TBA:12

TBA12: Multiple Cecchetti takes for multiple Cecchettis

Both Patrick Collier and Graham W. Bell consider Alex Cecchetti's serial performance art

Alex Cecchetti performs his “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter”/Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

Editor’s note: Alex Cecchetti’s “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter,” with its relay of five performers re-enacting  a “seed” performance by Cecchetti, begged for multiple interpretations. So, we asked Patrick Collier and Graham W. Bell to pile on…

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By Patrick Collier

Near the beginning of Arnold J. Kemp’s second rendition of Alex Cecchetti’s experiment in serial performance, “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter,” Kemp walks around the room and greets each person in the audience by saying, “Thank you for coming. You really didn’t have to.” He sometimes shook a person’s hand, others received a hug as well, and to a few he added additional remarks.

Kemp was the third person to perform this piece. Cecchetti did it twice at the beginning of TBA, Lisa Radon went second, then Kemp, followed by David Knowles and Sara Jaffe.  Wholly unscripted, each performer was charged simply to “see it then do it,” and perform the piece on two consecutive days. As one might readily imagine, Cecchetti’s design had a built-in flaw—two performances were unlikely to be identical. As it turned out, even Cecchetti’s two presentations contained variations.

I heard about Cecchetti’s own performances from Radon, and this little bit of knowledge about what came before, produced some doubt in my mind regarding the sincerity of Kemp’s greetings: Was he just adhering to the “script?” A less generous way to think about such things, for I know Kemp to be a congenial fellow, but so goes the critical mind. The next evening, David Knowles left a good portion of the greeting out of his presentation. No hands were shaken, no person singled out and acknowledged; at least that’s how I remember it. Perhaps he was nervous? Shy? A considered omission?

So, there you have it: second hand information and flawed recall shall not prevent me from speculation. Instead, a more phenomenologically based analysis might better serve an understanding of Cecchetti’s overall intent for the piece.

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The constants, insofar as there were any, related to and relied on the props each performer brought to, and left after his or her own version. Dishware, rocks, pencils, feathers, chalk and fruit acted as visual cues for recitation or improvisation of vignettes that each new performer had watched in the previous performances. Whether these sections were to be strung together toward a larger theme was hard to tell. Some of what was said seemed nonsensical, as if concepts from earlier stagings had been lost or altered beyond recognition, while at other times the presentation was wonderfully metaphorical.

Still, I found myself wanting a consistency between the performances, making it more a feat than a demonstration built on touchstones shared and related, but from which then one must necessarily diverge. I had to let some of my criteria go if I were to find a deeper meaning, and perhaps come closer to what Cecchetti had in mind when he created this piece.

Kemp spoke like a teacher as well as a seasoned performer, repeating himself or coming at a concept from a variety of directions. Knowles was more the student. And had I seen only Kemp or Knowles perform, I would walk away with nothing of this more subtle context of transference and transition. That said, although I saw but a fraction of the series, I sensed that the degree to which each performer reflected on or grasped Cecchetti’s intent influenced the audience’s engagement.

Knowles’ second performance no doubt benefited from his own reflections about his first, as I’m sure holds true for the other performers. And I suppose had this audience member seen all ten performances, a more substantial meditation on the performance might be possible, including a greater insight into each performer. Yet, as performer or audience member, can we mourn what we didn’t know had existed in previous performances? After all, even though the similarities might be few and far between, who can say that Cecchetti’s first performance offered more of the sublime than Sara Jaffe’s finale?

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Objects of ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’/Wayne Bund

We might instead return to the props and consider how all of us relate to objects in the world (including art, of course). Beyond the simplistic notion of the multiplicity of subjectivities that impose themselves on objects, factors such as competencies and preferences are self-limiting. We intellectually and emotionally consist of surpluses and deficiencies, privileges and prejudices, and any certainties and constants beyond the object itself, it must be admitted, remain elusive. Call it the “human element,” yet in that an object — or an idea — has our attention, it is still a process of appreciation, if only a gleaning.

