You Nakai, Kay Festa, Jay Barnacle, and Earle Lipski
2012. 6. 15
Incubator Arts Project, St. Mark's Church, New York
I participated in Concertos No.3 as one of the instrumentalists. I was aware of the general flow of the piece though not in great detail.
We (the instrumentalists) had a pre-composed score to follow, at the same time playing along to a prerecorded recording of the Concerto performed by a different group in our headphones. Left ear: prerecorded track, right ear: sound of the three of us playing. We also needed a timer to keep the intricate and specific timings with.
The performance started as expectedly. About ten minutes into the first cycle, the door burst open and in came a group of people who physically stopped us from playing our instruments. We then exited the stage through the side door and waited for a cue to re-enter. We could not reenter unless a group of audience member left the room.
This process was repeated a few more times and in every cycle, the group from outside came in earlier and earlier. Some of the posts had been switched around also.
It was in one of these rounds that someone went over to the mixing board and changed all the levels. In doing this the volume in my headphone went up to the max; this was quite shocking to say the least. Some of the amps had been turned off as well during the same process and You had to come and readjust everything.
This was a turning point in the performance. I feel this was when the sight of the big picture got lost and things started going off track. You had said to me that I can switch my post as well so after sitting in the audience for one cycle, I went outside to look at what was going on there. There were three people outside at this point. I watched as they received a phone call, go inside and come back out with one less person than when they had entered. When everyone had gone inside, I made my way back in. The concert had ended at that point and the only people left inside were the performers.
I decided to participate in No Collective's Concertos No. 3 for several reasons. Some of those were personal: You is my friend, and I like hanging out with him. Also, it had been a while since I'd interpreted someone else's score in a musical performance, and I was excited to act as a musician again after avoiding the stage for a few years. Finally, I'm interested in the questions that You's work provokes. For example: how might art practices and life practices intersect? What might conceptual art have to do with technological art? How flexible are artistic roles, institutions, and concepts (roles such as composers, performers, actors, and audience members; institutions such as the concert hall and the publisher, concepts such as the artwork and its experience), and how far can we stretch them until they break? I took part in this performance to better understand how You engages these questions. His strategies of engagement are different from my own, and I wanted to set some of my own practices aside to try out some new ones.
In the process of rehearsing and performing Concertos No.3, I learned that You's way of doing things is messier than mine: that's not a bad thing, but it's definitely a point of aesthetic contention. I like a certain orderliness in my art: right edges, pure frequencies, well-defined categories and objects. I even like my disorder orderly: I want an artistic situation to be clear, even if it's anarchic. For me, the most troubling (or, less judgmentally, complicated) aspect of Concertos No. 3 is that the anarchy it produces is not clear, at least to me. It produces a disorderly disorder, and I don't really know how to deal with that yet, or whether I even want to deal with it. I'm still thinking about it, though.
In early June, I was asked to perform in a piece by No Collective with the vague instructions that I would be operating a matrix mixer to spatialize the sounds of an ensemble they had put together. I was curious about the whole thing and agreed.
At our first rehearsal together, we went over my tasks as a performer——various ways to work the mixer—from what I remember, all instruments spatialized evenly, one instrument through one speaker, following a set of roving performers around the space, etc. Some of these things tended to seem a bit paradoxical though——trying to coordinate various patterns with other performers without communicating with them verbally or non verbally, or having so simultaneously do things that seemed at odds with each other. I remembered a quote about David Tudor at the time, something along the lines of him working to perform any task as well as he could, no matter how out or absurd the instructions——I tried to channel that attitude for the time being.
The afternoon of the premiere, I noticed several other people showing up to perform, and started to worry that I hadn't understood all of the elements of the piece. I soon realized that many of the other performers didn't either, and that everyone was more or less in the dark about the piece as a whole outside of their own part in it.
During the piece, things took the forms of rounds of the ensemble playing and myself and others mixing, which was then interrupted at a pre-arranged time by another group of performers that I had only just found out about. The thing started again with other performers taking our place—after a few rounds things had devolved into chaos in front of a massively confused audience.
