And lose the name of Elsewhere in the Shooting Gallery at BAM’s Fisher Space

and lose the name of action in rehearsal

I saw Miguel Gutierrez’s new workAnd lose the name of actionat its very first public performance at The Walker in Minneapolis on September 19th with an audience full of national and international presenters. We had already had two full days of back-to-back showcases and came to the Walker straight from a boozy happy hour reception across town. Exhausted and tipsy I was in no way prepared to offer the kind of attention that the piece demanded. In light of my shortcomings, I was determined to revisit the piece under more favorable circumstances and thus I made my way to BAM’s Fisher Space on Saturday night to take another look and I’m glad I did.

I haven’t seen all of Miguel’s work, but of the pieces I have seen, and lose the name of action, is not the strongest. It is, I think, the most ambitious and, as a colleague of mine proposed, a transitional work. Miguel is masterful at creating an artful mess. In his most recent solo work, HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE, he revels in chaos interspersed with moments of startling clarity, precision and focus. HEAVENS, while meticulously messy, was comparatively lean and taut compared to the sprawl of Last Meadow. In and lose the name of action Gutierrez challenges himself to push further with the philosophical investigations he initiated in HEAVENS while embracing the sprawl and scope of Last Meadow.

Not only was I tired when I first saw the piece in Minneapolis, but Miguel’s ever-morphing ensemble, The Powerful People, was performing the show in public for the first time. For this incarnation of The Powerful People Gutierrez has assembled a group of seriously talented stalwarts of all ages including Michelle Boulé, Hilary Clark, Luke George, K. J. Holmes, and Ishmael Houston-Jones, with sound design by Neal Medlyn, lighting by Lenore Doxsee, and visuals and writing by Boru O’Brien O’Connell. Not a slouch among them. But in Minneapolis the piece was still tentative and exploratory, still a bit wobbly. The performers knew their parts but didn’t quite yet fully inhabit them, making it difficult to tell if it was my exhaustion or their opening night jitters that made the show feel labored. It was probably a combination of the two, to be honest, and upon returning to the piece this weekend it was stunning to see how much it had gelled. Each performer really seemed to have found their center both physically and psychologically, the performances seemed anchored and intentional and deeply, complicatedly intertwined.

The cast is an inherently diverse and complicated group of distinct individuals, but in the earlier version the levels of presence and presentation seemed off.  Now, after some touring and practice, the levels adjusted really fluidly. It is difficult to articulate but the structure of the piece ebbs and flows like the changing tides and performers come into focus and recede, evanesce and vanish, make unexpected groupings and formations that lead to peculiar actions or dissipate entirely. Hilary Clark has this amazing moment where she’s having a kind of fit, like she’s touching a live wire, and the rest of the performers careen in to touch her and bounce off like chaotic neutrons. At another point they all run around the stage until it appears they are chasing Ishmael as he shouts “Fuck You!” as if on the run.

Those are only a few of many dynamic, energetic and curious moments and lose the name of action offers. The piece alternates improvisatory sequences with audience participation, performed text and filmed monologues that are vaguely philosophical and seemingly nonsensical, referencing Jorgen Leth’s iconic 1967 experimental film The Perfect Human. From the title alone one can surmise that Gutierrez is aiming for Big Ideas, endeavoring to make a grander gesture on a bigger stage. Given what he’s aiming for and the odds of the whole thing collapsing under its own weight, he does an admirable job. The show has no lack of powerful moments and clever turnabouts and the tension between structured improvisation and actual structure is often effective. But over time, even upon revisiting the show a few months later, it still struggles a bit to sustain momentum. I found my attention wandering from time to time – not an uncommon occurrence, to be honest – and feeling like a bit of editing might have strengthened the overall effect of the evening.

