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August 21, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Rosie Dennis, Downtown


Published August 2011 in Beat magazine

While chatting with Rosie Dennis, it’s easy to skip from Yoko Ono to weather, chemistry to art. Dennis is unaware she is making me supremely jealous as I shiver in rubbish Melbourne weather. “I’m just in a T-shirt and cardigan,” she says, on the phone from Sydney. Meanwhile, one of the coldest mornings we’ve ever had in August has recently graced Melbourne’s frosty doorsteps. Thanks, Mother Nature.

Dennis is coming to Melbourne for her new show Downtown, a meditation on what makes a city a personality in its own right. A five-day experiment, Dennis starts off with a 20-minute presentation and then expands by five minutes each night, until she has a fully-fleshed work to present to an audience that often expands throughout the week. “I try and make [each show] stand-alone performances, and I always call this work performance lecture, because I’m not in a big costume, there’s no really flash lighting designs, really because it’s made in a week, all of the technical stuff is simple.” she says.

Downtown has been shaped and performed in the same way in places as diverse as Finland, Brussels, Brisbane and Sydney. But because the work evolves through Dennis’ conversations with inhabitants of a city, each performance takes its own distinct shape, something she thinks her audience appreciates. “I guess because [this work] gets reformed each time there might be something about that that people like, because they feel like they’re getting something that’s made for their town or city or festival.”

Given the list of basic equipment she uses, Dennis’ work reaches into various elements of daily life. “I like to do chemistry…[and] I’ve got a big roadworks sign as well, so there’s lots of different things in those first four nights that I unpack with an audience about what I’m think of doing with it and how it’s going to work.”

Then Yoko Ono comes in the conversation, almost out of nowhere. Dennis mentions that she contacted Ono after writing a story about her that she wanted to include in the work. And in a rather fascinating twist, Ono replied.

“Because [Downtown] is about being connected in real space…I started writing a story, and it was about Yoko Ono and I…I thought, actually, I should probably check with Yoko that she’s OK that I’ve written a story about her and I. So I just sent her an emaiI [and] asked her permission…And she replied! She said that it was totally fine.” If you’re lucky, Dennis adds, you may even hear from Ono herself in Downtown. “At the beginning of every show I email her and give her my location and the last date of final performance, I offer if she’d like to send a message to the audience on the last night. I update the story of her and I, I sent her a copy…It’s all just via email, really. But I like it because it’s kind of what the work is about.”

Indeed, Dennis is entranced by the ideas of technology and connectedness and Downtown. “People reveal very different things when you’re standing right beside them that they would reveal if they posted a status update on Facebook from the comfort of their own home. For example they didn’t quite get the privacy settings [right], so they broadcasted something like…People don’t ever tell me really that they’ve broken up with their partner. But I can see that someone’s now single on Facebook that I don’t even know.”

In the end, Downtown is an experiment in how technology creates connections between people, providing a direct expression of those result through art. And Yoko Ono, of all people, is thrown into the mix.

“I have questions around technology and these social networking sites that are much more about what it means to be posting or communicating with something in silence in a personal space, but then it’s broadcast publicly,” Dennis says. “What do we feel like we say to people in this very personal space in our bedroom with our own PC or with our iphone or ipad, that then gets broadcast globally.”

Downtown is playing at the North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street on 16 and 20 August at 7pm and 12 midday respectively.

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