Before too long, I ended up taking the place of the guitarist in the ensemble, playing music I had never seen, while an audience member took my position at the spatialization mixer. As the madness cleared——I realized that I had somehow just become the audience and the performer at the same time.
my friends, have you ever received an email from “you?” it is a most confucius-inducing thing to see in one’s inbox. “did I send myself something?” you wonder. then you remember: “you isn’t me, or you, but a person named ‘you!’” (who’s on first??)
anyhoo (and who) .. ((not to mention how now brown cow…!)) .. my amante had convinced me to attend a showing of no collective and participate with him as some kind of volunteer. there were a number of emails sent with directions about how to greet the audience. naturellement, i didn’t read any of these. this kippy is too busy attending an office mondays through fridays and keeping up with personal correspondences to be bothered with such details!
i arrived at the incubator arts project——that building which boasts the most specific of smells—with my chicken enchiladas from san loco. mmm i’m loco for san loco. you (the person, not you the reader, mind you!) was holding court with a number of female volunteers. my man was no where to be seen. “you will have a conversation with the audience on a telephone and relay the information to your friends,” you told everyone. “you have to guess what is going on inside the theatre but at no point are you to improvise. please, don’t try to be funny.” i knew this direction would be most difficile for my beloved, who has been known to hijack performances—not to mention seders——on occasion!
you intoned at length going over a myriad of rules and regulations about how the performance would proceed. i was confucious to the extreme and salivated over my enchiladas. finally i could concentrate no more, plopped myself on a bench wielding fork and knife and dug in.
the resulting performance was a most strange one, wherein audience members were led into the theatre and seated by the “volunteers,” of which i was one. we folded up all the empty chairs and tucked them away. then, the volunteers exited the theatre and made phone calls to two of the audience members. (were these audiences plants? one cannot know.) we asked them a series of questions to find out what was happening inside, what kind of music was being played, etc.) then we entered, silenced the noise making instruments and switch boards and bowed. when some audience members left the volunteers replaced them, and more phone calls ensued. all the while two young boys (9-year-olds dressed as techies) marched around the theatre sushshing and hushing anyone on a phone or futzing with an instrument/switch board. the result created a kind of zany concept performance which devolved into an increasingly pointless anarchic event. perhaps it would have been more fun had i felt in on the joke or had a wall of fatigue not struck me down.
The first way I usually go about dealing with being a performer is by identifying some kind of tension between what I've been asked to do and what I think I can do as a performer. So when I am a performer, I imagine I'm entering into a situation that understands and works with me in that way as well. I walked into Concertos No.3 as a dancer who had been asked to do nothing further than talk on the phone. As of yet, I have never experienced tension between my ability to dance and my ability to talk on the phone. Further, talking on the phone is something I almost invariably hate to do. So, I therefore assumed that my use in Concertos No.3 would be outside my normal realms of skill and desire, as both performer and layman. But I also knew that I would (as usual) do my fucking best. And this was the only thing I thought I had to offer to the piece: My performative ability to do my fucking best. What I discovered through performing this work is that "doing my fucking best" would only serve as one small phase of my engagement with the piece. It was a necessary phase, but fleeting. So, from here on out I'll try to break down the work into its phases as I see them, beginning with the preparation for the work and ending with its aftermath.
PHASE 1: PREPARATION
In the preparation for the work, I observed that performers were consciously excluded from understanding the entire system of the piece and their function within that system. Furthermore, both audiences and curators were treated with irreverence, as if they had little importance in fulfilling the work.
You Nakai from No Collective had asked me to be in this work, telling me that I would be needed as a performer to do nothing more than talk on the phone during the performance of the work. I agreed, and met with him a few times to sort out a few technical details about my phone, as it seemed he wanted to record my conversation.
The initial public announcement of the piece happened a little more than a week before the performance. No Collective made the strange choice to put out a "call for audiences," thereby inviting audience members as if he were making a call for extras in a movie. Usually when artists invite people to come see their work they either try to entice audiences to come, or they make a plea, hoping that people will have the mercy to come see their work. When No Collective did neither of these, I was curious as to what kind of audience would arrive, and I was both unsurprised and disappointed that not many people came.
When I arrived at the Incubator on the day of the show, You was involved in an argument with the curators. There were cords strung all over the space, so the curators were nervous about audience safety, and were demanding a change in the set-up of the space. You seemed almost comedically disinterested in their concerns, and bluntly refused to change his arrangement. Various performers sat around in chairs, a number of them just as clueless about the nature of the piece as I was. I had a few thoughts about that: First, I respected his choice to make no concessions. Second, that he must value this particular piece more than the possibility that he would ever produce work at that space again. I assumed that the piece must therefore be exactly as it was in order to be fulfilled, but was confused as to how that could be because it seemed as if the piece was thrown together. So much was being decided at the last minute, performers were baffled as to what they were supposed to be doing, and the space itself looked like chaos. So my question was: How could it be that a piece that apparently needed to be exactly this way could seem so chaotic? Of course, that question is in itself an unfair one, because it assumes that if a work is carefully constructed, it should look and feel that way. Observing You dealing with the curators, I assumed the piece must be a major work for him, but looking at so much else- the advertisement of the piece, the set-up in the space, the mindset of the performers, and the attitude of the curators, it seemed that he was the only person with that perception. So I assumed that if this was a major work for him, it was such on terms that he defined, and was not expected to be understood or received as a major work by the people involved or the "art world" protocol in general. I find further evidence to support this perspective in You's treatment of audience. When audience members arrived, it became clear that there would be very few of them. I had been curious as to how many people would show up because of No Collective's method for inviting them. You seemed, again, disinterested in the number of people who came to see the work.