Before there was writing, knowledge was passed by gestures, images and speech. Of course, one assumes that forms of communication evolved from individual grunts to single words that were then strung together as the need for complexity arose. Eventually, words were carefully arranged for even more complex thoughts, and along with these complexities came a need to establish a correspondingly intricate/precise method for transference. Thus, rituals, and similarly, rhymes for relaying these ideas were born. It is only when homo sapiens had a need and found a way to further codify through writing did we emerge from the prehistoric (which, we might keep in mind, did not happen all that long ago). Mind you, I could be wrong in the sequencing, for which I would then refer you back to the aforementioned afflicting lack of certitude (and thereby suggest another history lesson in regards to the phrase “gospel truth”).

I am getting myself into deep water here, not merely to suggest we ascribe our own meanings to things and events, but built upon potential inaccuracies, these often amount to nothing more than belief systems. Then, for better or worse, these observations become stories told time and again, each time with something new added, something seemingly unnecessary left out or simply forgotten; yet, from each telling some residue collects and settles (substance).

Then we take further liberties: We anthropomorphize and make connections that are based on sometimes loose associations, all to drive home what we think the point/lesson is. Hence, the title for Cecchetti’s performance: we do not endure one trying season for the graces of another, yet we cannot resist personalizing, and by that I mean giving a consciousness (perhaps a conscience as well), and therefore greater meaning and purpose to the changes in weather.

We do this because we desire and hope for the same assurances in life that we get from the Earth in its orbit. It is as old as Noah.

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Arnold Kemp performs ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’/ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

By Graham W. Bell

Arnold Kemp turns away from the chalkboard, laughing: “Who the hell can tell this story?” Then turning back to the board, raising his chalk, he stops and shakes his head, chuckling again: “Who the hell can tell this story?”

It is a difficult for a writer to explain or describe Alex Cecchetti’s “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter” without becoming a performer, too. Each echo of the original performance by Cecchetti is changed slightly, is received differently, becomes as much about the person lecturing as it does the original script or score.

In each iteration, the performance changes yet adheres to the first set of movements, motions and object/narrative relationships set forth originally by the artist. A story unfolds in parts that may seem to be highly scripted or off-the-cuff. Breaks in the action afford the audience a time to start sussing out the situation, but then they’re back in the thick of it. Instead of the traditional audience/stage/performer relationship, an almost Brechtian realization of the space is at play.

You are aware of the stage because you are on the stage. But instead of a singular moment of connection, constant movement of the audience and storyteller make one continually aware of and engaged with the performance. There is no time to sit in one place and think about how your legs are going to sleep. Instead everyone migrates here and there, closer and farther, as the performer instructs and soliloquizes.

 

Sara Jaffe’s take/ PICA Press Corps

 

Entering the room, the performer places a box of objects on the ground. Then he or she  personally greets each member of the audience. This initial connection is important. Drawing each person in and making an actual physical connection to them helps to initiate a mode of thought. One may think, “Here, they’ve taken the time to thank me for attending, the least I can do is give my full attention.” Following this, a series of actions and dialogues are carried out, each tangentially leading to the other. If one performance is witnessed, various associations are formed and an initial understanding is possible. It is only with a second (or third or fourth) viewing (even of the same performer) that you are made aware of discrepancies. Slight ripples in the narrative, mistakes, accidents, additions, subtractions: these all point to the time-based aspect of this piece. Cecchetti is not out to make a repeatable act. He wants each performer to consider the story, to act on the objects and directions, and to convey the performance through their own person to the gathered audience.

In the Visual Arts Salon, Cecchetti kept coming back to the idea of responsibility. It goes both ways. Asked about the audience interacting when they are not asked to, he brought up a portion of the piece where the performer lies down and talks about death. The artist explained that he had things to explain to the audience and their responsibility was to listen to these things and not be on the floor with him, pretending to be dead (because you can’t listen when you’re dead).

Asked what happens when someone changes an object (or if that is even allowed), he explained that things can change as long as the performers understands that they have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that makes sense to them. If they interpret it in one way and tell it as such (even if it is not in the way originally meant by the artist), they are being true to the score. Instead of memorizing exactly how to complete the piece, each actor/performer uses the objects as, in Cecchetti’s words, “elements of memory.” They are visual aids as much as they are the string tied around your finger to remind you to buy apples.

