In this interview with Extended Play, members of the original cast of "This Beautiful City" talk about the show's origins, Michael Friedman's legacy and the bittersweet experience of recording the new album.
In 2014, the well-established, Austin-based contemporary arts festival Fusebox conducted an experiment. They wondered what would happen if they made the festival free for all attendees. Through a series of grants, sponsorships, and individual donations, the plan was to try it for three years and see how it went.
Now entering its fourth year, Free Range Art roams again this week in Texas, and in addition to gallery works, multi-disciplinary performances, and concerts, Fusebox continues its tradition of tapping a dizzying array of digital, interactive, virtual reality, immersive, and play-based artists from Austin and around the world.
CAM SHOW CRUCIBLEJohn Moletress isn’t a sex worker, but they play one on T.V. Sort of. “Trigger Warnings and Various Attempts” is a 20-hour gallery installation in which Moletress performs inside an amateur sex cam chat room, Cam4, which allows users from around the world to interact with Moletress in real time.
A live audience watches the performance, while also viewing a big screen monitor of the webcam performance. The gallery audience can login to Cam4 and participate in the live chat with other viewers from around the world. If all this wasn’t enough, Moletress will also simulcast the performance to the gallery at Chisenhale Dance Space in London, where they are a member artist.
This is Moletress’ first foray into online cam performance. They spent many hours as a voyeur on Cam4 and observed how people interacted with performers and playing into the idea of productivity. Originally conceived as part of a larger series of actions they were planning, Moletress performed a workshop of “Trigger Warnings and Various Attempts” at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, CA. Their aim was to play with the space between mediated space and live performance.
“There’s a sort of non-stated belief system that exists that when you are not physically present, aren’t live with someone else, and rather they’re just a sort of avatar of themselves in the social media world that they feel that they can say or do anything without responsibility,” says Moletress. “So I’ve had some really wild things that were said during the performances at Highways, and it was interesting how the people that were in the space were also typing in on their electronic devices, and then interacting with people who were not in the room. And having this conversation in that distance between the live-ness and then also other locations. The people that were in the space with me took more care of the performance, and, in a way, there’d be little interesting moments where they began to police the people that were not in the room.”
Moletress sees the audience—both online and live—as performers. And many of the remote participants don’t even realize it. They fancy these people as the “hidden performer” with whom they respond in real time.
“It’s completely bizarre,” Moletress says. “The other aspect of this is ‘The Crucible.’”
Did I mention Moletress reads Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” as many times as they can over the course of 20 hours? They’ll gauge how their body responds to the reading, as they monitor the chat room.
“I was starting to think about how these hierarchies of productivity and power were working in art making and using theater as a reference point,” Moletress says, “and then thinking about ‘Where does the autonomy of art making and the body exist within that structure?’”With the Crucible, the text is well played. Performed repeatedly from regional to community to university theaters, Moletress calls it a “beaten text.” They wanted to explore the concept of who really owns their work in the production. Is it the funders, producers, or the audience?
“So I was thinking about that in terms of sex work,” says Moletress, “and thinking how sex work has had this path from being a sort of street, locational type of labor, and then that sort of going away and sex work moving into these online platforms that are facilitated by websites and chat rooms. Then it becomes more entrepreneurial. Because sex work usually was thought about being managed by a pimp as moved into this entrepreneurship, whereby sex work is very individual, so people manage themselves and their clientele and how they do their labor and make money via their own profiles and websites without all that other ‘manager’ if you will.”
People tune in by tuning into Cam4. Create a login name. Search for “awildthing,” and that will direct audiences to the performance.
“People were making some really great handles in our live audience,” says Moletress, “like ‘Abigail’s Liver’ like ‘Danforths’ Dirty Fingers.’ I couldn’t help but crack up. There’s a great bit of cheekiness to it, too, which is fantastic.”
If you want to get in on the action and can’t drop by live at Fusebox, get your handle and login to Cam4.
“Trigger Warnings and Various Attempts”
Fri 14, 11pm – Sat 15, 7.30pm (installation hours), April 2017
The Museum of Human Achievement Studio (West Entrance)
This is a free event. Reservations not required.