PHASE 2: BEGINNING
In this initial phase of the actual performance, performers and audience assume what are basically normal roles within small-venue experimental work in NYC. Performers begin to enact the instructions given to them by the director. Audience members sit quietly and listen. Furthermore, in this phase, the performers are trying, as best as they can, to fulfill the work with the jobs they have been given, and audience members are trying to find a way to appreciate the work as a concert performance.When the piece began, I was sitting in a chair near the exit door for the stage with my cell phone in hand. Performers who were positioned on both the stage and in the audience with various instruments and devices, some were waiting outside the space at the box office.
When the piece began, performers with instruments began to create sounds. I received a phone call from a performer I quickly identified as a fellow dancer who was outside the room. She was asking me questions about the performance, and I would answer her as best as I could. At that point, I began to notice that there were two children wandering around with little monitors strapped to them. The monitors would disrupt their ability to hear noise in the space, but when the monitors were silent, they would hush anyone they heard making noise near them. So, they would often come and hush me, but as I was loyally fulfilling the instructions given to me to talk on the phone, I continued with my task as best I could, which over time reduced the volume of my voice to a whisper. The instruction that seemed to drive their action seemed built on a very contrived conflict with both its performers and the space. Their instruction was to demand silence with shushing, but the struggle inherent in their task was also predetermined, the other performers seemed like bait for their task, and the monitors strapped to their rendered their task into a simple game without stakes and winnings. So, the shushing at first seemed an empty performative gesture, one that fulfills the instructions of the director without finding any more resounding significance. They wandered about the room, I knew it was inevitable that they would keep coming back and shushing me because I was one of the most obvious sources of noise in the room, though neither they nor I was particularly dedicated to the success of their shushing. And, it seemed that we had been set up in the space with our opposing sets of instructions in order that we might be at odds with one another. And the odds, at that moment, weren't energetic or dynamic, they were just circumstantial. This initial phase of the piece ended when the performers from the lobby burst into the room in the most unconvincing way, seemingly hijacking the performance, which eventually led to all performers exiting out the back stage door. I, having no instructions to leave the room, stayed inside, dreaming of having a cigarette. And then, much to my dismay, the performance started up again, performers went to the various instrument, computer, sound switcher stations set up around the room and started back up again, I got another phone call, the children started shushing me again, while a few of the audience members, who apparently had enough, got up to leave.
PHASE 3: THE BYPRODUCTS OF THE INSTRUCTION BEGIN TO TRANSFORM THE OPERATION OF PERFORMER INTENT AWAY FROM "DOING OUR BEST TO FULFILL"
In the second round, I discovered that the person who called me wasn't exactly sure what to do. So, I started to instruct her on what to ask me based on my previous experience so I could continue to enact my own perceptions as to what I was supposed to do to fulfill the piece. The description I started giving her for what was going on in the room got a little bit harsher and a little bit more cynical. I was fulfilling the piece while distancing myself from it. As I was doing so, I noticed that the performers working with instruments, sound switchers, and computers around the room had changed. And again, a number of performers "burst" into the room and hijacked the situation, this time with a little more conviction, and again, the piece started up again, but by this third round I was well aware that with each new rendition of the piece, the new performers who took up the various stations had less concept as to the purpose of that role than their predecessors. When I noticed another dancer sit behind a switcher and begin to play with it, I realized that my fellow performers had by that time abandoned their instructed roles, and were engaging in a free-for-all within the general arc of the piece as sound-shushing-hijacking-exiting. Finally Laura Bartczak came and asked to assume the role with the phone, and I called the number of the person who had called me, heard a different voice answer the other end, handed the phone to Laura, and stood up in order to figure out what the hell to do next.
