Talking to 600 Highwaymen
About a year ago Jennie MaryTai Liu sat down with Michael Silverstone and Abigail Browde, the collaborative duo at the heart of 600 Highwaymen for a chat about life, work, art, toast and their new piece The Record that was opening at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn and opens this week as part of the 2014 Under The Radar Festival.
Jennie MaryTai Liu: What inspires you generally? What sparks your imagination? Fantasies, images, other art pieces, performances, songs, people, and sense of needing or wanting to do something?
Michael Silverstone : I have a lot of those. I used to be inspired by a kind of frustration. About five or six years go, I was very frustrated and that really inspired me to do something different. I was really frustrated with what I was doing and seeing. I didn’t know it would transform into inspiration because it felt really awful, but I was really upset with how I was positioned in creativity. And specifically that had to do working on plays, where I was actually more of a manager and janitor of a play. That pushed me.
I feel like I have all the stereotypes or clichés. I will listen to music over and over on my iPod, and that really does it for me. Sometimes I like to start with Kelly Clarkson.
JMTL: What would inspire you about a Kelly Clarkson song for example?
MS: It’s the emotion. Almost always its something emotional and I just start thinking about what the best way is to frame the emotion. I guess I get stuck on these songs.. there are like ten songs…
JMTL: What are some of the other ones?
MS: Well, I used this song “Magic Man” by Heart in four shows. Because for some reason it was really exciting me, this song. You know it.
Abigail Browde: (singing) “He’s a magic man …”
MS: (singing) “Cold late night so long ago…. Come on home girl!”
AB: (singing) “Try to understand! Try to understand!”
MB: That song really landed for me for six or seven years. It was so theatrical in a way I thought was right. So then lately it’s this 10cc song. The music from the movie The Virgin Suicides really inspires me. So I’ll go to a museum, and for me that’s a total drive… I can go to any museum and listen to music really loud. Which is another cliché.
AB: It’s not cliché.
MS: No it’s like a teenage girl thing.
JMTL: Can you go to a museum and look at something that’s seemingly unemotional, and listen to that emotional music?
MS: Yeah because it’s not even about what I’m looking at, but rather it’s about the space that I’m giving to experience something. You know the thing about museums is that there’s all this empty space to project whatever you want onto. I can get stuck on the museum tags, that’s enough to experience something.
And just staring at something just makes room for whatever is going on in the back of my head to kind of come through. So if I can go somewhere and listen to this playlist over and over, generally that’s the way to do it for me. Like, one song sixty times in one room – that’s kind of the way it happens for me.
And then what’s weird is that my first experience with a spark of inspiration is frustration. Instead of going “eureka”, I go “goddamn it”. There’s a sense of frustration which turns into this really potent creative juice. And then I come home and I try to talk to Abby. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. For me this show that we’re working on now started with me listening to this one song, and thinking, “there is something in this.”
AB: And your frustration, means, because we’re married, I get like ‘why are you so mad?!’ because I’m so quiet about that part… it’s the total opposite.
MS: I get sort of locked, emotionally. It’s like right on the cusp or something.
JMTL: There is this Morton Feldman interview where he talks about the anxiety of art as being separate from the anxiety of the artist, and this idea that the thing you want to make as having a kind of anxiety on it’s own.
AB: That’s right.
MS: Yeah– that’s right, the thing that I’m experiencing, it’s not personal anxiety, it’s more like the anxiety of thing that’s trying to happen. I think for me on a personal level it’s taken a while to figure that out as we work together. To be like “oh that’s that thing”… separate from me.
AB: To me it feels more like fear. For me I have this fear of fear, and fear makes it happen. Fear is the fuel.
JMTL: Abby, could you take the question on?
AB: I have always been fairly inspired by patterns and systems. I always loved doing algebra and trigonometry in school, and geometry– like here’s a triangle, now what is inside this triangle, and having to bisect the angles. I always found that creatively sparking. And the same with algebra, when we’re presented with this thing that we have to pick apart. And I realize as we’ve made more work- separately and together- that that is a huge influence on how I make work. Also the feeling that I’m after. It’s not necessarily to make work that should be solved, but the way that I approach the making process and the way that inspires the process of making thing, and somewhere along the way like things like emotion and texture come in.
MS: Abby likes the sort of scientific I think. And I have always been in awe of that, and its one thing that I have never been able to find my way through. In other shows we’ve done with more of these systems– I’m not even in the room, I don’t even know how to talk about them.
AB: But that ends up- I think- sometimes working in our favor because I become about mechanics and Michael becomes about flesh. I’m like, how does this thing mechanically work? And he doesn’t even listen to the system, and isn’t even aware of it.
MS: A lot of times I will watch a show and not think at all about how it’s actually working, so I’m just able to think about the people or the emotion or something.
