Friday, December 17, 2010

CHARETTE: Ken Goldberg

Continuing our practice of providing UCB faculty with an opportunity to share work-in-progress, ARC hosted a Charrette for Ken Goldberg who is preparing a new work to open at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum in the spring.
Ken asked us to invite a selected group of faculty to help him think about the formal structure of an installation entitled “Are We There Yet?” which will invite receivers to reflect upon the interrogative impulses behind the dynamic construction of past and contemporary Jewish identity.  It will also be employing systems developed by Meyer Sound as well as Ken’s team of doctoral students in his robotics lab at UCB to create an installation that responds sonically to receivers’ movements in the space.  With faculty and graduate students from dance, art history, art practice, architecture, engineering, and Jewish studies gathered together in one space, Ken’s work provided a space for a truly interdisciplinary dialogue that, as Ken said later, inspired him to “keep questioning questioning.”  I know that we are all looking forward to the opening in late March.

SALON: Larry Rinder

For a welcome moment, BAM Director and ARC Affiliate Larry Rinder took a break from his administrative duties to talk with us about his expansive vision in curating his “Hauntology” exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum.  
Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s use of the term in Spectres of Marx, the exhibit was also an implicit mediation on the status of the museum as a living archive of artworks that ghost the institution that stores them. Hauntology brought together a varied array of works—from Luc Tuymans to Carrie Mae Weems, from Tadeuz Kantor to Diane Arbus—whose diverse forms and capacious content dramatized how life in the present is buoyed and shadowed by the life of the past.  We were especially pleased that Larry’s co-curator Scott Hewicker could join us for the private tour and discussion which, along with the delicious reception, offered an enriching space of thoughtful exchange.

BAY AREA ARTS: The Brother/Sister Plays

This fall, three Bay Area theatres joined forces—and resources—to co-produce the incredible Brother/Sister trilogy of plays written by the incredibly gifted Tarell Alvin McCraney.  
McCraney’s reputation as one of the “hottest” “emerging” American playwrights only begins to do justice to his skill and depth of vision, and the decision on the part of A.C.T., Marin Theatre, and the Magic to bring the trilogy to the Bay Area allowed audiences here to see why.  McCraney grew up in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami-Dade County and describes his work as an attempt to bring forward the theatricality of that landscape into theaters unused to experiencing it.  That pursuit occurs on a number of fronts. For one, it means creating plays that feature the complex and intimate relations of men of color, as lovers and brothers to each other and to a wider network of kin.  It is an attempt to render what McCraney calls a “Chekhovian equivalent in the projects.”  Additionally, that task meant animating the deep spiritual history of African people in the Americas, particularly their dynamic reuse of Yoruba cosmology whose central orishas—Ogun, Eshu, Oba, Oshun, and more—are artfully reused once more as the propelling forces behind the central characters of McCraney’s plays.  Finally, McCraney’s brand of theatricality emphasizes the centrality of story-telling in African and African-American performance, what a certain German theatre director named Bertolt Brecht would have called the “epic” potential of the theatre.  McCraney’s characters simultaneously embody and narrate their stories, speaking of themselves in the third person as they enact first person gesture and movement, embodying a present moment while simultaneously lending the retrospective stance of a story teller who knows how it will end.  For audiences of Word for Word or comparable theater experiments, the effect is similar to a theater of literary adaptation.  But by combining the different epic conventions integral to a varied array of cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic spheres, McCraney devises theatrical events all his own. 
It was no mean feat for these three theaters to coordinate schedules, subscriptions, and ticketing to be sure that Bay Area audience members could see these events; indeed, the box office managers of every theater were going crazy to pull it off. But the decision to commit to a series of theatre experiments with fellow spectators who made that commitment together was also central to the “epic” experience of these plays.  It was also a kind of mutually sustaining collaboration between three Bay Area institutions where, with effort, all boats rise.

