Problem Making

I’ve written about how much I love the Gallim dance company in the past, so you know I was excited to attend a special sneak preview of their new work Fold Here at the permanent rehearsal space in Brooklyn.

Gallim

It was a pretty intimate and informal affair. About 25-30 supporters sat in metal folding chairs that had been placed around the perimeter of the dance floor, which doubles as the main space for the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Before the official program began, visitors were invited to watch the last few minutes of the company’s rehearsal.

I love this kind of “peek behind the curtain.” But, it’s funny… I have to say that watching the dancers rehearse didn’t feel all that different from watching a ticketed performance. Gallim is a gritty, raw, unfussy group of artists that are just as impactful dancing in torn sweatpants in a 150 year old church as they are in full makeup and costume at City Center.

Both the Executive Director and Dramaturge spoke a bit about the genesis of Fold Here and how it’s inspired by Cathedral, a short story by Raymond Carver. In the story, a man attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. The idea of this challenge was Creative Director Andrea Miller’s jumping off point for Fold Here.

This is Miller’s M.O. She describes herself as a “problem maker” and her dancers “problem solvers.” In solving the “problem,” dancers first create a vocabulary of dance and then work it all out with their choreography.  And, we, the audience, get to sit back and enjoy the solution.

I’ve been thinking about “problem making” quite a bit since that night, as it relates to both writing and life in general. It feels a lot like number 6 in Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How To Write a Good Short Story:

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Makes sense. No one cares about characters who have simple, easy lives. Stability doesn’t make a particularly interesting piece of fiction…or real life experience, for that matter.

Kind of a freeing way to think about our problems, right? Ok, so it is not universally applicable – some problems are LEGIT BAD. But, maybe some of our frustrations, restlessness, angst can push us towards new and beautiful solutions that we wouldn’t have discovered if things had been easier and happier.

Our problems can squeeze us and our creative output into new and interesting shapes…kind of like one of those Martha Stewart cookie guns.

cookie press

Question: Can you think of a perceived problem that eventually lead to something beautiful, interesting or tasty?

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I’m no Oktophony

I’m open minded and I honestly like weird installation art, so I was REALLY game for Oktophonie, The Park Avenue Armory’s current installation. (Remember the Swings? – Same art space). The Armory’s description:

Acclaimed contemporary visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija stages the work as the composer originally intended—in outer space—creating a lunar floating seating unit to fully envelop the listener in octophonic sound… the audience takes a ritualistic musical journey from plunging darkness into blinding light to fully immerse themselves in the all-encompassing score and surroundings…

-link

They had me at lunar floating seating unit.

And I wasn’t the only one looking forward to it. Each of the exhibit’s nine 70-minute showings sold out in a matter of days.

So, after work I made my way over to the Armory to meet up with Dan. We entered the drill hall (the enormity of which still stuns me every time – you just don’t see spaces that size in New York very often) and were immediately issued white cloaks to wear during the performance.

Sure, I’ll play along. Kinda fun, moderately odd.  We were then directed to a long bench where we could sit to remove our shoes. Hmm… Not sure they thought about olfactory effect of a few hundred barefoot New Yorkers in one room. It’s a pedestrian city, and we tend to hustle. But, ok.

Dan and I padded over to the circular seating area (lunar floating seating unit – woohoo!) and plopped down on a couple of seat cushions. Within a few minutes the lights dimmed and the performance began.

And, by “performance” I mean 70 minutes of Casio keyboard-like sound effects and circular track lighting that repeatedly turned off and on.

Ok, I realize that I may sound like one of those people who goes to a modern art museum and scoffs and dismisses all the “scribbles” and pain drips. But, in my defense, I will say that I went in with enthusiasm and an open mind. And, if I missed something, I am totally willing to be educated and set straight.

But, through the filter of ignorance, I will say that the whole experience was a little like the planetarium, which is already kind of boring, but without the benefits of stars and narration and education. You know those discordant noises they play before the planetarium narration begins that let you know that you’re about to travel through space and time? Well that’s where Oktophonie begins…and ends. The circular seating and backed seat cushions encourage the audience to look up…at nothing.  There is no virtual space travel.

Ten minutes in I started to wonder…Are we being punk’d? Is that still a show?