The show also benefited from being in BAM’s Fisher Space. When I saw it in Minneapolis it was performed on the stage in the McGuire Theater, a vast concert hall with high ceilings, a fly system and a steeply raked audience. The stage configuration of the show is meant to be intimate and immediate, clean and white like a gallery or a fashion runway or some kind of abstract conceptual white box space from the late sixties. In Minneapolis the vast empty house of seats loomed behind us and the ceiling towered above us beyond visibility, creating a strange sensation of being at the bottom of a vast cavern. In the Fisher the flexible space proved its worth by coddling the stage configuration perfectly. The performers were close enough to the audience for intimacy but far enough for comfort, the video screens were large enough to be easily legible and low enough to feel coherent with the rest of the set, and so on. Seeing the show in this context made me all the more glad I returned to see it again.

Miguel is one of those artists whose work bears repeated visits for any given single show and over time. He is constantly exploring, expanding, questioning and growing. And lose the name of action seems to signify a shift, maybe a bit of an abrupt and awkward growth spurt, that is at once daring, accomplished and flawed. One anticipates that Gutierrez is setting the stage for what comes next, that this experiment will mature into something remarkable and new. While I found it a bit challenging at times, the compelling parts of and lose the name of action far outweighed the misfires and by the end I was pretty much won over.  Though I will say that I have a pet peeve about not giving perfomers a curtain call. I usually understand the artistic justification, but it always feels a little unsatisfying.

Speaking of unsatisfying, about a month after I first saw Miguel’s piece in Minneapolis I visited the Fisher Space at BAM for the first time to see Maya Beiser’s Elsewhere. I remember wondering what the big deal was about this new, flexible, multipurpose space that BAM had built, if this was the best they could do. Elsewhere’s approach to the space was as bland and generic as and lose the name of action’s was inventive and inspiring. Elsewhere, in fact, could have been staged anywhere.

Maya Beiser (photo by Merri Cyr)

At first I thought I would include it in my essay on Dog Days at Montclair as Elsewhere, to my mind, suffers from many of the same mistakes. But it didn’t quite fit in, and then as I honed in on what I wanted to address I decided to title the essay Film Is Evil, Radio is Good after Richard Foreman’s play of the same name which Mel Gussow described as a “cryptographic mystery about the encroachment of visual imagery into the world of sound”. Gussow’s review continues, “Movies, we are told, steal one’s image and warp one’s brain. Radio, on the other hand, is pure. It stimulates rather than suppresses the imagination.” (Side Note: I was first introduced to this work through a production directed by Dexter Bullard when we were both students at Northwestern.)

But time went by, I hadn’t finished the essay and I went to see Bill Morrison’s fantastic new project The Shooting Gallery also at BAM’s new Fisher Space, and I realized that there was a richer, fuller, more thoughtful story to tell – one about the thoughtful use of space, video and sound and the actual meaning of over-used terms like innovative and cutting-edge. Elsewhere and The Shooting Gallery each used video and music, both occurred in the same space, but their effects and implications couldn’t be more different.

Elsewhere billed itself as a CelloOpera and is, ostensibly, a “piece about the voice of women bearing witness.” Beiser commissioned new work from composers Eve Beglarian, Missy Mazzoli and Michael Gordon and then created the performance with director Robert Woodruff and a bevy of collaborators. The presentation was an overwhelmingly multimedia experience with Beiser performing in a box constructed of thick plastic wrap, seated on one bed among four that suggested alternately a detention center, a concentration camp, a prison, an insane asylum and a barracks. Onto this plastic wrap surface were projected a video consisting of a series of literal images – pictures of dictators, war-torn landscapes – and occasionally Beiser’s face with a kind of slightly-off-time jittery quality to match her distorted voice. Beiser, clad in a gauzy white nightdress, curly titian hair all a-tumble, was joined onstage by a chorus of three dancers in trench coats and Trilbys that were subsequently shed to reveal form-fitting white button-down shirts and vinyl miniskirts. These women lay down on the cots, stretched, undulated and exited, returning later with wet tresses that they whipped against the plastic.