BAY AREA ARTS: Etiquette at YBCA

I had the chance to experience “Etiquette” under the auspices of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts earlier this semester.  
I have been interested in the admittedly over-used concept of “relational aesthetics” over the last couple of years, thinking in particular about 1) how this turn in contemporary visual art is part and parcel of a related turn in experimental theatre and 2) how and with what modifications this turn addresses socio-political issues, i.e. the vexed but intriguing question of “commitment” in art practice. 
“Etiquette” may have less to say about topic number 2, but it is an intriguing place to reflect on topic number 1.  This piece was conceived by the artistic group Rotozaza who have been creating innovative scenarios together for the last decade.  This is a piece is made for two audience members who end up becoming performers for each other simultaneously.  As such, they are part of Rotozaza’s ongoing interest in creating “Autoteatro” experiences, that is small, provisional theatrical experiences that are generated by and for the participants themselves.  This particular piece takes place in a beautiful tea lounge located above the Yerba Buena Gardens.  Two auto-participants sign up every hour for a 30 minute performance.  The pair is instructed by a host to sit at a special table in the tea lounge.  There, they put on head sets that instruct them in the parameters of exchange.  They will be told how to interact with each other and what to say.  The table is also equipped with special props, including chalk, miniature figures indexing humans and elements of a landscape, pens, pieces of paper, a small piece of “teck” (a play-doh like substance).  The head sets also tell participants how to use these items, ultimately to create a tiny space of narrative display on the table between them.
Rotozaza has gained a reputation within  a larger effort to create intensely intimate theatre—or from the other direction, to create specialized forms of interaction within the gallery system.  Indeed, part of what always interests me is whether these intimate aesthetic scenarios are supported by a theatre circuit or a visual art gallery circuit.  This particular series comes under the auspices of YBCA’s performance curatorship, with Angela Mattox doing most of the coordination.  However, Angela’s effort is also part of an initiative with visual arts curator Betti-Sue Hertz where the two of them are joining forces to think about the nature of audience experience in both the theatrical and visual arts realms.  This joint interest has been taken up in a bunch of places.  Battersea Arts Center recently coordinated a large festival called “One-on-One” which brought together dozens of pieces intended for single individuals or very small groups, pieces where the act of reception is highly personalized and self-reflexive.  These kinds of audience experiments were also under discussion in a public panel and all day “think tank” that I had the pleasure of participating in at the Museum of Modern Art in May of 2010, an experience that was rich and not without its moments of friction as curators, artists, and critics debated the goals of this work.
Within this larger relational movement in theatre and the visual arts, there are some specific dimensions to “Etiquette” that provoke specific comparisons.  Like many of the one-on-one pieces, the question of financial support looms.  Large ticket sales can’t be the objective.  Indeed, these pieces are attempts to offer micro-experiences at a time when museums and theatres are pressured to coordinate art events that “scale,” that have a high “flow-through” of people (museums) or that can accommodate many “butts in seats” (theatre).  The techniques of Etiquette are akin to those of say, Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta in a Box in its intensely micro-aesthetic, though arguably it does not have the same socio-political ambitions of that piece.  However, the experience of what Rotozaza calls the “bubble in a public space” is one filled with wonder and the thrill of unexpected encounter.  The use of head-sets is itself a particular technique.  It recalled for me some of the works of Janet Cardiff whose sound designs provoke listeners to look anew at the sites they are inhabiting.  In this case, however, the voices on the head-sets are provoking, not only reflection, but also speech and action in the world.  I have been part of other theatre experiments where participants are told their lines spontaneously.  The effects are varied in all cases.  Sometimes, participants can find themselves going down a rabbit hole, where they become embedded in fraught and sometimes disturbing stories from which they may or may not want to escape.  In other cases, however, there is a certain pressure that is taken off of the “participants” when their lines and actions are set for them. Unlike the pressure of other kinds of participatory theatre, the head-set-driven dramaturgy can be a bit of a relief, with less concern about how to make decisions, how to “interact,” how to “assert agency” etc.   My experience of Etiquette fell into this category.  As I put on the head set, said my lines, and moved my figurines while watching my partner move hers, I felt curiously relaxed.  My experience was in someone else’s hands even as those hands relied on my own to execute it.  Finally, in ways that I hadn’t expected, the pleasure of the experience also paralleled the pleasure of the puppet theatre as well as that of the dollhouse.  The dramaturgy installed on the table between us had the tiny wonders of a doll house interaction, where objects are animated and where a miniature world can be created and controlled.  Exactly why the piece is called “Etiquette” is an open question for me.  But if etiquette is a system of behaviors that troubles the distinction between external directive and internal will, then this was a piece that certainly provoked reflection on that paradox.