SPECULATING THE FUTURE IN A GREASY SPOON
Rachel Stuckey is the Director of Speculative Futures at the Museum of Human Achievement (MOHA) in Austin, TX. It’s a big title, and when asked about what she does, Stuckey says she thinks about technology and how it interacts with consciousness. Basically, she’s a curator of interactive digital and virtual reality (VR). And she’s cooked up a new way of consuming art.
When Stuckey was away on a residency with a VR project she’d created, she realized the gallery had to have reservations to organize audience flow. If people just show up and sign a list, it doesn’t work well. Reservations made it easier. When she returned to MOHA, she implemented the reservation process with their VR installations. Then inspiration hit.
“My interns were waiting at the bar with a list,” Stuckey recalls, “and it ended up feeling like a restaurant hostess situation. And in talking about that event, we were joking that we should get some restaurant buzzers because that would be easy to call people back when it was their turn. From there, it was like, ‘What if we made an entire restaurant?’ Kind of playing on the concept, for most people VR is such a novelty because they haven’t experienced it before. It’s a new, kind of out there thing, and programming work for VR that’s been more serious and politically engaging critical work, there’s such a clash between the person who’s ready for an entertaining novelty experience and the content of the work.”
They baked it all into a greasy spoon diner model complete with sassy, rude high school wait staff. If a VR headset or computer malfunction, they’re “out of it” on the menu. Some experiences only run on one computer, so if a person is engaged with it, they’re “out” for the next person in line.
There are seven VR works on the “menu.” In total, 28 artists fill out the entire show. “Customers” will be able to choose off the menu based on their “tastes,” and the wait staff will guide the audience to have a tailored experience.“It’s a full diner, essentially,” Stuckey says. “‘Appetizers’ are net art, and they’re either meant to be seen on a monitor that’s mounted next to the diner table or on a tablet, which we’ll be serving in a hamburger basket. Those are typically meant to be shared between two people. Some of the net art has very strong interaction. A lot of different scenes to click through. Others are very simple, web-based toys. So, you could get two at once and share it with your table partner. And the VR works are the ‘entrees.’ The desserts are more interactive works, so we have a few things that include augmented reality and some 3-D prints and different things that involve physical interaction. Just trying to think about what could serve as a ‘treat’ after a ‘meal’ when you’ve just been watching VR.”
“Spam’s the Internet: The Restaurant” grew out of MOHA’s technology initiative, IRL. A portion of the program curates emerging media, including VR. They want to grow a community in Austin, and hope to attract makers and audience with a studio with VR equipment. MOHA has an artist in residence program, and a budding salon series to have discussions around new technology and art.
“With IRL,” says Stuckey, “I think the goal is to introduce people to another way of looking at these emerging media technologies, which I think the general person sees as a commercial consumer product. If they have a Gear VR at home, they’re used to seeing these sleek, commercially produced games. I want to break down that gap that says that this is technology that large corporations are in control of by showing that artists are also able to use it their ways to make content for these new technologies affordably and that they are accessible to artists. And just to build a literacy in the general public of how to look at artwork that is on a screen or that is time-based because it is a very different experience than looking at paintings or sculptures. Most of our awareness of digital media comes from entertainment, so providing a literacy of a different type and making a community around that.”
OPERATIC RENAISSANCE PERFORMANCE ARTIST
Joseph Keckler is a singer first and foremost, but over the years, he’s taken up the mantle of film director, actor, and performance artist. Joseph joins this year’s Fusebox lineup and takes on Al Volta’s. Joseph will perform a mix of operatic arias and original songs alongside his signature enigmatic videos.
“I often adapt my performance pieces into video pieces, but then sometimes, I bring the video pieces back into the performance and perform alongside them. I also use the video as a vehicle for supertitles because I’m delivering text and songs in a couple different languages.”
Joseph has developed much of his work at numerous residencies, including at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2015.
“The University of Michigan has been really good to me. They’ve brought me back for different events and opportunities, and this was a great one. I went back there and developed a piece that I’m still developing, which is called ‘Let Me Die.’ And it’s an amalgamation of operatic death sequences in combination with my original material that somehow surrounds death, which most of my material does somehow anyway.”Keckler views himself largely as a short form artist, even though he’s done several full-length shows labeled as distinct theater pieces. But he prefers the short form.
