Interview with Philip Adams and Matthew Bird

The 2015 MPavilion, which was designed by renowned British architect Amanda Levete of AL_A studios, has been unveiled today. As part of the annual MPavilion event series and Melbourne Festival 2015, a unique collaboration has come to life. Architect Matthew Bird and choreographer Philip Adams have come together to celebrate Melbourne’s exceptional architecture for the iconic Melbourne Tram Art Project.

The work of Adams and Bird, Rooftop Landing and Freeway combine Melbourne’s city architecture and freeway cityscapes through inspired photography and ethereal imagery. We spoke to Adams and Bird about their unique partnership, artistic research, alien encounters and the Melbourne Art Tram Project.

fluoro. A choreographer and an architect: was this collaboration a clash or a surprising fit?

Adams & Bird. It’s all of those things and that’s what makes us an interesting duo in the way we see our roles interrupting the other. There is a handing over of permissions around the way we go about our business – it’s like we are the perfect clients for each other in that way. We arrive at ideas through a frenzy of “what ifs” that leads us to the source of a project working through materials, locations, daring situations, improvisations, jumping over private fences and getting arrested all in the name of art. We support each other in a kind of opposing design and physical processes to find the unexpected and ways to experiment in our job.

Our collaborations draw the public into an experience/encounter of choreographies, designs and images – the Melbourne Art Tram project is a perfect example of all these elements coming together, like an alien-landing site travelling around Melbourne in search of a pad. The other thing about us is that we are die-hard modernists, the influence of modernism being a core focus of our architecture and performance practise. It’s been driving us around the planet connecting us with the houses, buildings and monuments of mid 20th Century architects inspiring us to no end.

f. How did the collaboration come about? 

A & B. We have been experimenting together since 2010, ever since meeting in a South Yarra basement of a wealthy arts patron. Over the past five years we have developed an unorthodox architect-choreographer collaborative practice with a range of creative project outcomes, from formal and unsolicited performances, to sculptures, exhibitions, and photographic essays. All our projects have been developed upon extensive and exciting field research, residencies, and trialing ideas with volunteers and the public.

f. Tell is about the journey that led to the image for the Melbourne Art Tram Project from initiation to final result. 

A & B. It all started on a research excursion to the Mojave Desert in California, USA to experience and document The Integratron and surrounding desert context, visiting utopian communities across the American Southwest. The Integratron is a small and curious building in desert no-man’s-land, built in the 1950s by George Van Tassel, a metaphysics and aviation enthusiast, essentially to communicate with aliens. Van Tassel had an encounter with an ‘advanced entity’ who telepathically communicated blueprints to construct a perfectly composed dome – both acoustically and aesthetically – with a central oculus and 16 radial apertures.  The experience of The Integratron was at once a utopian oddity and revelation of supernatural desire thus becoming the catalyst to construct architectural-performative interpretations in photography and installations works.

We deposited three “landing site” responses to The Integratron over two years in California, USA, Luxembourg, and Melbourne, Australia. In our first attempt in California on the desert floor – just five miles from the site at Big Rock, where Van Tassel communicated with the aliens – we armed ourselves with ‘marking’ materials of pegs, reflectors, and builder’s line sourced from a local Home Depot. A radial landing site was assembled in an attempt to communicate with the supposed aliens. And the aliens did arrive in the form of a ‘desert-rat’, a menacing alien appearing from nowhere on a trail bike with tattoos and rifle. The surreal experience was amplified with the desert-rat circumnavigating the landing site with doughnuts and burnouts. This important and dubious moment was at once conceptually compelling for the project and near-death terrifying.

Later came a residency in Luxembourg advancing our alien combination skills, advancing the design and experience on a snowy hillside (a massive contrast to the desert). We added more materials to our process including cement mixers and blankets.