In the moment when I stood up to find another role in the piece, I realized my action was indirectly caused by the hijacker performers, who had disrupted the original relationship between performers and tasks because they had been instructed to do so. I realized I had the opportunity to play with the elements of the piece and the system of how sound was emerging in the room, but that the opportunity, itself, was informed not by my independent impetus, but by direction that had worked its way through the system to me. When I rose from my chair, I did so not through instruction, but through a combination of social cues and willingness. I had observed what people were doing and was willing to participate, and did so at first because I figured that was the thing to do. Because of this, I was still performing what I was instructed to do by the sociology of the piece. My initial curiosity about the piece itself, my initial shift of interest away from my original role into the objects of the piece and the system constructed around those objects, arose in the moment when I first sat down at a switcher and started playing. At that moment, I stopped listening to the resulting sound in the room and started paying attention to identifying my switcher's ability to relocate sound throughout the space. Through the work, at this point, I was discovering rather than fulfilling.
PHASE 4: UNCOVERING THE SYSTEM AS IMPLOSION OF THE SYSTEM
By the time I joined the other performers in playing with various parts of the system, I had abandoned my initial expectation that by following instructions I would fulfill both the piece and myself as performer in it. Instead, I was engaged in trying to uncover the instructions of other performers by interacting with their stations as clues. In so doing, I was at first treating the system itself as a kind of foreign territory, piecing together the workings of the piece by stepping in to operate various unmanned stations. Most of the other performers by this point were doing the same. And through our combined investigatory actions, we further dismantled the original relationship between performers and objects. The room itself took on a quality almost like that of a crime scene, and as we tromped about inside of it, our footsteps covered over the very evidence which would have led us toward an understanding of the initial relationship between performers, instructions, and objects. As the abandonment of our initial roles became a cohesive choice amongst us, the system of the piece itself lost cohesion, crumbling away to make room for new ways we could relate to each other. At this point, there was no shared intent amongst the people in the room. I myself vacillated between my desire to explore the stations and play with the other performers, and the desire to find a way for the piece to end (as there seemed, at this point, to be no scheme independent of the performers that would signal the completion of the work).
Only the two shushing children remained totally dedicated to their task, and by this time, their exhaustion and frustration with their roles and the piece itself served to give them a much more substantial energetic presence in the piece. Other performers balked at their shushing by this point, thereby further aggravating them. Finally, through my observation of their function toward achieving total silence in the room, I decided to sabotage them by hiding a sound-making device of my own in the room. Using my cell phone as this device, I put Kanye West's song Monster on repeat, and hid my phone amongst the risers. As the children managed to silence performers one by one, they began to hear Kanye West, and basically started freaking out as they were trying to find the source of the noise. In the end, they were aided by one of the curators of the space in discovering the phone, and when they were unable to turn off Kanye, the curator dismantled the phone and removed the battery.
PHASE 5: HINDSIGHT
By failing to fulfill the expectations of performers and audience members alike, it became possible for the initial instructions to serve two purposes: First, when relieved of our own instructed roles in the piece, we had no further obligation but to divulge our curiosity about the instructions of others. To me, this signifies that the experience of performative success and artistic curiosity are not necessarily linked, and further, that one may come at the expense of the other. Second, the instructions themselves propelled us into a new state of relationship to them, and the instructions were thereby devised to render themselves unnecessary. In so doing, the instructions managed to change my very intent as a performer, thereby dislodging my notions as to how to approach performance itself.
When a work of this nature is performed within an arts venue, it exposes the way in which art world protocol tends to shape artworks. Further, Concertos No.3 at the Incubator provides an example as to how venues respond to situations in which a work of art must operate outside that protocol. Concertos No.3 wasn't built for an audience, and in fact, it seems that the presence of audience in the space served as nothing more than a concession made to fulfill art conventions, and as such, was further utilized to distract performers in the initial phase of the performance from what would be the eventual nature of their actions. In this way, audience was central to the way in which Concertos No.3 framed artistic convention. They were invited merely so that they would leave, and by leaving, they gave performers a choice: Either investigate or abandon. And in fact, the piece would not have been able to end until all of the audience members, like the performers themselves, had either given up on the work or entered it.
The most prominent sensation I had during the course of the work was the elation of transformed experience. This transformation could not be composed or choreographed. It could merely be enticed through the devising of a structure, that, in its very essence, had to change. My elation was directly related to the random variables that emerged as the system followed various trajectories of change. However, my ability to first attempt to cognize the work as a whole didn't come until far after the work. In many cases, performers attempt to grasp a work as deeply as possible before they arrive on a stage to perform it. Or, performers can refuse to attempt to cognize the work as a system, rendering themselves as elements within it that perceive it solely from the perspective of their particular function. Concertos No.3, as a system, could only continue on the basis that its performers treat it as a system, and by so doing, transformed the act of performance into a process of experimentations that could be, with performer hindsight, pieced together to gain a perspective on the nature of the thing that they were inside.
| New York City, February 25 - June 15, 2012 |