Liberty of the Press

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Like a scene taken straight from a momentous occasion at The Capital, direct from The Hunger Games (or for the sophisticates amongst you, 1984),  an opulently dressed lady in costume from a place outside of time beats a crisp pattern upon a drum slung over her body. She raises her eyes upwards towards the sweeping ceiling of an unlit dome as large banners roll down the walls in graphic patterns of white, red and black. Masonic symbols appear on the banners, along with images of unknown men casting their painted gaze over the crowd, silent and ponderous below.

Undoubtedly the most moving and thoughtfully wrought event in the MSFW calendar of events, I was honored to attend Liberty Of The Press – a performance piece and fashion event held in both the great Domed Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, and in Queen’s Hall.  Developed by Barking Spider Theatre‘s Penelope Bartlau, the experience exposes and explores the mythology of our local history. The question posed: If history is told by the victors, what happens to everyone else?

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 With a large milling crowd unsure of what to expect, we were guided to the great dome – still buzzing with students and scholars quietly working away, curious as to our presence.

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In ceremonial fashion, women in beautiful dresses replete with crinolines and a custom newspaper print fabric came to the central ‘panopticon’ point of the library. Banners unfurled down the walls of the giant cavity with a flourish, a sense of lightness set upon the audience as we move backwards in time to Melbourne of the gold rush era. Liberty Of The Press tells a story of those who fell outside the ‘official history’ of Marvellous Melbourne – namely the women of the time, and Chinese immigrants – many of whom were attracted to Australia to seek their fortune in gold. We are beckoned onwards by the lilting refrain of the hypnotic lascia ch’io pianga as we migrate to Queen’s Hall – another ornate space representative of a period of opulence and hope in our city.

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We are met in the hall by this beautiful gown – Liberty of the Press is Bartlau’s response to this item from the Realia Collection of the library. Glowing like a sepia hologram through the dark space, this gown was designed by Mrs Matilda Butters for a fancy dress ball in 1866 – dubbed the “Press Dress”. Created from silk panels which were printed with news from the papers of the day (she changed some of it to suit her political motives), Mrs Butters wore the gown along with a coronet and a staff affixed with a miniature (working!) printing press. From this press, she printed lines from a Byronic poem, hanging them as favours to guests at the ball. Such a grand PR piece was this dress that Mrs Butters helped her husband’s rise to power and influence in our fair state. To think today that the Brownlow and the Logies consitute our memorable fashion moments.

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Down the length of the hall ran richly festooned wunderkammer tables, offering glowing tableaux that originate from a never-time. Steampunk infused, with lightbulbs, lace, glowing fishbowls and Preston Zly shoes in ornate patterns. All rather magical, and a teasing precursor to the ‘runway’ show to begin.

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Slowly, women from the never-time of marvellous Melbourne made their way to either end of the hall, posing in a powerful array of various positions. Their costumes were magnificent – pairing the shapes of Victorian drama with modern tailored in an unexpected, delightful way. The bespoke prints each looked a paen to the Press Dress and Mrs Butters ingenious sense of drama. The dresses displayed on the night were a collaboration between Barking Spider Theatre and New Model Beauty Queen.

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It is rare to see a diversity of women, dressed with pleasure, purpose and an awareness of their loveliness. Particularly during fashion week, where conformity is usual and svelte youth the only option. I was most moved by this piece – a deft weaving of time travel, untold history, intelligent fashion of a kind I look forward to wearing – and the power of the intelligent woman who is able to express an idea through a creative, dramatic medium. I was so taken by Liberty of the Press that I reached out to Penelope Bartlau of Barking Spider, and went to visit her in a beautiful light-and-air-filled home by the burbling Merri Creek.

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Bartlau, one feels, could tease lost stories from any subject matter, person or place. Welcoming, bright and optimistic in her energy, she welcomed me to sit at her kitchen table as she discussed her Liberty Of The Press project with me.

“I discovered the Press Dress as part of the State Library of Victoria’s Realia collection … I am all about objects, particularly democratic ones like newspaper which are available to everyone. These materials don’t cost much, yet you can do so much with them. There was so much synchronicity between my own puppet making process (with newspaper and other found media) and this dress in the Realia collection – so I initially proposed a series of installations with small sound design to the SLV. I wanted to utilise the catacombs that run from the SLV to Exhibition Street and the four spiral staircases that down the SLV as part of a discovery trail – but this proved impractical due to safety regulations. I ended up shifting my approach for these materials to a runway event after having designers NMBQ enthusiastically come on-board to create crinoline dresses – our own versions of the Press Dress.  I kept researching the dress, and what became apparent is that there is not much information of Mrs Butters herself. On the dress itself the newspapers also omit so many people and subjects, there’s no indigenous history, no children, very little about women and certainly nothing about the Chinese immigrants of the past. It’s mostly stuff about men laying foundation stones. So I chose to focus on Chinese culture and women, these two forgotten elements of this period of time.”

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Mrs Butters’ Press Dress was made for a fancy dress ball. From the 1830’s onwards, costume balls were the most exciting of events for the moneyed. They coincided with tableaux vivants (the other element of Liberty Of The Press), which were hugely popular entertainments in Europe and colony locations such as South America and Melbourne. A tableaux vivant is a response to an artwork – an artwork come to life. The background of the painting would be constructed, and before it props and actors would assume the role of items in the picture. It was a way of educating people in the visual arts through the performing arts, and it could also be quite naughty. These tableaux vivants would take place in venues like the Athenaeum Theatre. I asked Penelope about the support around Mrs Butters, as I surmised that any woman who wanted to display her creativity and cunning in such a way would have been wealthy.

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“There was a call-and-response with costuming. The (method of) printing on the dress didn’t exist back then … so she (Mrs Butters) would have created the dress by going to printmakers directly. There was money in Melbourne because of the gold rush. Mrs Butters changed some of the press in the newspaper print, in particular to have her husband’s position elevated. She chose the articles specifically, and she was quite ambitious – her husband later became the Lord Mayor of Melbourne.”

 

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After enjoying the sunshine slowly creep its way across Penelope’s kitchen table, we strolled into her garden to admire the waving tops of her broad beans. I spoke with her about Barking Spider – the vehicle for her creative projects. “Barking Spider is about story. How we get it, where we get it from.” Penelope works with all kinds of groups and institutions – most recently a high-school in Melbourne’s outer east. “I’m working with Year 10 students on a project called ‘Out There Forever’. I’ve got these eight huge Harley Davidson boxes, which the kids have made into app boxes – Instagram, Facebook etc. They’re presenting this project to Grade 5 and 6 students, who will get a ‘passport’ as they go through each app to gain their digital citizenship. This work has been really interesting, as I’ve learned that bullying happens as much in the playground as it does online. As does good digital citizenship. Generally, people in their 40’s are dispairing of youth because there is a generational lack of trust in humanity. Of course kids are going to do stupid things and be cruel, but ultimately most people want to be kind. That is what I see happening online. I see the digital world as another platform that reflects our greater humanity.”

On this – and many other things – we agree.

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