the early 1990s, using ancient navigational traditions. The event is mentioned in Art in Oceania, A New History (Brunt et al. 419-420).