Punctum, 2012

My Best Friend by Malcolm Whittaker

Response by Jude Anderson

Malcolm Whittaker had not anticipated that his commemorative
walk for dog walkers in Castlemaine would spark furore and
public debate. A self described “young man from Sydney”,
My Best Friend was a response to the loss a year earlier of
Winnie, his families long-time pet dog.

Whittaker had spent two weeks in Mount Alexander Shire
drawing out stories and garnering memories from residents
who’d lost their pet dogs. My Best Friend was a walk he was
creating “because these stories that we possess and the
sharing of them give us something to hold onto in the absence
of these dogs.” He was shaping a “performed eulogy‟ with
participants within the bucolic setting of “ground zero for
dog walkers in Mount Alexander Shire” where owners tended to
walk their dogs off the leash at dawn and/or dusk. The
conversations Whittaker had had with residents were by all
accounts intimate and moving. They’d been conducted in
residents’ homes, preferred meeting places, or in the
vicinity of this “ground zero‟ for dog
walking. He’d at first been taken a little off guard having
to shift from his self confessed preferred performance mode
of irony to the delicacy and empathy required for engendering
conversations around death. But his gentle wit and genuine
enquiry opened the way for participating residents to speak
authentically about their lost pet dogs.

The timing of the performed walk coincidentally fell during
the AFL Grand Final weekend so Whittaker did not
expect a crowd, just a few participants for whom the loss of
their dog meant more than a win by “their team‟. So it was
somewhat of a surprise to find the gathering that awaited at
the Mount Alexander Shire Golf Course. And there was dissent
in the air.

Participants, audience members, dog walkers and members of the
golf course executive committee were in furtive conversation when
I arrived. The Committee members were incensed. The radio
interview which Whittaker had given had been the last straw – a
way too public affirmation of what had apparently been THE hot
issue for the executive committee over the last week – the golf
course was private property for fee paying members and “certainly
not a free public service” for dog owners. And to have the “dog
walker free for all announcement” on radio on top of the official
Council reminder received by the golf course committee to fulfill
their responsibility with regard to public liability following a
letter of complaint the Council had received from “of all things –
a dog walker!” was the final nail. The committee was not only
going to close down the performance, but close down the golf
course to dog walkers.

But art, especially Live Art informs a texture of exchange that
draws from the particularity of circumstance. Suddenly we were
in the realms of real civic engagement where the intended form
of a commemorative walk had exploded into real public debate and
negotiation. The meaning of private had shifted, and our place
in the public was being interrogated. There was immediacy, and
a drama of rights, loss and all that might be lost was unfolding
in the moment and we were all living it together and working to
resolve it. It was alive; unique. It created exchange and shift
where resolve between the committee and the dog walkers to find
a common solution was shared. The performance would go on, the
dog walkers could use the golf course, communication channels
had been created and information would be circulated.

Live Art as mediation.

Whittaker’s commemorative walk began thus, in the afterglow
of a happy end to a civic debate in the dying hours of a sunny
winter’s day on a country golf course. Whittaker’s gently witty
welcome speech referenced all the dogs he had come to meet
via sharing stories with their owners and was the perfect digestif
following the adrenalin of the gate gathering. Using a ‘pet ball
launcher’ as a ‘way finder’, we followed Whittaker as he led us
across the golf course and listened as the dog owners related or read
their written stories of their lost dogs. We reflected upon the
semantics of whether to use the words “owners‟ or “parents‟.
We witnessed owners who had not known whether to laugh or cry in
the telling of their stories.

Whittaker finished his opening speech with a quote from a lost pet
dog owners investor in the pet cemetery documented in the Errol
Morris film Gates of Heaven: “Death is for the living, it is not
for the dead”. A fitting reminder from Whittaker that Live Art in
its aliveness can embrace big poetic themes.

Live Art as meditation.

Jude Anderson (Punctum Artistic Director) 2012 ©