Now I have nothing at all against beautiful, lithe, athletic young women dancing sensually onstage, taking off their overcoats to reveal skimpy outfits or whipping their wet hair around like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. It’s just that I don’t really see how this fits with the expressed theme of the work. The choreographer, Brook Notary, is an interesting choice for a “piece about the voice of women bearing witness” and “The suffering of girls and women, often voiceless, abused, raped and sometimes stoned to death.” Notary’s bio states that she is a “highly sought-after choreographer and advisor for the US Pole Dance Federation” who has “worked with some of the leading pole dancers in the nation.”

Between the athletic pole dance-influenced choreography and the ubiquitous, overwhelming and persistently literal video, I found it difficult to reconcile what I was seeing with what I was told the piece was about and what I was hearing. Because what I was hearing was brilliant. Beiser is a stunningly gifted musician and Beglarian, Mazzoli and Gordon gave her great material to work with, not to mention when she was joined by the consistently astonishing Helga Davis.

I found myself trying to block out all the distractions of video, choreography, lighting and set and just focus on the music. Beiser is ferocious and riveting. Her face, her hands, her entire self seem to meld with her instrument as she wrests sound from it. She is aggressive and passionate and startlingly inventive, whether she is playing a standard wooden cello or a souped-up electric one. From yearning middle eastern-infused melodies to industrial strength distortion and noise, Beiser brought muscular life to each composer’s score. Beiser, in and of herself, is dramatic enough.

My father is a doctor but he’s played violin all his life. When I was very young he was in a string quartet with three other doctors and I still remember curling up on the sofa in our living room listening to them play, closing my eyes to imagine what they sounds looked like, eventually falling asleep. My father’s love of music meant regular trips to the Baltimore Symphony to Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins and other classical music venues. It was always fascinating and exciting – watching the conductor, watching the musicians signal to each other or just focus on their part, looking at the funny faces soloists would make when they really got into it; or just closing my eyes and letting my mind wander in the sound, imagining all kinds of things both real and fantastic.

As I left BAM’s Fisher Theater I reflected on what I had just seen and what I just heard, the disconnect between them and my youthful memories of music before video and it hit me – Elswhere, Dog Days and all these productions with ubiquitous video and tech – whether in dance, theater or music, embody the profound self-deception that characterizes our moment.

Just as “naturalism” in theater is a style used to represent a certain psychological understanding of reality, so too is the current multimedia aesthetic. But it is a shallow style, a surface style that draws its inspiration merely from film and television: music videos, reality shows and 24-hour news channels. There is a difference between visual design and video design. A scenographer who is also a visual designer will engage with lighting, sets, costumes and all the various elements that make up the visual presentation of a staged work. The visual composition and its relation to the text, to bodies in space, to narrative – however disjointed – must cohere and, as performance is meant to be live, should support, contextualize and reinforce liveness. Video is by definition too literal, too oppressive, too dictatorial. It undermines the agency of the audience by attaching images to the abstract. Video is not a substitute for liveness, presence or actual design; it is insufficient for the thoughtful cultivation of mystery and ephemerality.

When we use video to recreate the visual aesthetics of mass media onstage, whether we think we are interrogating them or not, we are perpetuating the culture of misrepresentation that mass media fosters. We think that by calling it art we are safe in our simulacrum of interrogation when in fact we are complicit, we reveal our own passivity and acceptance of the dominant narrative. Before MTV existed rock stars could be ugly, they just had to be good. What do we lose when we demand that everything be “visual”? It is easy to mistake the image for the thing-in-itself, it is easy to lose your way, to mistake media for meaning.

To me music, like dance, is most powerful when it is mysterious, when it opens up our imaginations and brings us into new worlds, when it leaves questions unanswered.