JMTL: What are some structures you have been inspired by?
AB: For It’s Hell in Here I got really inspired by set logic, which is all about this set vs. this set and different graphs that show information. For that show I also used my bastardized interpretation of parallel universe science.
JMTL: It’s bastardized?
AB: Yeah because I don’t have a scientific background.
JMTL: You probably have a scientific brain.
AB: Yeah and the show we’re working on now is like a puzzle– it’s all about how to fit things together. You know sometimes I’m even more inspired by the image on the cover of the book, the info-graphics, as opposed to reading an essay about it, because then it becomes all about ideas.
When I was a kid I took visual art classes once a week. Every Wednesday I went to this woman’s house, she had a PhD in art, and we would do different projects and they were all based on different artist’s processes. And I remember very distinctly the Kandinsky… this is when I was eight or nine… I remember the Kandinsky project. And it was like — add this, then this, then distort it this way, just a series of manipulations. And it was more about going inside than a having a destination.
And then I recently read in Kandinsky’s book that he has all these charts and graphics about how to think about color and assembly and patterns and systems. So usually I start there, but sometimes I have to force myself to ask, what does it feel like? Sometimes I’m like– who cares about all of these mechanics.
And in terms of inspiration from other pieces, for a really long time I was really inspired by David Byrne’s movie True Stories. I can always watch that and find inspiration in it.
JMTL: What is it about that?
AB: It’s this style, I think, of being both inside and outside of something. It’s both real people and performers, and the sense of being inside the performance and outside of the performance in an non ironic way- there’s no winking. You’re aware that is a performance, but it’s not ironic. That’s why I like things like Moonstruck – because it’s broad and big, but they are not winking, they are just doing it. Those are two films that constantly inspire me.
JMTL: Well I haven’t seen either of them.
AB: Well I have both of them so I can loan you the DVDs.
JMTL: That sounds good. So let’s talk about this particular project, what is it called?
AB: The Record.
MS: The Record the record the record the record the record.
JMTL: So how were you inspired to make this piece?
MS: A piece of music did it for me called November by Max Richter. He’s a Berlin-based composer, he’s in his mid-40s. And then this Dutch portrait artist, Rineka Dijkstra. They did a retrospective of her work in the summer of last year at the Guggenheim.
AB: We both went to go see it separately.
MS: I thought, there’s something here. The show we had just finished in Austin, This Great Country, it was a play, but the art of it – (rolling his eyes) – the art process of it was in bringing the people together. There were seventeen people in it. The art of it was not in the thing that we made, the art was in bringing together a room. And that felt very exciting. It was about these people. Portraiture, portraits of groups.
And then there was this other exhibit by Taryn Simon, who is a late-30s New Yorker, who does these portraits that are based on lineage and theme.
AB: She’ll trace bloodlines, and do portraits of this person’s offspring, then that person’s offspring and then. She did portraits of every child in this orphanage in the Ukraine, I think.
MS: It would be like if you somehow did a bloodline of all the people that you slept with at NYU Tisch. And you somehow figured it out, and you somehow brought them all together, and the bringing of this group together reveals something. So the subject is portraiture. These people.
And then there was this question I had, which I talked to Abby about. Which is– can you make a show where the performers never meet? Because we were thinking about how do you make liveness as full as possible? And we’ve been struggling with that for a while. Like in the last show before we left for Austin, Empire City, we were thinking a lot about rodeos. Because those kinds of events – rodeos, rock concerts, sporting events – feel very live. When people go to see Bruce Springsteen, they say they felt like they were like on another planet. And it’s not necessarily because the music is good, it’s the people all around you. And the feeling that there is an event being made that feels like its never happened before. So we’re trying to figure that out.
So if liveness happens when two people meet on the street, we wondered if a group of thirty people who have been rehearsing but who have never met before would bring a feeling of liveness out. The thing that’s really cool is that I didn’t have any idea about how we could do that.
AB: That’s where the partnership really comes in. He had the idea and I can do the mechanics.
MS: But sometimes the partnership doesn’t work though.
JMTL: He posed a problem to you that you could solve.
MS: Here’s an idea: can we make a show where no one meets before? And it can’t be improvisation: this isn’t Upright Citizen’s Brigade. And Abby basically took that on and created the flow chart of how we could construct a performance and rehearse with a bunch of people over an extended period of time and actually make something. And then the big test is this week, and seeing how it’s going to go.
AB: And what’s kind of wild about it is that we don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ve never seen the show. I know exactly where everyone supposed to be for the most part, and I could look at the score and tell you where everyone is supposed to be at every point during the show. But the fact that we are included in the process of the performances as opposed to polishing the performance and just delivering. The fact that somehow we are along for the ride feels scary and good– there is something satisfying in that.
