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NZ Fringe Festival 2013
Binge Culture

at Wellington Waterfront, in front of Circa Theatre, Wellington
16 Feb 2013
[1 hr (or Sun 17th if 16th is wet)]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 16 Feb 2013

A lone whale wails its mournful cry amid strollers, skate-boarders and people gathered in the midday sun to watch intrepid little boys jump off the high dive platform at Taranaki Wharf. Bigger boys in togs giggle at the sight.

Well, it's a young woman after all, in a wet suit with corrugated cardboard ‘pectoral fins', and she is deeply immersed in her make-believe world, warping and wefting her tale of woe punctuated with sudden upward thrusts.

And suddenly: she's beached, bro! Stranded on the tarmac between Te Papa and the harbour. And people in hi viz vests are asking passers by – and those in the know who have come prepared with buckets, spray bottles and towels – to fetch water and keep her wet …

Meanwhile, we soon discover, a pod is migrating from Cuba Mall and another from Civic Square, drawn inexorably to her cries. For the sake of provocation and to see how the Binge Culture team will handle it, I ask if shooting the lone whale to silence her might be preferable to allowing her to attract the approaching pods and having them strand in sympathy. This is offered as a serious moral and ethical dilemma, and it leads to an interesting discussion on what we know and don't know about how whales communicate, or not, in and out of water, and what it is that makes them strand.

Soon 33 ‘whales' have stranded and as the participatory ‘happening' plays out some interesting facets emerge.

The facilitators – or those I notice anyway – are extremely authoritarian in issuing instructions and information and the helpers seem pleased there is clarity and leadership here.

Much is made of not pouring water into, or otherwise blocking, their blowholes but nothing has been added to the wetsuits to indicate the position of them (a note for next time, perhaps, if there is one).

A full forty minutes remain before, we are told, the tide will be high enough to refloat the whales. Throughout the entire exercise the ‘whales' remain completely in role, flat on the bellies, wailing or singing or moaning (who knows?) and adults and children alike stick with their task of looking after each whale.

I can't help but wonder how long they will keep it up without some sort of dynamic  change to keep the ‘drama' alive. But this is how it is at strandings. People have to get over themselves and attend to the task at hand, and this is what happens. Remarkable.

When the word comes that it is time to turn the whales towards the water and prepare them for refloating, everyone accepts the convention that this means helping them to their feet and leading them to the wharf's edge. One is too far gone to make it and we have to join hands to prevent the others returning. The cardboard fins are quietly dropped (so they don't pollute the harbour), the ‘whales' stand on the rim of the wharf and three blasts on a whistle sends them into the brine.

The collective plunge and the surfacing of 32 massively joyous and very human faces simultaneously brings us back to reality and allows the participants above and celebrate with heartfelt applause and those below to wallow in it.  

It has been a different experience for each person involved or observing and everyone – apart, perhaps, from the American tourist who walked by early in the piece and declared “I can't believe what some people do!” – will have different opinions as to why and how it worked. And it did. 
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Ralph Upton posted 17 Feb 2013, 09:54 AM / edited 17 Feb 2013, 12:00 AM

For those who missed it, there's some brief video footage of the event here: