Tei Blow and Sean McElroy on their new show The Art of Luv (Part I)
A couple weeks ago I met with Tei Blow and Sean McElroy, the duo at the core of Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, to talk about their upcoming performance, The Art of Luv (Part I) which will be part of The Public’s Under The Radar festival. (At La MaMa, January 9, at 4pm and 8:30pm.) Tei and Sean are an incredible duo. They build their own set pieces and sculptural elements, they do their own video design and animations, they create and perform their own music, and they move fluidly between the realms analog and digital technology. The three of us met at a quasi-German pub in Brooklyn— the one good spot near BAM that wasn’t overcrowded with office holiday parties. Apparently it was 90’s night, though no warning was posted.
For full effect, please queue up the following playlist on your media player of preference:
Blind Melon- No Rain
Green Day- Good Riddance
Real McCoy- Another Night
Everlast- What It’s Like
Wallflowers- One Headlight
Sixpence None The Richer- There She Goes
Blink 182- What’s My Age Again?
Edwin McCain- I’ll Be
Elliott: How did Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble get started?
Sean: It originally started because we lived together and we wanted to write a musical. Like a musical theater musical. We were thinking a lot about ancient Egypt as a kind of weird mirror of corporate society. …So we started writing this musical, and we wrote all the songs for it, and then we realize we were never going to make a musical, and that musicals are stupid, so we didn’t do it. They became the songs for our first show, years later. We—
Tei: We got a grant to do performance in an installation group show [produced by Immediate Medium, curated by Andy Horwitz]. And Sean had just gotten back to New York from grad school and we didn’t have any material to make the thing and we were like, ‘Well we have to do something… But we actually have songs. We really don’t want to learn the songs again, so what would be easier is if we took the recordings of the songs and sang the words, and then we surrounded those materials with… an installation of an Egyptian House of the Dead.’ So it was like a pyramid inscribed inside of an office in the Farley Post Office. It was a themed show about the end of the world… and we kind of were looking at the idea of how much authenticity or authority can you have over something that is culturally almost nobody’s thing, much of all not two dudes who are us… So we started to get really into the idea of 70s Egyptology as part of the New Age movement…
S: And all that we really have of (Ancient) Egyptian religion are these kind of long procedural bureaucratic writings about it. I think one of the things that’s interesting about it is that wasn’t a very mystical religion. It was kind of a procedural religion, like, ‘This many jars of olive oil and then you do this to your body and transform it in this way and wrap it in this way.’ It’s not about ecstasy or about transforming your consciousness in any way, but it’s used by us when we appropriate Egyptian stuff and this 70s psychedelic language people are imparting to it…
T: So this is sort of our way of engaging with history, talking about how complex the recording of history actually is. We don’t have any real interest in authenticity or the truth or anything, it’s just about looking at something and fracturing it through a prism and looking at all the pieces…
E: What is a show by [ROKE] like?
T: So our first piece was in a sense modeled after the idea of a conference at an event center. So you walk in and you get a name tag, there are sort of a bunch of hawkers, there’s a store, one guys doing (tarot) readings, Matt [Romein] was doing aura camera readings… So essentially it’s like what you would go to the 53rd St. Marriott and go to an energy conference and see. So we set up the pyramid (an open pyramid structure made of LED tape) and we came out in business suits, and there was an easel and projection, and we created a format, like, ‘This is going to be a lecture about the self, or a spirit thing.’ And generally, a lot of our pieces involve some sort of transformation where we present ourselves as regular normies and then something happens and we enter an altered state and we channel these found texts or rituals that are performative, not from ourselves. We are not ourselves when we do our performances.
S: But in terms of audience experience, the first show that we did at Jack was kind of like a karaoke bar ceremony. So people are drinking beers, we’re drinking as much beer as we can during the performance and I guess the conceit is that were these two business guys at a karaoke bar and through this process of singing karaoke we enter into a trance that allows them to go into (A) kind of archaeological drag and (B) allows them to channel stuff that’s kind of about self-help. So they start out as kind of poor, sad businessmen and then go into a kind of self-help trance. One of our more recent pieces is structured more like a group meditation, where people are seated on the floor ideally and we kind of switch places, reperforming videos into a VHS camera that’s being projected like a kind of God face behind us, and the other is doing a kind of meditation, and then we switch places. It’s meant to be more like a trance meditative experience.
E: So karaoke is an important part of Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble?
T: Yes but we’re looking at— part of our thing is to look at what the actual word means etymologically, and sort of as a conceptual form. Like as a medium, what is karaoke? Or as a form of expression, what is it? It’s a conglomeration of a Japanese word and an English word, meaning empty orchestra. Conceptually it’s sort of a response to enka music, which is a westernized format of Japanese lyrical song that required an entire big-band to sing. So they would just record the orchestra and then you could perform this music without the expensive accompaniment, and you could still express the idea that required all of this human energy and these resources behind it, using only these very simple technologies. We are thinking of that as a mode of communication… It’s like a media theory study.
(Tei later emailed me, asking that I include the following, and that the reader reads it very quickly:
This is a pretty (hotly) disputed topic and the answer I gave is only one of many. One version is that Karaoke evolved from a performance tactic used by immigrant Filipino entertainers in 1960s Japan. In their performances, they would use a music-minus-one tape to sing along to backing tracks of large bands. Later, a Japanese man invented a device that would play accompaniments to popular songs (Japanese orchestral pop music) with a coin slot that one could sing along with. I would feel weird denying the pre-karaoke-machine period of karaoke history especially when it involves ignoring a marginalized people’s influence in a wider pan-Asian cultural trend.)
S: Well also we host karaoke sometimes as [People’s Karaoke], and it’s really interesting as a kind of channeling experience. I think of karaoke as being a way of channeling pop culture, and kind of instantiating pop culture in a media-performative context. In a way, in our first piece, we were kind of more directly quoting the medium of karaoke, but I think that idea of channeling is kind of fundamental to the thing that we’re trying to do, like channeling this kind of mass-normative thing, using technology.
T: Yeah. Karaoke is the ultimate tool of mechanical advantage you know the microphone is amazing right? Like you can take a human being and threw some other stuff generate a loud sounding voice I can have directives for whatever but karaoke can actually channel mass media concepts back down through the individual again and filter them through their own perspective and back out into a crowd. and that I think is a whole field of study
E: So for this show, (The Art of Luv (Part I),) there’s something about this mass murderer—
T: Elliot Rodger.
(May 23, 2014, 22 year old Elliot Rodger killed 6 people, specifically targeting a sorority house at UC Santa Barbara, and injured 13 before ending his own life. He left behind a YouTube video and an emailed manifesto, explaining these killings as ‘retribution’ for all the ‘girls’ who had rejected him.)
T: [First] we should talk about how we generate material. We use a lot of file-sharing, and Internet and VHS sources to generate material to draw text from. We very rarely write text, and we very rarely use text not associated with an existing video… Our first piece was kind of an overview of self-improvement, and we found a lot more materials about romance and love and dating and sex and sexuality, and specifically the difference between men and women. That was like a huge field at a pretty particular time of an explosion of media— the VHS era. And we were looking at this stuff and it was like, ‘Dude there’s so much information here. It could be its own piece.’ And then right around that time we got into a residency program at Skowhegan, and then Elliot Rodger shot all those people. Well, shot a few people and stabbed his roommates… We started looking into people who are teachers who present themselves in a media format and say, ‘This is how the world is. And buy my product. And this is what’s up in the world.’ And there are people in the YouTube era who are basically just doing confessional videos like those interludes in (MTV’s) The Real World. YouTube is that. People saying stuff to their own computer and getting millions of hits. So [Elliot Rodger’s] whole thing was these kind of epic pleas for help and—
S: ‘Why don’t women understand me?’
T: Yeah. ‘Why don’t girls like me?’
S: ‘Girls,’ yeah.
T: And I mean we’re kind of amazed at this sort of stuff. That’s the most fascinating subject ever— frustration with things you don’t understand. And he polarizes it so heavily, and it’s such a problematic topic that it seemed to make sense. So our piece is really not about this guy, it’s not like a solution to a problem or anything. It’s just that’s the starting point of what this pieces about. And one of the most interesting things we’ve discovered, or at least that I’ve realized or confirmed, is that I’m so much less interested in the truth or in absolutes than I ever even thought I was. But that actually means a different thing than it used to mean for me. I think the idea that I have stumbled across is that the world is totally gendered, and the world is totally not gendered, and those two things can exist simultaneously. And that’s even more interesting than one thing revolting against another. So that’s what [The Art of Luv] is kind of about, I guess. You can say anything about women, and you can say anything about men, and it can be totally true and totally not true. It’s actually your perspective and your position in time that tells you whether or not the statement is true. The statement itself is not true. It’s actually your vantage point that is the connecting tissue between the statement and yourself. And that has been really interesting, because people come to our shows expecting to laugh at a bunch of New Age people and it’s totally funny and it’s totally ridiculous that we are these people professing these ideas, but they are as wrong as they are right, and they are as right as they are wrong. And that’s the part that really gets people tripped.
E: So this is a weird thing, but where do I fit in there if I am not either end of the binary? Like this idea of the separation of genders—
T: The binary of truth and not truth or the binary of gendered and nongendered?
E: Of male and female. Because I literally don’t identify as either thing. So then if I were to come to the show, would I be completely alienated by that?
T: I think you would be — I would be very curious actually… This piece is the most about men-versus-women than I think any of the other pieces were. Like there’s people just straight up giving man-woman dating advice. There is no dating advice on the Internet about— well actually there is. I tried to buy one but they’re very expensive. Like, there’s not a lot of trans dating advice that has a huge purchasing audience.
E: But that’s all of Tumblr basically.
T: Tumblr. That’s actually not a bad idea.
(For what it’s worth, Culturebot has no connection to Tumblr.)
E: Tumblr is really great for source material. But yeah it is funny, if you’re limiting your source materials to things that are marketable, or were at some point in time, whether they’re truths or untruths, then it does sort of disclude certain aspects of reality.
T: That is true…
S: I think in a certain sense the aim is to create a sort of open critique of it, you know? And in a way, the reason that we’re kind of focused on super-heteronormative texts is because those are texts of power and of purchase and of persuasion, you know? These VHS tapes are kind of normalizing. You know, you’re a 14-year-old kid and you buy a tape called What Do Men Want? and you put in the tape and you learn ‘what men want’ and you act like what you think they want… I think what you would see coming to that would be a critique of whatever mass culture is… Kind of like the texts that have come down to us from Ancient Egypt are the texts of power, you know, it’s like, ‘I have enough money to pay you to chisel this into a wall, and I’m going to bury myself in there.’ And that’s what we have.
E: Yeah, and we don’t know anything about people who lived regular lives—
S: —Who actually did anything, yeah! And that kind of text, the text that tells you how you’re supposed to be, is the kind of text that we’re interested in. Our original play was about a pharaoh and—
T: —A pharaoh and a pyramid builder. Like a laborer.
S: And they got switched at birth.
T: It was actually pretty good for a musical.
(Sean and Tei laugh.)
E: You are drawing parallels in some way between ancient cultures, and history, and contemporary ingestible—
T: Mass media.
T: Yeah, to sort of talk about why that’s the way it is. I think a lot about the width, the breadth of scope a lot. And i think what we’re trying to do now is actually narrow the breadth of scope, so that the critique becomes more clear, in that it’s not a written critique or point-by-point thing, but it’s actually a constellation of topics around very specific normative topic that actually points so strongly at that it can explode the ideas outward. I mean weirdly, coming from a kind of half— I mean personally I come from a pretty queer family. My mother is like super square and my father is super progressive and very out. And the idea is that actually what we’re doing is, in a sense, overeducating in a square away so that we can explore its problems. And that can only be done by mystifying it. So this is why we take the ancient shit in. So this new piece is like a mystery-play-slash-meditation-sesh which fuses a kind of Zen Japanese aesthetic with a Greek aesthetic.
S: Like a Pre-Socratic mystical Greek aesthetic.
T: Yeah. And then it talks about YouTuber culture and make-up and young people’s sexuality. And I think one of the goals is, if you mystify something or you ritualized something that’s that norm-y, you can explore its sort of interconnecting tissues and actually ask why is this the way it is and why do i have to believe in this or play into this or allow it to continue to work.
S: And there’s a thing, I think, about the distance that history or archaeology provides that allows you to kind of see something in a different way. It’s like two processes that happen over time. The process by which we turn ancient Greece into Banks and money and you know the kind of visual language of Greece that has become a language of power and stability. And at the same time you know actual Greek— you know, marble busts used to all have penises, and you would put them at boundary markers, and it evolved into this form of monumentalizing older white men. But originally they all had dicks. and to me, that filtering process – to turn it around and filter the other way and apply it to our own times – there’s something weird that happens as a culture borrows and views a distant culture. Like what if the Greeks were borrowing and using our culture to say something that they wanted to say about their culture. So it’s history as kind of like a gimmick, you know, like dressing up in old costumes. But I think for us fundamentally it allows for the historicization of the material that we’re dealing with, and also the medium of the stuff that we find, because we’re really interested in the moment that video became cheap to make and buy and distribute and watch at home, which is VHS, going through the YouTube age. We are interested in cheap video, no matter when that is. If someone five hundred years in the future comes back to our time they’re just going to grab all the technologies that are available. Like, they’re not going to differentiate between VHS and YouTube and all these—
T: If they can even still find something up on YouTube…
E: So you are using a VHS camera, which is doing a live feed?
S: A live feed. So we’re kind of like meditating in front of the camera like staring into it, and that’s projected live feed behind my head. Tei knows more about the audiovisual stuff than I do, but he was saying something about how video, unlike digital video, is actually instantaneous. Digital has short delay right?
T: Well yeah the delay is complicated. Video, what we think of as analog video, has a negligible delay between the electrical signal being encoded from the light coming from the subject and it’s being passed out through a CRT— like a television monitor. With an LCD projector it’s a little bit slower, but —it’s about video latency. So latency is this concept we have after the digital age where the speed of light is no longer the speed at which something passes from one thing to another.
S: So what you’re saying is that in the digital age it needs to go through a thing that slows it down?
T: there are stages of mediation within the technology that caused it to be processed or encoded that makes it not immediate and if there’s a sort of window of tolerance-like there are contemporary digital cameras that show you the image right away but they are insanely expensive and they’re still not as fast as VHS.
E: Okay. That’s really interesting.
T: It’s weird. There’s some Street Fighter II games for the Neo Geo (video game console). There are competitions where they play on CRT (analog) monitors because actually the players are so good that they need to be able to see the button press happen on the screen in real time. And when they try to protect the games they would fuck up. That 4 millisecond delay between them seeing and pressing the button was so much that it made them lose games. And so they (digitally) re-project these things from an archaic console to the public. And this is like four years ago. People are playing Street fighter two competitively four years ago. It’s an amazing game.
E: … We constantly think of technology as advancing us as a species maybe, but just because we can see the picture more clearly or transmit it further faster doesn’t mean that it’s better for us.
T:. Yeah there are always concessions and transfusions of qualities from one to another.
E: You guys have these incredible costume pieces, right? I mean I think they’re incredible.
T: They are incredible.
E: Transformative at least. Did one of you make them?
T: Sean made the headpieces, and then we commissioned my dad… he is a clothing designer, but I think his real passion is theatricality and costume design. So Sean kind of sketched out some ideas for him and he went with them. We went to the fabric district and bought like four hundred pounds of gold spandex and he made us a bunch of stuff.
E: And you have some other collaborators. I know Lori Berg makes things for the store sometimes—
T: Well there are collaborators in the store, which is an open process. So the store, which is called The Prodigal Sun, was started by our friend Youree Choi. Basically it’s like a consignment shop for self-improvement products. Lori and Matt [Romein] and César Alvarez, they all contributed stuff to that. César made the tarot cards for his own show, called The Universe is a Small Hat. He devised an entire tarot system that is kind of amazing. He did readings at our first show.
(Other collaborators and contributors to ROKE include Siobhan Towey, Ben Demarest, Eben Hoffer, Maria Baranova, Sibyl Kempson, Corina Copp, and Leanne Grimes.)
E: So are all of these people and all of these elements going to be a part of the UTR show?
T: No, this was pretty lean. This was kind of a totally internally made show… This piece is going to be many parts, and the future parts will involve the rest of the team more, but because we made this at art camp (Skowhegan) by ourselves, we’re kind of stuck with it until it asks to be built out a little more.
E: But you’re still incorporating the video and technology elements that you normally use.
E: Is there anything else you want to talk about? Any tidbits that will bring people in?
T: We’re developing this as a multipart thing. Some of the parts are not going to be theater or performance pieces at all. There’s going to be some websites, companies, a green screen porn, a surrealist porn. We are actually looking for writers right now… It’s going to kind of the Trapped in the Closet of ritual performance. That’s sort of where we are heading with that…
E: I feel like performing in a porn in front of a green screen would be the least sexy thing ever.
T: That’s kind of the point. It’s like a [Salvador] Dalí thing, just abstracting the components of sexuality and looking at them in isolation.
(Edwin McCain’s ‘I’ll Be’ is playing in the background.)
E: This music is literally destroying me.
S: It’s crazy, right?
T: This music is literally rebuilding me. (Sings along.)