By Urszula Dawkins
A collection doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Whether it’s teacups or tax receipts, there’s a process – be it predictable, chaotic or serendipitous – by which objects-of-a-kind come together. So it is with RRAMP – a bizarre electronica-dance-metal-rock band comprising three artists-of-a-kind: Christine Johnston (the Collector), Lisa O’Neill (the Archivist) and Peter Nelson (the Electrocrat). As imposing gothic songstress, obedient assistant and devoted technophile, the three all dwell together in the Collector’s house – a cavernous mansion filled with precious objects and abounding with tales of their provenance…
Working together for ten years, the trio behind RRAMP has created works including children’s show Fluff and the surreal and bewitching Pianissimo; and characters such as the musical-saw-playing Decent Spinster, and operatic bird-caller Madame Lark. (Collector Christine Johnston is also co-creator with Annie Lee of the inimitable Kransky Sisters). Johnston describes RRAMP as the continuation of a decade-long conversation between herself, O’Neill, Nelson, and their audience, a “saying hello again”. And for those new to the trio’s work, it’s a guided tour through the creative corridors of a unique long-term collaboration: a walk through a highly unusual abode, its eccentric inhabitants, and a category-defying compendium of music, dance, visuals, comedy and theatre.
RRAMP began life as a Brisbane Powerhouse commission, says Johnston. “We wanted to perform as a band with original songs and stories, based very much in truth…,” she says – but a truth that at the same time involves “highlighting the more obscure”. Their characters evolved from their real relationships:
“Peter’s attention to detail and skill with electronica constantly excites me and Lisa’s discipline and precision is eye-bulging!!… During the development of Fluff I had a back injury, which meant I couldn’t bend down or move much. Lisa’s role turned into a very busy helper – it seems to have stuck.”
The Collector is indeed a stiff-backed Lady of the House; her busy Archivist assistant is by turns prim and madly balletic as she takes dictation or smashes electronic percussion while furiously balancing en-pointe. Electrocrat Peter Nelson says that RRAMP was an opportunity for a different kind of intensity to their earlier work. “We were able to open ourselves up to extremes, from the more introspective to dark guitar-driven numbers,” he says.
Amid the clang of Johnston’s shiny Hagstrom guitar (the Electrocrat’s favourite item in the collection, along with various anatomical specimens kept in jars), whimsical animations by new collaborator Ahmarnya Price play across a screen, delightfully illustrating tales both strange and true. According to O’Neill, collecting is a theme that has long interested Christine Johnston, “so we constructed the RRAMP house where the Collector lives with her stuff and procured companions the Archivist and the Electrocrat…”
“I think the most potent theme, which prevails throughout the work, is the notion of ‘Devotion’,” O’Neill says.
Devotion to a collection of body parts or emotions in jars; devotion between band members, yes – but chickens? Johnston explains:
“There was a particular story from my childhood that really struck me… It was a relationship between a rooster, two of the hens and myself. I had such strong memories if it and about how much this little community of birds reflected human nature and community, that when I mentioned it to Lisa and Peter we were all interested in re-telling it as part of the show.”
“Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and framing the simple and mundane things can sometimes be the most poignant. [We] can sometimes see a reflection of [ourselves] through these simple things – without being threatened – and are able to have a laugh at [ourselves]. The show recalls how we met and a collection of our stories.”
From all accounts, creating RRAMP was itself a collection – of lugging road cases and setting up gear; waiting in the corner of room “on my yoga mat going through my Ashtanga yoga sequence” (O’Neill); constructing programmed drum kits (Nelson); creating musical signatures for each character, from majestic strings to glockenspiel-y textures; syncing audio and video together…
“When we were offered a little band-practice room in a warehouse we were raring to go,” says Johnston, “but most of what we practised [at first] was cleaning, talking about ideas, and drinking coffee… Leila (Maraun), although now the backstage backbone of the group, kicked us off with a bass line and it was all on!!”
“It wasn’t long before we had to abandon our little band room…but by then Peter had set up his own studio at Ipswich so we moved there and that’s where the bulk of ‘things to come’ began… The recent floods only came to the front door, which fortunately spared all the equipment. When not working on music we had also been spending time at the Brisbane Powerhouse in a great old brick rehearsal room that seemed to float our stories to the surface…”
Collections sometimes have clear rules for inclusion and a clear set of attributes in common. And sometimes, paradoxically, their value comes from their very diversity and randomness. The rule for inclusion in RRAMP, says O’Neill, was that everything in the Collector’s collection was to be based on truth.
“There is a comic sense of randomness within the collection,” O’Neill says, “but also some commonalities. The Collector finds immense comfort in her collection. She has collected stories about chickens and people, that essentially look at the strength and determination of the human spirit… [She] also bottles her own emotions, as she is somewhat confronted and bemused by these emotions, choosing to keep them firmly sealed in jars. It’s as though the Collector’s external collection forms her identity as she shies away from her own self…”
The Collector – or rather, Johnston – says that as long as she can remember, she has been collecting things that make her happy:
“Usually old worn things… they hold something that connects the past and the present. The Collector’s collections become part of her…and part of her past and future. It’s like a nation’s culture on a much smaller scale.”
Objects of memorabilia, bits of sunburn, repetition and order, science, love interest and intrigue, madness and frustration – an imposing, black-garbed lady of bewitching vocal talents; her neat-frocked and organised Archivist; and her eager, devoted Electrocrat, “allowed to explore soundscapes and play as much music as I want”. Everything in a collection is in some way a ‘favourite’, though the work of maintaining it, for its dedicated guardian at least, sometimes leaves little time to ponder its delights. Says O’Neill:
“I don’t really have a favorite item…too busy trying to keep the collection in order…long hours of collating, shelving, labelling and dusting! But the story of the tea set is my story… I really did go to sleep at night with a china tea set placed strategically around my head by my mother…and she would kiss it good night… I would of course wake up in the morning with cups and saucers all through my sheets!”
THE COLLECTOR, THE ARCHIVIST & THE ELECTROCRAT
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wed 5 – Sat 8 Sep 2012
(03) 9322 3713