Twenty minutes in I started to turn the word Oktophonie over and over in my brain. Oktophonie. Oktophonie…phonie….phony? Is that what this piece is commenting on? Are we, the art-appreciating people of New York City, being taught a collective lesson about phoniness? Like Holden Caulfield phoniness? Is this our version of the Lunts and their terrible theater? Are we like those jerks who pretend to just LOVE the Lunts even though they’re pretentious and insufferable and boring?

Thirty minute in I started to contemplate leaving. But, damn it, I paid $40 a ticket and didn’t want to miss it if something cool happens halfway through. What if this carpeted lunar surface seating unit thingy starts to slowly spin and throws all of us in our white cloaks and matching seat cushions to the dusty drill hall floor? Or what if it begins to pulsate in such a way that we begin to bounce uncontrollably like little popcorn kernels in a sauce pan? What if the woman hunched over the laptop computer and control board suddenly flips to Pink Floyd and the flickering track lighting becomes a laser show?

As I contemplated this, at least 20 people left in pairs of two, their white cloaks fluttering behind them. “Take me with you…” I silently cried.

Thirty-five minutes in I looked over at my husband to find him fast asleep. This has happened numerous times – modern dance shows, performance art, movies, classical music. I usually get annoyed and jab him with my elbow. My favorite part of an artsy date night is discussing what we’ve just seen over a glass of wine. This time I just let him sleep.

Forty-five minutes in. I was past the point of no return. I figured that if I waited it out I could tell my grandchildren I made it through a performance of Oktophonie.

At the 70 minute mark the lights went up and people hesitantly applauded. I made a run for my shoes.

At dinner Dan was well rested, but I was annoyed. “What the heck just happened?” I demanded. Dan pulled out the over-sized program and showed me the opening spread.

Sheet music. COME FREAKIN ON. Ok, I call bullshit on two accounts.

One, that means nothing to at least 50% of your audience who doesn’t read sheet music. And, two, I find it hard to believe that what we all just heard required any kind of sheet music at all.

I’ve since scoured social media looking for others who are confused and angry like me, but I’ve found only a few people who admit to mild confusion.

What? What did I miss? Please, really. Honestly. Educate me. I love the Armory and want to believe there was value in this event and I just failed to find it.

Question: Did you ever have an Oktophonie-like experience? How did you work through it?

 

Do this: the event of a thread

Every time I’ve tried to explain the experience of Anne Hamilton’s the event of a thread, I’ve pretty much failed miserably. I don’t have the art world cred or the vocab to give it a proper review, so I’ll just tell you why I liked it so darn much.

It was fun.

I don’t always walk out of a museum or gallery and say, “That was fun.” I do think that art is good for you in a lot of ways, and you should experience as much as you can (especially in New York where much of it is free or super cheap). But, sometimes the  experience can be a little strained or intimidating. You’re expected to be quiet as you thoughtfully consider each piece of art. If you’re like me, you’re thinking “Ok, have I looked at this piece for long enough?” And, especially with installation art, I often walk away and wonder “Did I get everything I should have from that experience?”

Anne Hamilton’s installation piece was different, at least for me. It not only invited visitors to be part of the exhibit, but it really required it. The space is The Park Avenue Armory drill floor, a cavernous 55,000 sq foot room. Over 42 large wooden swings hang from the ceiling which has to be at least 100 ft high. Through a complicated series of ropes and pulleys, every swing is connected to a gigantic billowy curtain that hangs from the center of the room. So, as people swing back and forth, the curtain undulates like huge wave. Here’s a shot I took from the drill floor balcony:

the event of a thread
the event of a thread

There are other elements to the exhibit, too. Wireless speakers in brown paper bags are scattered throughout the room, and bells and chimes jingle from the ceiling. At one end of the hall, two men draped in furry cloaks read letters in to a microphone as a cluster of caged pigeons listen.

I am sure that these are important to the piece, but I’m not gonna lie – it was all about the swings. Everyone from small children to teenagers to grandparents to young couples were digging the swings. Because they were of the huge wooden plank variety, two to three people could fit on one without feeling like you were cramming your butt into a piece of playground equipment. These swings were built for everyone.  The hubby and I took turns pushing each other and then spent some time swinging together and watching everyone else act silly and giddy. FUN.

If you’re close to NY, go! It’s showing at the Park Avenue Armory through January 6th. If you’re not close, check out Ann Hamilton’s website for other events and projects.

Question: What’s your most memorable experience with art?