MS: One thing I just thought of… we talked about how we are different on the inspiration front, but I think one thing that we are both inspired by is going into rooms… spaces on a very basic level. This parking garage, this meeting room, this restaurant in this small town in New Mexico. It’s spaces that are not theatrical in any way. For me it’s often about a perfect balance– like isn’t it weird that the door is right in the middle of the room and the windows are symmetrically aligned with the door, and the red curtains perfectly…
AB: Or like the ambient lighting in here is odd and creepy and there is something in the texture of that we are after.
JMTL: So you are seeing it as theatrical?
MS: Or like … look at that man… let’s frame him onstage.
AB: Its like when we were in Morocco, we sat at that cafe and watched that dude eat his breakfast for four hours. It’s just watching authentic behavior. I would imagine that most people working in live arts would be super interested in authentic behavior, but maybe that’s not true.
The other thing I would say in terms of inspiration for this project in terms of the score and systems…. though sometimes I feel like it’s a little gauche to reference things that are happening in the same world..
JMTL: Like a little embarrassing maybe?
AB: Yeah.. maybe. I feel like it’s funny to say, “oh I am inspired by this piece that everyone saw two months ago.”
JMTL: It’s close, but it’s honest.
MS: We see a lot of shows, plays, dances.., and some of them I don’t respond to. But there are one or two a year which kind of realign what we are thinking about, or what we are searching for. And we both saw this show last year that I think did it for us.
JMTL: What was it?
MS: Devotion by Sarah Michelson
A: That is one of two pieces that I think of as huge inspirations. One of them I walked away thinking “holy fuck that was amazing”, and one of them I walked away hating.
MS: Which one did you hate?
AB: I actually think I was really inspired by that Meg Stuart piece we saw in Berlin in 2006 (Blessed), where there’s all of these cardboard sets and it starts to rain and over the course of the piece the cardboard dissolves. And we both walked out of there like, “she’s a hack, that was crappy”, and then all of a sudden last night I though, “oh shit, The Record is in conversation with that piece. It was inspired by it in some way.”
Matthew Goulish from Goat Island has all these essays about what he calls creative response. You never talk about work– you never do critique— what I thought, what I saw, what I felt in any way. You only respond by making. And I think that is a very true actualization of a creative life. Sometimes I finish a piece and I think, “oh that was my retake on xyz. That was my stab.”
JMTL: And sometimes it takes a couple of years to realize it. Let’s take a break.
MS: (to Abby) I didn’t know what you said about Meg Stuart.
AB: (to Michael) I think they even did this (she does a gesture).
MS: (to Abby) Huh? I don’t even really remember that show.
JMTL: So you can tell me what are the parts that make up this piece? What are the physical and conceptual parts?
JMTL: What music?
MS: A composition by Brandon Wolcott that we will not hear until the performance.
JMTL: Oh really? And how has he made that?
MS: He has made that by working with two musicians. And we gave him some ideas. We said, “Brandon, here is a piece of music that we feel inspired by.”
JMTL: Is that the Max Richter piece?
MS: Yeah, and I gave him a bunch of music that I thought was interesting but didn’t feel related to the piece, like Kelly Clarkson, and I said, “there’s something in this”. So we gave him that and he sort of either, umm… (seeing their dog) Pablo.
AB: Wait, did he eat something?
JMTL: Do you want to eat something? We can move into the kitchen and…
MS: Yeah I think I’d like to do that, or I’m going to do that.
JMTL: Let’s move into the kitchen then for a while.
AB: (to the dog) Sit, wait.
MS: So music. Then people. Then space. Music, people, space.
JMTL: So talk about these people. Who are these people? How can you describe the range of people?
MS: Thirty-four people. People that we have met, people who we already knew, they are all very authentic… they are all people.
JMTL: And are some of them performers?
JMTL: How many?
MS: Performers? All of them.
JMTL: So what’s the space?
MS: The space is the Invisible Dog, which we are hopefully, I don’t know…
JMTL: Which you’re hopefully going to ….?
MS: Hopefully going to transform in an interesting way.
AB: (in her hands) So this is the score that they do.
JMTL: Oh great.
MS: So we’re creating a light box with the space. We’re not doing much with the space, but we’re creating a huge lit ceiling, and the audience sits on sports bleachers. Like they would sit on at a …
AB: Little league game.
MS: And so people, space, music….
JMTL: So the score.
AB: So this is the score. (pointing) this is people, and this is times.
JMTL: So this is like the organizational principle of the piece?
AB: Yeah totally. This is the script.
JMTL: Oh cool! Is this really, really difficult for people to learn? or not.
AB: It depends.
MS: I think its pretty difficult.
AB: It depends on who they are.
JMTL: How are you teaching it to them or how are you coaching them?