The objects are markers in time (“stop projecting yourself into the future!”). Without the story, they mean nothing. You can tell someone what happens, what the story is, but there needs to be the performative aspect to make each piece active. Going back to the room and looking at the things strewn about is a very different experience for someone who has seen the piece and someone who has read about it or has no idea. There is a moment in the performance (assuming you go after a couple have taken place) when you suddenly realize what all of the other objects represent. They are like chapter markers within a text. They establish a lineage that only makes sense when you see that lineage being added to.

“This is for later,” the performers say as they place a cup or saucer full of water on the floor, slightly spilling. You put it out of your mind, assuming it will be brought up again. It is not. Only upon further investigation of the space, after the story is over or on another iteration of the performance, do you realize that that ‘later’ is when you finally bring to bear the realization of what that cup of water represents. The ‘later’ is outside the performance, outside of the narrative, in your real life timeline, yet very much a part of the story.

The idea of a ‘relay performance’ is a novel one at first, but makes a lot of sense now that the piece has run its course. Each night’s acting was only a piece of the whole. One night alone is powerful, but not the complete work. The handing off of the responsibility from Cecchetti to Lisa Radon, Arnold Kemp, David Knowles and Sara Jaffe each time is an intangible but integral part of the puzzle. And the interstitial time between these handoffs and between the performances is integral, too. It is for reflection, for understanding, for connecting, for realizing.

There are apples, arrows, water dishes, people, imaginary lemons, rabbits, death, berries and rocks. Those are responsibilities.

NOTES

Remnants of Alex Cecchetti’s ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’ are still on view at Washington High School through Saturday, September 29.

More information here.

TBA12: Think Global, Art Local

This year's Time-Based Arts Festival offered a diverse mixture of international and local artists

E*Rock and Claudia Meza at TBA’s
Sonic City PDX

At the outset of this year’s Time Based Arts Festival, and at introductions to many of its performances, new TBA director Angela Mattox announced her programming philosophy: “to include Portland in an artistic conversation with various regions of the world.” It’s certainly a worthy goal; despite its recent influx of artists from elsewhere, Portland audiences, like those anywhere else, can be parochial and limited in what they consider an acceptable perimeter. Or parameter. But no one goes to TBA, or to other non-museum art, to find the solace of the familiar. We’re looking for challenge, new ideas, different perspectives.

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A bunch of hipsters making and consuming obscure, highly conceptual art that lacks real heart or serious development of the concept, and the wannabes that worship at their altar. A description of certain 21st century fringe festivals? How about The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and boho haven in mid-1960s midtown Manhattan, a time and place still regarded fondly by today’s avant-art types, as evidenced by the popularity of one of last year’s best Time Based Arts Festival entries, Dean & Britta’s “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.”

What if, goes the set up for the English theater troupe Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good),” the most enjoyable entry in this year’s TBA festival so far, we could go back in time to those proto-cool days? And in most seemingly enthusiastic Rob Reiner/”Spinal Tap” fashion, the show opens with the too-close image of Squad’s breathlessly Warhol-worshipping Sean Patten projected on a tri-partite screen at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, appearing in a black and white set showing a kitchen circa 1965 — but, alas, with a few anachronistic touches, like Safeway corn flakes and organic milk. (The other two insets simultaneously show Gob Squad’s recreations one of those notorious screen tests and Warhol’s early-‘60s film “Sleep.”)

As it turns out, that’s not the only element of this nostalgia trip sendup that fail to live up to its alleged expectations. Try as they might, Patten and his cohorts (made up and costumed like their famous predecessors such as John Cale and Edie Sedgwick, the star of Warhol’s original Kitchen) just don’t seem to be able to evince Warhol’s icy coolness, or demonstrate the patience to sit staring at a camera for minutes at a time (as in Warhol’s notorious Screen Tests), or do nothing but eat a mushroom (or in this case, mustard) for 45 minutes (1964’s “Eat”), or make the most of the titular activities of “Kiss” and “Blow Job.” Thanks to today’s rules, they’re not even allowed to smoke on the “Kitchen” set. “Why,” asks Sharon Smith, “would would someone make a film about someone asleep, and then people would come to watch it?” Why indeed.

