Freedom in a concrete cave
By MARK WILLOUGHBY
Noticed from the walkway above, the constant, royal blue light and smoke rising from the side of the road below could have been mistaken as the scene of some horrible accident.
Yet, neither nothing nor nobody untoward was there to be seen or heard.
It was just another quiet and well-lit evening at a closed national institution.
Although safe in the CCTV-knowledge that someone, somewhere was keeping watch over the nation’s valuables, the National Gallery of Australia’s underground car park seemed much more alive than it should have been at this time on a Saturday night.
Noticing, on closer inspection, the unmistakable thuds and pulses of recorded noise, I began to glean some further context for the emanations seeping from the ground below.
Lights, smoke, sound of music; this was no accident. This had been planned.
I was informed it was an experiment.
“It’ll be interesting to see what sort of a crowd comes along tonight,” Daniel, an off-duty NGA employee, told me, as I was re-orienting myself in the normally familiar (and empty) space.
“It’s good they’re putting this sort of thing on, trying different things… to attract a younger audience to the gallery,” he said.
So I was introduced to Digital Jam, an experimental sound and video-art event held last night [20 November 2010] in the cavernous underground car park of the NGA.
So it was, an experiment in art as well as marketing.
Ushered down into this temporary laboratory space, past the glowing white rectangle that was the drinks bar, the experiment appeared to be well under way.
People were interspersed amongst the smoky, bouncing-light-filled area, some standing around, and some sitting in loose circles, off to the side, on small, red leather stools. Others still sitting in the shadows, precarious, on the concrete edges of the car park. All watching the sprawling scene of sound and vision unfold around them.
The floor to ceiling video screens, demarcating the performance space into one half of the car park, projected ever-changing colourful images: flitting, half-glanced silhouettes of bodies dancing, interspersed with technicolour wheels and blasts of chaos from some hidden, digital palette.
The screen’s reflections bounced off the smooth, shiny, concreted floor. It brought to mind the countless hours spent rolling around this very same expanse of concrete and steel—as a teenager, on a skateboard—enjoying the glide along that shiny-smooth surface.
This worn-down-by-many-car-tyres effect was especially sort after by those in the know—those other experimental creatures of concrete and metal: skateboarders, my friends and I.
More often than not, it was more an experiment to see just how long it took a security guard to walk out and kindly ask us to vacate the premises. Those sessions were always an enjoyable, if temporary, free-for-all.
How many wheel-slides and nose-grinds could we fit in before then? And quick, can’t I just enjoy the silence of a stealthy roll, in and between the infinity of iron, those v-shaped supports? Those diagonal pillars that seem to go on, into the dark cave, forever. They seem to keep the ground from falling down upon us all, I used to think. And now, with that memory of a morbid thought echoing around my head, a palpable blast from a nearby speaker flings me back into the present experiment. Back in that same, but altered, cave.
Volleys of thrown light seem to engulf me as I stand, talking to Lizzy, struggling to be heard over the sounds. I met Lizzy mingling around the DJ area, next to the screens,. She just happened to hear about this the other day. Her and a few friends thought it sounded like something a bit different to do on a weekend night in Canberra.
“No one’s quite sure what to do, whether to dance or what, are they?” she said.
“Yeah, everyone seems a bit overwhelmed by it all,” I reply. “Or maybe that’s just me,” I add.
Later, as I headed off to find the toilets down the other end of the car park, towards the sculpture garden, I noticed something strange. In leaving the space, as soon as I stepped past the huge video screens, the cacophony immediately dropped away, and I was left in the expanse of the empty other half of the car park. I had left this contained experiment to enjoy the peace and quiet, and—who would have thought?—freedom in concrete.