PSi #21 Fluid States Cook Islands, Conference as Confluence, by Rarotonga Correspondent Una Chaudhuri

Conference as Confluence:

Fluid States in the Cook Islands


by Una Chaudhuri


31 July 2015


PSi#21 Fluid States – Cook Islands – Oceanic Performance Biennal


PDF available here


In keeping with its liquid aspirations, “Fluid States: Raratonga,” began before it began.  That is to say, the temporal boundaries of the conference—traditionally represented by a conference launch, or a welcome reception, or an opening plenary—were rendered porous by several events and experiences leading up to them.  The afternoon before the conference officially began, a number of organizers and delegates gathered at picnic tables on the deep verandah of the Te Ipukarea Society, a non-government, civil society environmental organization (NGO/CSO), to learn about local environmental initiatives and challenges. That evening, even more conference attendees gathered on the deck of Trader Jack’s Bar and Grill, to socialize and to participate in the first of many performances that were woven through the program. This one, Winds of Strain by Geoff Gilson, immediately engaged the conference theme, “Sea Changes,” because it involved the performer emerging from the ocean, bearing objects representing current assaults on marine health, which he presented to a performer executing a classic tourist “cultural performance” dance on the shore.  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 of the conference also began before it began.  For the adventurous among us began in at daybreak on a “reef sub,” from whose submerged deck we inspected an old shipwreck while hearing about its history, and that of Raratonga's harbor, from the boat’s skipper, before being drawn into an unexpectedly stirring and mysterious performance: long, haunting notes were heard from the lower deck, from which a woman (Olivia Webb) emerged, her eyes fixed on the ocean, singing the Cold Song from Purcell’s King Arthur.  This was our second performance (before the conference had begun!), created by Janine Randerson and featuring a number of conference delegates and local actors, in which the exquisite song was framed by a series of “impromptu” responses to the question “So, what’s the ocean like where you come from?” asked by Geoff Gilson in the role of “Nosy Tourist”! Some of the ocean speeches were as shattering as the song, vividly evoking the vast losses of sea-life—and consequent loss of human life quality—the Pacific Islands have suffered in recent decades.

The formal conference opening was a glorious affair, involving flower head wreaths for all the delegates, a stirring traditional greeting by a community elder, a procession into the building where we would be that day, and several speeches—in both English and Cook Islands Maori—by conference organizers Ani O’Neill, Dorita Hannah, and representing Amanda Yates, Moko Smith.

The conference that followed was among the most imaginative, engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable I have ever attended. Though small (or perhaps because small)—only about sixty people—the “event dramaturgy” involved made it a time of fresh experiences and genuine learning.  Not only was each of the three days of the conference located in different parts of the Island (in each of its three main districts) but each day’s program also involved surprising—and delightful—displacements: moves across and within fascinating spaces (made more fascinating by the kind of attention we Performance Studies people inevitably brought to them): fields, lagoons, a “peace garden,” an island, a beach, a ruined hotel (abandoned Sheraton project!), and a “heritage village” designed for touristic performances.

The conference program used these disparate venues in extraordinarily generative ways. For example, at the heritage village, (the venue for much of Day Two), we were greeted outside the gates by a larger-than-life figure in a full, campy indigenous drag (this was Henry Ah-Foo Taripo, a local performance artist) then led through a series of vivid performance-encounters with two members of the Pacific/Maori feminist group The Pacific Sisters—Rosanna Raymond and Ani O’Neill—as well as Auckland-based artist Aroha Rawson.  The wild costumes and ferocious performance styles bore a complex and ironic relationship to the slicker, more ingratiating touristic versions we were exposed to at other times, yet they were by no means merely disjunct from—or critical of—the idyllic constructed space of thatched huts, bird-filled forests and flower-fringed ponds where we found ourselves.  Their energy and intelligence seemed to index—even, perhaps, awaken—the true spirit of that place, its genius loci

Investigating the space we were in, and animating it through performance was clearly key to the organizers’ vision of the event as a whole, as was their implicit (and countervailing) recognition of the fact that no visitors to a culture—no matter how pluralistic their vision and how earnest their explorations, can ever understand much in three short days. The sense that we were there to be obscurely mystified as much as to be informed and enlightened was brilliantly captured, for example, in Dorita Hannah’s brilliant three-part piece “The Island Bride,” which had its eponymous figure, white-gowned and -veiled, appear at unexpected moments and places and beckon us to follow it. The first time it took us across a field where a black horse grazed; the second time it appeared on a paddleboard near the boat we were on (returning from a performance/action/conversation that had taken us to a nearby island!) and led us up from the beach, our pace slowing to match hers as she dragged her now water-logged and detritus-laden wedding train behind her.  The figure embodied an uncanny mixture of elegance and abjection, entrapment and hope.  It reflected the rich ambivalence—deliberately cultivated and willingly faced—of the situation we found ourselves in, as critically inclined artists and scholars in an ideologically constructed “Paradise”!

Critical thinking about the fate of island nations like the Cook Islands, both in the colonial past as well as the globalizing and climatically chaotic present and future, formed the subject of many of the academic panels, in which the conference’s sub-title “Performing a Fluid Continent,” was engaged through analyses of the role of performance—especially in negotiating historical cultural depredations and current economic injustices.  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. The complexity and importance of this topic was signaled early in the conference in the remarkable Keynote delivered by Latai Taumoepeau a Tongan performance artist whose account of her recent work on climate change was as emotionally powerful as it was intellectually rigorous.

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.  In the Raratonga case, this aspect was immeasurably enhanced by the fact that one of the organizers—Ani O’Neill—has deep roots in the local community, which embraced the conference with extraordinary generosity and hospitality.  Many social interactions with local experts, craftspeople, scientists, culture workers and political leaders were woven into the program, often over meals, making the conference a period deeply enjoyable intercultural learning and insight. 

Perhaps the most emblematic—and memorable—of such encounters was the one we had with a traditional navigator who talked to us about the maritime methods—ways of reading currents, tides, and the night sky—that enabled the voyages through which early Pacific civilizations spread and flourished.  A charismatic man and engaging speaker, Teuatakiri Tearutua Arthur Pittman (aka Tua), had participated in the recent 20,000-mile sea voyage that a group of Pacific islanders made to San Francisco, in a fleet of seven vaka.  Now the subject of a film entitled Te Mana o Te Moana: Pacific Voyagers, the grueling and dangerous journey was undertaken to draw attention to the dangerously imperiled health of the world’s oceans. As we sat on the pier at sunset, listening to Tua, while gazing at two exquisite vakas in the glittering lagoon water beside us, the conference’s theme of Sea-Changes seemed to attain an intense site-specificity and a powerful sense of embodiment.  The moment both illuminated and complicated many of the ideas presented in the formal academic papers we had heard or were to hear later.  This was conference as confluence, the coming together of many streams to feed the fluid state of performance knowledge. 


Copyright –  Una Chaudhuri (2015) “Conference as Confluence: Fluid States in the Cook Islands,” PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Environment Ecology and Performance  Indigeneity and Performance  Performance Studies in the Pacific  

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