The stage seems to be set for a Spinal Tap-style parody, and there’s plenty of that in this ingenious production, but it soon becomes much more, involving the contrast between what happens on set (which lies just behind the screen, making it easy for actors to move back and forth between here and now and 1965 NYC, a la Woody Allen’s classic film “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and on stage. The show also contains switcheroonies between the cast and selected audience members (who receive instructions via headphones) that amount to the best use of (entirely voluntary) audience participation I’ve ever encountered, and much more.

But for all its inventive methods (which I don’t want to disclose and spoil here, because quite a bit profits from surprise) the humor (some of it improvised) of Gob Squad really emerges from a very old fashioned place: character. Each actor creates flawed, very human characters who fail to live up to either their idols or their own hopes, and the distance between those intentions and what they actually achieve makes for consistently funny and often hilarious (though seldom in a slapstick, gag-oriented way) two-hour show that, though it could be a bit tighter, ranks among the most creative and enjoyable I’ve ever seen at TBA.

Volunteer Ellen Goldschmidt joins Gob Squad/ Jonah Levine courtesy of PICA

And being presented in the context of a fringe arts festival gives an extra giggle to a production that pokes gentle fun not just at pretentious art but also our own affectations and fallibilities. You can sense the English-German troupe’s genuine admiration and even affection for Warhol and his scene — and at the same time their understanding that we 21st century types could never really recreate the naive conditions that made them seem so cool then. Warhol himself would probably have smirked a bit at the humor that emerges through their on-screen tiffs, skits, dances, and other hapless attempts to ascend to the heights of ‘60s cool.

But in its closing sequences, Gob Squad goes even farther, deftly using music and dialogue to create a briefly poignant mood that reminds us that for all our shortcomings, there’s still plenty of value in being what we are, even if we can never really be as cool as Andy might once have seemed. I emerged from this smartly performed and thoughtfully constructed theater piece with a grin that wouldn’t subside, not just because of Kitchen’s gentle satirical jabs at our pretensions and foibles, but also thanks to its appreciation of them.

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Goats, towers, and one dance increasing in size

Ten Tiny Dances breaks records and maybe cheats a little

“Awkward,” Keith Hennessy and Empress Jupiter, TBA:12/Nim Wunnan

By NIM WUNNAN

Emerging twice a year, Ten Tiny Dances could easily pass for some sort of some sort of art-equinox ritual. If you’re unfamiliar, Ten Tiny Dances is the flash-fiction of dance — ten short performances by ten acts, confined to a 4’ x 4’ stage, one performed after another.

In the right hands (or under the right feet) constraints so tight can become a secret recipe, and they turn into a gimmick with the wrong ones. That magic can pivot on the potential futility of limitation. Before each act on Saturday night at TBA, you could feel the audience wagering whether that futility would transform into a special flavor of freedom or weigh heavily on the performance until its short life was extinguished.

Two of the most notable moments of transformation came from the performers being pushed—or pushing themselves—into even tighter corners than the tiny stage did. In each case, it sent them all the way around the cycle again to the point where they ended up using the entire audience, which felt a little like cheating, but no one cared given the fun they were having.

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The quiet art of description and house music

On TBA's opening night, a time for weirdness and coincidence

By GRAHAM W. BELL

Well, if you didn’t make it to the extravaganza that was the grand opening of TBA:2012 at Washington High School last night, I’ll let you watch this video to see and hear the best part of going when there is a lot/too much happening:

https://vimeo.com/49004794
Morgan Ritter’s installation to the tune of Venus X.

Opening night is for weird experiences and coincidences like this. It is not a night to go and see the art with your full attention. Many I came across had not and were not even going into the school, and were instead waiting for a quieter, more opportune time to peruse the visual arts component, “End Things.”

The visual arts portion feels smaller and more subdued this year (at least the Washington High portion). With only four classrooms occupied, I was left wondering what to see next. However, this year is also a no-nonsense, minimal exhibition. Here are things. Look at them. Think about them. Act on them and that.

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