Sue Pam-Grant

Guard on Shift is a theatre installation produced by artist and director, Sue Pam-Grant, and Xoli Norman, a dramatist and musician. It is the experience of Pam-Grant’s installation that we first encounter as viewers.

Laid out on the stage area of the Dance Factory, the installation is a network of ‘electric’ fencing that rises up, wall-like, and closes over part of the narrow passageways below. It is these passageways that viewers have to first enter on their way to the venue’s ramped seating. Not dissimilar the opening gambit at the Apartheid Museum, Pam-Grant’s claustrophobic passageways however offer only one entrance, one exit and no way of turning back, forcing us to abandon ourselves to the material intimacy of the installation.

Sue Pam-Grant, and Xoli Norman Guard-on-shift2008Guard on Shift is a theatre installation produced by artist and director, Sue Pam-Grant, and Xoli Norman, a dramatist and musician. It is the experience of Pam-Grant’s installation that we first encounter as viewers. Laid out on the stage area of the Dance Factory, the installation is a network of ‘electric’ fencing that rises up, wall-like, and closes over part of the narrow passageways below. It is these passageways that viewers have to first enter on their way to the venue’s ramped seating. Not dissimilar the opening gambit at the Apartheid Museum, Pam-Grant’s claustrophobic passageways however offer only one entrance, one exit and no way of turning back, forcing us to abandon ourselves to the material intimacy of the installation. Because it is fencing rather than solid walls, viewers are able to look right through the installation, and comprehend its additional elements: a guard hut, a washing line hung with laundry, a video projection of texts and images of laundry flapping in the wind, and four women, each atop a wooden box (who, for the duration of our procession through the maze, are quite still and quiet). A solo trumpeter, up behind the ramped seating, blows sounds that increasingly become interactions with the singers. The combination of the view through, and the placement of the actual and virtual washing lines, dispel and disorientate any firm sense of the domestic inside that is protected from the outside world. The experience of walking through Pam-Grant’s installation is more militaristic than traditionally suburban, and its resonance with concentration camps will surely resonate powerfully when the piece travels to Germany.Once through the installation, viewers move from the materiality of art to the performance of theatre. We cease to be viewers who make meaning through our walking around art, and now sit down to become an audience whose experience of an unfolding performance is more controlled in its perspective and consequently shared as an experience. It is in this shift that the installation loses some of its potency. We now look from a distance. While the ramped seating provides an opportunity to survey the installation in its entirety, we loose much of the sense of being in a confusing and contradictory world made by the desires, needs, obsessions and contradictions that drive our needs for safety and security. I wanted to be down there, not up here, listening to the voices and gazing up at the trumpeter. In a submission to theatre conventions he is ‘hidden’ behind the audience who, once seated, initially turn around to hear his music, but soon treat his sounds as coming from elsewhere. It is only the guard, dressed in black in the semi-lit space and with flashlight in hand, who walks down the rows occupied by the audience, disrupting the space between the stage and the seating. For the rest, Guard on Shift is a very controlled work that is often simply constructed in single voices and sounds, as well as repetitions. Pam-Grant has worked with Norman to create a narrative that variously conflates, shares and mocks the anxiety, obsessions and neuroses of suburban security into a series of interwoven statements delivered between speaking and singing. Drawing on the convention of the art world video installation, the performance is loosely repeated twice for the audience. I wanted to get up and leave halfway through the second ‘loop’, not because I didn’t like the experience, but because that’s what the gallery allows me to do when I view at anything set to ‘repeat’. More loops, started before the first viewer enters the space, and ending only after the last viewer has left, will surely more successfully make the kinds of play between art and theatre that the Pam-Gram and Norman perhaps intended.
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