Just last week I went to the Miller Theater to hear a composer’s portrait of Olga Neuwirth performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. The concert consisted of two pieces, the first a piano concerto titled “locus… doublure…solus” from 2001 and the second the U.S. premiere of an ambitious hour-long orchestral work entitled “…ce qui arrive…” Written for two instrumental groups, samples, and live electronic, there was no video, no visual design, no multimedia gussied up showmanship whatsoever, just an extraordinarily gifted group of musicians, a skillfully designed sound system with strategic speaker placement, and an incredible score. It was startlingly beautiful, transfixing and transporting. From the program notes by musicologist Paul Griffiths:

What happens, is. In 2002, Paul Virilio had the opportunity to expand his work as a cultural theorist into the forum of an exhibition, on the theme of accidents, under the title “ce qui arrive” (what happens). Neuwirth took the same phrase to label what developed as one of her longest and most powerful concert works, in which accidents and collisions are subsumed in music that generally moves slowly, oozing forward, and that takes place as if in a large resonant container, partly thanks to the electronic presence, on which Neuwirth worked at the Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics in Graz, partly thanks to the harmonic spectra on D — spectra often including quarter-tones — that bulge and stay and move throughout the composition. Perhaps this echoing music is the sound of memory, revolving on events — life experiences as recorded by Paul Auster, reading from his Hand to Mouth and The Red Notebook, as well as musical events and references (folk song, popular song, chorale). Or perhaps we could imagine the work’s components — instrumental and electronic music, spoken monologue, intermittent songs — as remnants of a shipwreck, reverberating underwater.

The key phrase above being, “perhaps we could imagine…” Yes, let us imagine, let us resist the dictatorship of literal imagery and representation, let us dare to see something greater, to seek and be moved by the invisible, to cultivate insight.

Here’s a preview of the concert, after the fact:

That being said, if we are to imagine a new way of interacting with sound and the moving image, you could do worse than Bill Morrison’s The Shooting Gallery. Morrison is a filmmaker and as such seems to be more thoughtful about the meaning of images, the nature of representation and the various qualities of visual media. Upon entering The Fisher Space – almost completely devoid of seating and wide open, screens hung around the room – one was handed a laser pointer which was used to trigger short video and audio clips. Part of the fun was wandering around interacting with other people, trying to figure out how it worked and which images when triggered created which sounds. Morrison used video snippets from old nitrate masters interpolating them with original footage, distorting and contorting the footage through lens and color saturation. The snippets, projected in arrays of circles, responded to laser triggers by activating music and audio composed and produced by Richard Einhorn.

The Shooting Gallery – A film and music installation by Bill Morrison and Richard Einhorn (photo by Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times)

Not only did Morrison and Einhorn actually use the Fisher Space in an entirely unexpected way, the work seemed to posit a truly interactive, multimedia immersive “theater” of the future. On the BAM webpage for The Shooting Gallery Morrison says, “The fourth wall is a synapse in the creation of a shared experience” and that the most satisfying thing about people shooting at his films with lasers is, “Creating something like a group gestalt.” While Morrison is not the first, or only, filmmaker working with these ideas of shared experience and interactivity, he is certainly moving in an interesting direction. He is operating beyond literalism and his depth of knowledge of film suggests a kind of dramaturgical rigor in the selection of source material, a clear set of aesthetic criteria for creating collages of imagery and sound. Of course NONE of this project would have been possible without Jim Findlay (who also did video for Dog Days and tons of other projects, which raises an interesting question about how artists collaborate, how their work is contextualized and how resources are allocated during project development to support – or not support – the various creative elements proportionately) and programming by Ryan Holsopple who has (had?) a company called 31Down that consistently makes kick-ass multimedia work on a shoestring budget.

We hope BAM continues to bring artists like Morrison and Gutierrez into the Fisher and that they’ll keep mixing it up. We’re looking forward to Pan Pan’s All That Fall in a week or so … and who knows what the future might bring? More mystery, more unknown, more undefinable new work, please!?