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Saville's Shout

Jan 13, 2014

Saville’s shout: Syd Festival picks … the open-plan office … futility of resolutions …

Unless your New Year's resolution is to move from an open-plan office to a closed one, they're probably as useless as they are harmless. And the best of the Sydney Festival.

Dancing in the dark. If attending events at an arts festival is about challenging your personal boundaries, then Eclipse, with African musicians Amadou and Mariam, is the perfect show. The 90-minute performance is conducted in pitch darkness, although the audience is told that raising a white card will enable ushers wearing night vision goggles to lead them from the room. The first 10 minutes is hard as you adjust to the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to see the person next to you, but the show is so enjoyable that it’s worth overcoming the discomfort.

Amadou and Mariam and their band play 11 songs that tell the story of how they met at a school for the blind in Mali, married and raised a family while travelling the world. Before each song, a narrator sets the scene over a bed of ambient sounds, while different scents are pumped into the air. “If you cannot see, your sense of sound becomes richer,” Amadou said. “That’s one reason why I wanted to have a series of concerts in the darkness. I wanted the audiences to try to hear the music just as Mariam and I hear it.”

UK fragrance consultant Kate Williams from Sevenscent devised the fragrances for the show, which recreate incense, a traditional mosquito repellent and a “special fragrance to represent Amadou and Mariam”.

“Their music is very complex, so I wanted to create a fragrance with lots of different layers and rhythmical ‘chords’,” she said. Manager Marc-Antoine Moreau says that by losing the sense of sight, which most of us take for granted, the show offers people the chance of seeing beyond what they normally see.

Eclipse is one of the highlights of the Sydney Festival, which features a total of 722 artists from 17 countries in nearly 400 performances. Although more than 30 venues are being used, the most colourful is the Festival Village in Hyde Park, with two performance tents, bars and food stalls, including a well-loved Gelato Messina counter selling hot dog-shaped icecreams.  Next to it is one of the festival’s most popular attractions: a giant bouncy castle version of Stonehenge called Sacrilege.

In the Village’s Circus Ronaldo tent last week, I saw beatbox poet C. R. Avery appearing with fellow Canadians, the gospel trio The Sojourners. The anarchic Avery, sometimes described as “Bob Dylan in the body of Iggy Pop”, mixed up the spoken word, singing and the harmonica to create a stunning show that melded blues, hip-hop and punk. The Sojourners seemed an unlikely match, but their glorious harmonies melded beautifully with Avery’s songs, culminating in a rousing chorus of Make Your Vote Count on Election Day. No wonder Tom Waits said that Avery was “blowin’ [his] mind”.

Take a ChanceOver at Carriageworks, the public art space in Sydney’s Redfern, renowned French artist Christian Boltanski has installed a fascinating  artwork called Chance.  Described as the “poet advocate for the dispossessed”, the 69-year-old artist is known for his focus on memory, loss, birth and death. Inside the main hall of Carriageworks he has assembled a 20-tonne  structure, eight metres tall and 50 metres long, made of scaffolding.


The artwork, which resembles a newspaper printing press, includes a whirring conveyor belt comprised of film strips printed with the photos of newborn babies.


At either end huge digital screens flash with the real-time number of babies born around the world and the number of deaths, enabling visitors to follow the rhythm of births and deaths across the globe.


Boltanski said:

“The questions I try to ask in my work are very simple. What is it to be born? What is it to die? What is very beautiful in art is that you speak to your own village and also to everyone. Good art is also universal. My work can be understood by everyone because it is so simple. I ask the questions that everybody asks.”

Get rid of open offices. Anyone heading back to work this week in a open-plan office needs to read a great article in the current New Yorker entitled “The Open-Office Trap“. In it, writer Marian Konnikova sifts through the hundreds of studies done on the topic, concluding that open-plan offices are damaging to workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction.

Employees in shared offices experienced higher levels of stress and lower levels of concentration and motivation, she concludes. All of which reinforces my view that everyone should work from home, accompanied only by a sleeping cat. But if you work in pyjamas, please turn off your webcam.

New Year’s reservations. Most of us tend to make New Year’s resolutions, promising to eat and drink less and exercise more in the coming year. As ever, Mark Twain has the last word on the topic. In a letter written in 1863, he wrote:

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

Happy New Year.

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2 thoughts on “Saville’s shout: Syd Festival picks … the open-plan office … futility of resolutions …

  1. John Newton

    After a long period spent as a freelancer with my own office, able to keep my own hours, scratch my balls and fart when I felt like it, I returned to full time employment and the horrors of an open plan office. Later I wrote a story for Monument about the theory and practice of open plan.

    In the last paragraph, I noted that ‘The Microsoft Corporation is offering a novel inducement to seduce the best of Silicon Valley’s knowledge workers. Not Porsches, not money, not platinum credit cards – but offices: with walls, a Bigelow on the floor, and a name on the door.’

    Maybe George Bernard Shaw was more accurate than he thought when he wrote, in The Irrational Knot, “A man who has no office to go to – I don’t care who he is – is a trial of which you can have no conception.”

  2. grubbidok

    Not sure why Crikey is encouraging employees to read the New Yorker piece on open plan offices, I’m yet to meet an employee that actually likes them!

    It’s the employers and architects that need to read it!