SALON: Ed Campion

We had the opportunity to hold another ARC Salon to celebrate the work of UCB faculty composer, Ed Campion, when Cal Performances featured the performance of his work by the stunning Paris-based group Ensemble Zellig. 

Ed is a leader in the fields of electronic and digital music composition, crafting what are not so much “scores” but alternate “systems” for composing, calibrating, integrating, and synthesizing musical and sonic forms. Cal Performances director, Matías Tarnalpolsky, joined us for a pre-show talk and a post-show reception to help us think about the beauty of Campion’s work, the challenge to “authorship” it launches, and the new skills it requires of its musicians.  Admittedly, the turn-out for the reception was so large that we had to revise our concept of “Salon” discussion, but we were thrilled to gather Bay Area arts luminaries—including Paul Dresher and the cultural attachés of the French Consul General— with so many Berkeley faculty and Bay Area arts supporters.

ARTS ELSEWHERE: The School of Social Work at the University of Washington recently reconnected with the historical formation of the field, that is, with what we would now call its nascent “interdisciplinarity” in the arts. The late 19th century reformers who sought something other than a charity model to address the social ills of their day—unregulated factories, juvenile justice, the experience of immigration, race and gender prejudice, the health and housing of the poor, you name it—founded “settlements” in cities around the United States to craft sustainable and “neighborly” ways of addressing these issues.  Importantly, artistic activity was central to this vision of social transformation.  Settlements supported painting, story-telling, museums, theatre, parades, and more, arguing that access to such forms of expression and community building should be an essential, hardly ornamental, element in the life of U.S. citizens.

That might be grand language, but it seemed important to remember  when I was writing a book called Lines of Activity on the role of the arts at the Hull-House settlement.  And it seemed important to remember a decade later at a symposium at University of Washington that was trying to re-integrate the arts into the vision and clinical practice of social work now.  Emily Conbere, the central organizer, is working to establish Matt’s House, an outreach effort that will use the arts in suicide prevention and to help youth to address the effects of teen suicide in their families and their communities.  The symposium attracted a varied audience of young people, social workers, historians of social work, as well as civic leaders in the arts who brainstormed together about what it takes to rebuild an intimate and reciprocal relationship between the arts and social work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CHARRETTE: Lisa Wymore

As part of our charge to facilitate art research in the laboratory culture of the university, ARC is holding a series of what we are calling "charrettes," opportunities for faculty artists and scholars to share work-in-progress with a trusted group of audience members.  Our first charrette featured the work of UCB choreographer Lisa Wymore and her partner, Sheldon Smith, as they assembled a first iteration of "Apparatus," a piece that will premiere at ODC in the spring of 2011. Juxtaposing Antonioni's classic film "L'Avventura" with live re-enactments of selected scenarios that were projected in real time next to the original film; the piece strategically confused the relationship between the live and the mediated, the spontaneous and the scripted, the original and the copy.

SALON: Joe Goode

At ARC, we have begun a series of “salons” in which we celebrate work of UCB’s artists and scholars on the Bay Area cultural scene.  Our first gathering coalesced this summer around the work of choreographer Joe Goode whose extraordinary piece, “Traveling Light,” animated the historic Mint Building of San Francisco.  Colleagues and Bay Area arts supporters gathered afterward to share some wine and speak with Joe about his process.  The decision to make a precariously balanced piece of choreography in the Mint obviously had incredible resonance during a precarious economic time.  The grandeur of the building, one that is in various states of repair and whose future has been the subject of significant debate, provided an amazing mise-en-scene for Joe’s explorations of the capacities and limits of human material.