Finally the research taking us back to Melbourne. Arriving on a CBD high-rise building roof top landing and freeways, we present a double sided vision of Melbourne’s architectural and freeway cityscape through photography. Elevated 100 meters above street level, an anonymous figure in unidentifiable motorbike attire performs instinctual neo-dada movement experimenting with an alien ‘unknown’ existence. Rooftop is a radial landing site crafted in an attempt to create an immersive abduction experience. Freeway explores the architectural doctrines and cultures of modernist freeways. Melbourne’s Ring Road, Monash Freeway and more specifically the Tullarmaine Freeway entrance, echo historical infrastructural progress of our freeway networks. An unexpected figure in this series is juxtaposed with a 1960s futuristic architectural vision and culturally symbolic of its worker inhabitants.

f. What are the insights gained from this collaboration? 

A & B. Space and body are binary. One needs the other. Body transfigures space and space transfigures body. Thoughtful architects and choreographers equally design and consider spatial experience. We do this in our own esoteric manner by working inside each other’s pockets, creating projects from scratch and mutually developing them from a curious thought to a realised public outcome. Working closely throughout all phases provides new possibilities that are non-traditional, and offers the world an inspired anachronistic spatial-body reconfiguration to provoke, delight and question.

f. How has this project inspired your future work?

A & B. Several projects have sparked since this collaboration, and specifically the notions of participation have become even more central, culminating in the realisation of performances and collective pieces. Embassy, an intriguing quartet of panel garage doors is held in unison by a robust, workmanlike timber frame, yet lifted out of the ordinary via its glossy ‘skin’ of stark white paint. The installation appears as a set of contradictions: a pure, modernist form and, at the same time, a commentary on the Australian suburb and a celebration of the banal.

Future Wagon a nomadic home of tomorrow. Matthew constructed a low-tech caravan project for a family of four from ‘do-it-yourself’ materials, and amalgamates numerous wandering references from stagecoaches of the Wild West, gypsy caravans, and Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion, to homemade billy carts. Phillip pulled through Caulfield in search of a place to rest and it ended up being displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Now exhibition. The use of materiality is still a lynchpin of artistic engagement that proves a genuine source of renewal each time. Our practise is rife with many physical and visual vocabularies and it is here that we feel most at ease. We appear to be calling for an essential live participation to experience the works now often with a sense of expected anticipation and seduction.  We can think of our collaboration as scaffolding of supporting structures between us, each obsessed by a thread of modernist resuscitation.

f. Do you see yourselves engaged in more or less cross-profession collaborations in the future? Why?

A & B. There are so many more ‘what if’ questions to investigate and so many more curious locations to inspire and provoke new collaborative projects. We nudge each other along seeking out creative ways to fund our expeditions, to realise our work and leave a trail of stunned participants, confused and hopefully enlightened. Who knows what tomorrow will bring and whether our ‘cross’ or ‘inter’ will integrate and dissolve, but we are excited to produce, evolve and exhibit our spatial curiosities while we are aroused to do so.

f. Post the collaboration what’s on the agenda for each of you?

A & B. We are ready to have our first major exhibition next year, and brainstorming how the body of our work can be assembled into a gallery site.  We are super keen to find the right-curated context, as the exhibition will surely require some kick arse space. As far as new stuff is happening we have our eye on the abandoned movie sets constructed for the first Star Wars almost 40 years ago.  Shot in Tunisia, North Africa, today these sets offer an uncanny quality of the future that never arrived, and we also see them as ruins that question civilisation and authenticity. There is the proposition of reconstructing them in other materiality and experimenting with a performative narrative. We are also hell bent on a pilgrimage in 2016 to research and document American architect Bruce Goff’s seriously futuristic mid century homes found across the United States’ Mid West such as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Kansas City, Missouri.

The work of Adams and Bird is a thought-provoking pursuit of discovering the distant, unknown and irregular. Their work for the Melbourne Art Tram Project can be seen on select Melbourne trams from Monday 5 October as part of the 2015 MPavilion series and Melbourne Festival 2015.

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