The fusion of science into art happens organically through music—as music began to integrate newer technologies into its production methods, the genre of electronic sound was born. The connection between sound and body has been a fascination of sound artists since the 1960s—think of sound pioneers like John Cage and Terry Riley for a point of departure in sound arts’ meticulous history. Sound has never been about listening only; it should also be experienced in the flesh because acoustics are meant to affect the body not only aurally, but physically as well.
To find new places to see and experience experimental sound performances requires finding organizations that cater to this boutique niche. AVANT.org is a great place to start if you are interested in learning about and listening to contemporary sonic art practices. Their recurring series “Sonic Research” is both didactic and experiential because it couples emerging sonic art with contemporary acoustic research.
Their most resent program titled “Psychoacoustics Session I” featured curated installations, artist talks, panel discussions and performances meant to present diverse perspectives and new research into the maturing field of psychoacoustics. This session went beyond thinking of sound as framing a material space and instead employed psychoacoustics as a new paradigm for understanding sonic art as a physical effect on both the body and the art.
Baroque opera meets Buddhism in the Canadian Opera Company’s U.S. premier of “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the hands of director Zhang Huan—a Chinese performance artist based in Shanghai—George Handel’s 18th century oratorio takes a turn away from tradition as Chinese and Japanese cultures intervene with the Greek tragedy.
“Semele” is Huan’s directorial debut and first foray into theatrical set design. In his notes on “Semele” Huan stated, “My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”
This past month the Bushwick Starr hosted a special series with the Target Margin Theater (TMT)inspired by the literary prowess of Gertrude Stein. Curated by TMT Artistic Producer John Del Gaudio, over 75 artists contributed to seven original pieces and three special events. In discussing why Gertrude Stein was chosen to be the matron saint of this year’s Lab series, Del Gaudio stated, “There is much room for play, but at the end of the day you are left with this language, this poetic and, yes, sometimes repetitive language, and these rigorous structures that make her work exciting for some of us and frustrating for others. It challenges and provides different points of access. It pushes boundaries and can be polarizing.”
Getrude Stein (1874-1946) was a leading poet, playwright and patron of the arts during the Avant-Garde era. Although born in the U.S., Stein moved to Paris in 1903 where she lived for the remainder of her life. As a patron of Modern Art, Stein ran in an elite circle that included the creme de la creme of Modern Art including Pablo Picasso and Matisse.
Her “stream of consciousness” literary style is both rhythmic and repetitive, inspired by the life she lived in Paris. Stein happened to live during two tumultuous moments in history, witnessing first hand WWI and WWII at ground zero. She also lived on the fringe of society as an openly gay woman during a time homosexuality was very much a taboo. Her idiosyncrasies in life played out in her novels, plays, stories and poems.
Now that Earth Day is here, and NYC has finally sprung into full Spring mode, let us rejoice by putting on a floral ensemble or cut off jeans to hit up the outdoors for some much needed sunshine. Before penciling in an afternoon picnic at Maria Hernandez Park, channel your inner eco-thespian at The Bushwick Starr who has a Go Green line-up of Earth Day plays and activities this weekend.
Performance art is moody, finding its power in a volatile vortex of actions and references on the semiotic scale of art. Like an arbitrary signifier that does not lead to any particular end, performance as a medium is menacing in its lack of stable definitions. Performance is that temperamental variable, making it difficult for some to ‘get’ because of its obstinacy to crystal clear meaning. With an inability to foresee a performer’s trails, viewers fly head first through the labyrinthine mind of an artist in action who discounts meaning as the ultimate truth in art. Why propose conclusions when it is the constellation of empty metaphors—the indescribable ride of questions—that is important. Brooklyn-based performance artists Brian Belott and Matthew Thurber—aka Sherlock Holmes Jr. and Court Stenographer—know exactly how to keep audiences guessing in their satirically absurd performances.
Theater without actors, a play without a plot, a cast only in absence, and action through inanimate light and sound.
Gabriel Lester’s “Super Sargasso-Sea (phantom play #1)” is theater distanced from life to expand its medium-specific conventions: a perverse theater perpetuating its own extinction, only to emerge again as a new “theaterless theater”. No remorse necessary, because Lester fills this actorless void with a sculptural set activated by light and sound.
Lester’s loose plot is printed in the playbill. During this 30-minute play, a scientist, his fiancee, their firstborn, a dog, and a cat together experience great misfortune: the young couple dies in successive fatal accidents, leaving their firstborn (named “Creature”) an orphan. Characters are represented in absence strictly through light and sound interacting on a sculptural stage. Viewers are given authority regarding the plot because without overt actors progressing the scenes through active dialogue, action is regarded on a completely individual level; all will experience this play in different ways because without hard-edged parameters, we have choices.
It is important for art to break through its own parameters. This is reflective of societal flux ever expanding in search of a perfect plateau. Once art is removed from assumptions it enters a space of unknown. To some, this expanse of possibilities is self-affirmative. However, not all want choice when it comes to engaging with entertainment. In the playbill Adam Kleinmen insightfully writes:
“Thinking is hard. The brain links inputs to ideas, but needs to do so quickly. If not, you’ll overload. Snap judgments follow preconceived notions so as to limit processing power to get you through the day.”
Traditionally plays guide us towards meaning through preconceived notions. We know what we will experience from the play’s categorized genre. The meaning in Lester’s play is not so obvious, and it may not even have a symbolic truth value. It may be an exercise in pushing theater to its limits. Read into this play as much as you would like; experience it as a visual metaphor for the paragraph long plot synopsis in the play bill, or, enjoy it on technical grounds as an aesthetic journey through sounds and light. This play expands genre barriers, and it does so enchantingly.