AB: Everyone only gets between three and five rehearsals with us depending on how much material they have. But some people have… there is the one guy, Harry, in it. I met him because I worked with him in a restaurant and I thought he would be interesting in a show, and I like him. And unbeknownst to us he has an incredible knack for memorization.
JMTL: So how did you make decisions about constructing this?
AB: Michael and I first made a series of entrances and exits. We said, okay we know the piece is 57 minutes so we started with time. we know there are this many people in it, how do they come on and off? how does the group ebb and flow?
MS: It’s kind of a move movie.
AB: So we decided that for the first twenty minutes should be with ten people.
JMTL: Wait, hold on. Did you say it’s kind of a move movie?
MS: We were trying to figure out what is the –
AB: The architecture of the movement.
MS: And that we figured out in Austin. We said, okay the piece starts with one person, then two people come out, and three leave.
JMTL: And were you making those decisions intuitively?
MSL Yeah it was like — what do I want to see?
AB: Dramatic structure is what we were doing. It was an exercise in dramatic structure— what story gets told through entrances and exits..
MS: So do we start with all 34 people on stage?
AB: Or does it start one?
Here. (looks at the score)
Here is four people on stage. These people entering. And then more people enter, and these are the first (flipping pages). this is the first section where the first ten people are on stage here.
JMTL: Right and its starting to crawl up, over there.
AB: And this is thirteen minutes in, and we’ve got all these people and it’s just them until…. here. And then everyone has left and we have an empty stage for thirty seconds. And then we get three new people, and then we get four new people, and now it’s like we’re into another movement basically.
You know the other thing that I think was somewhat inspiring, at least in the like nuts and bolts of it, is the Thomas Lehman thing, Schriebstuck, which I did with Dan (Safer). Everything that happens in the piece happens for one minute. Basically they do things for one minute and it’s all about fitting this piece together over one minute intervals.
(flipping pages) So then this is a section. This is a fourth movement where there are twenty people on stage. Some of them are people we’ve met before and some of them are new people.
AB: Do you like my nail varnish?
JMTL: Yeah it’s really nicely painted.
AB: Good. And so this is a fairly active section with lots of things going on, which you can see if you just glance at it because you don’t see unison things happening across the board, you know? And it builds to having everyone on stage.
So we did that, then we sort of storyboarded things with drawings and sketches. We took images we wanted, we did drawings.
JMTL: And those images, shapes, compositions … how did they come about?
AB: That’s where Michael will go and listen to music and draw pictures. and we’ll both sort of do that.
JMTL: And are you like listening to Kelly Clarkson, and drawing pictures?
(Abby and Michael nod.)
AB: I also think that at this point we had most of the cast set, and that becomes a huge influence. I realized that with our last few shows.
MS: That’s actually 90 percent of it.
AB: Casting has become – it’s like we can’t make the show until we know who’s doing it. Because it’s not just like “oh Stuart will play number 14”. It’s like “oh Stuart’s that interesting boy and he would be really interesting next to that guy, so let’s make a section for them”.
MS: Once you figure out the people, then it’s instantly like, “Oh I’m dying to see Stuart do this thing with that guy.”
JMTL: So really, it’s not that you have made the score and then are imposing it. It’s very responsive. The different parts are speaking to each other.
AB: Yes exactly. Absolutely.
JMTL: Okay so that was formal structures and organizing principles.
AB: I’m going to pee.
JMTL: Yeah pee.
MS: I’m going to put a couple of pieces of toast in.
JMTL: That sounds really good.
Jennie MaryTai Liu makes performance under the moniker Grand Lady Dance House. She has been working in experimental dance and theater as a director, choreographer and performer since 2004. Her original work has been presented by New York venues including Dance Theater Workshop, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, HERE Arts Center, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and The Bushwick Starr. She has shown small works at PS 122, Movement Research at the Judson Memorial Church, the American Dance Festival through Hollins University, the 41st Congress on Research on Dance, as well as internationally in Vienna, France, and in her native Hong Kong. She has been awarded residencies from the Bogliasco Foundation, Yaddo Arts Colony, The Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and received grants from the Multi-Arts Project Fund and the Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Program. She was a resident artist at HERE Arts Center (2009-2010), and at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (2009-2010). As a performer, she has had the pleasure of working with Big Dance Theater, Faye Driscoll Dance Group, Nellie Tinder, Witness Relocation Company, and Cathy Weis Projects. She has collaborated with director/filmmaker Simon Liu on multiple projects including ‘Ditchwork’, which won ‘Best Experimental Short’ at the New Jersey International Film Festival, and which will screen at various festivals nationally and internationally throughout 2012-13. Her first short dance-film ‘Scout Hut’ screened at Chez Bushwick Presents at the Center for Performance Research in May 2012. She continues to make short video works alongside researching her next live performance, which will premiere at The Bushwick Starr in January 2014. She trained in theater as an undergraduate at the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, and received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University.