“I have a handle on the short form. I’m always generating material and then pulling bits of it out. I’m always taking the best 10 minutes from a certain show and putting it in the next show. In a way, I’ve also moved away from making those theater pieces just because it doesn’t make sense to my brain to do it all the time.”
Keckler lives between the world of performance and music, which is appropriate because his art feels fluid.
“I came out of a visual art training, and then also a musical training. I’ve always been caught between those two things. I end up performing in ways that might resemble acting, but I really know nothing about it. I think that I’m really grounded in writing and storytelling, then also vocal music and songwriting. Video is just a natural extension of that for me. I am not any kind of technical master of video, so I have to enlist talented and knowledgeable collaborators. I’ve often worked with my friend Laura Terruso, who will co-direct and shoot things, so I feel like I’m kind of, to some degree—I have no technical training in video, but I’ve done it enough that I’m starting to edit myself. I’m getting more of a handle on the form. I think the results have been good. I guess I can own that. Yes. I’m a filmmaker.”
FIND YOUR INNER CHILD IN A FRIDGE BOX
Footage from “Cardboard Fort Night” at this year’s Fusebox Festival. Turn your volume lower, as the audio is high.
“It goes back to when I was a kid, we lived in an apartment building,” says Montreal-based artist Sherwin Tjia. “I’d walk down the hall, and someone who’d had a fridge or washer and dryer delivered had this huge box that they’d leave in the hallway. I guess in preparation to take downstairs. But I would just see this giant box, this beautiful box that I wanted, and I would often ask my parents if I could have the box. And occasionally they would relent. So I would drag this giant cardboard box into our bedroom and make things out of it.”
As an adult, Tjia aims to recreate the magic he felt when he discovered that giant box in the hallway of his apartment building. He speaks about cardboard the way a painter might revel in the smell of oil paints. And, though based in play, Tjia is very earnest about his art.
“I have to walk this tightrope,” Tjia says, “because I want to be taken seriously as an artist. But at the same time, the work that I do is fun-focused. So I don’t want to be dismissed.”
We often have this discussion often on Extended Play. It is challenging for play-based and interactive artists to be taken seriously. There’s a divide between the “high art” and the “play art.” Extended Play aims to view play, interactive, and immersive art in the same arena. This is serious stuff that takes time, energy, and much creativity. Moreover, it offers the audience occasion to experience art in a way that passive viewing doesn’t.
“People don’t have much opportunity in their day-to-day lives to be creative,” says Tjia. “They’re offered very particular opportunities. Very gated opportunities. I just wanted to give people the opportunity to feel like a kid again. But it’s also very tactile when you’re dealing with cardboard. When you’re duct-taping things together, the feedback is immediate.”
Tjia says past participants leave energized and a little astonished. Some even arrive as teams with plans sketched out ahead of time. The event lasts three hours and includes drinks, but often participants don’t touch their drinks because they’re so absorbed in building and wish they had more time.
“Once you start making something,” Tjia says, “you are totally engrossed. And, I think, for a lot of people, they hadn’t made anything in a long time with their hands. I think it offers people the chance to, because the structures are so big, it dwarfs people. In life, we seldom make anything that’s bigger than we are. Except IKEA furniture. It’s almost like I gave people the opportunity to make things to make themselves feel small again. Not small in a psychologically diminutive way, but like in a regressive way. I just like to give people an opportunity to do things they haven’t done in a long time.”
PLATO’S CAVE OF ZOETROPES AND ROBOT MUSICIANS
Matthew Steinke jokes he likes to work with robots because, unlike humans, they’re programmable. Those robots help Steinke create dream-like scores to accompany his immersive projections for “Noplace,” a retelling of the second half of Plato’s “The Cave.”
“Partly, I’m also a control freak. I don’t trust musicians, mostly, to play the way that I want them to play. And also it’s a particular kind of sound that I like from robotic instruments. And they synch perfectly with each other. So I can compose a story as a score on the computer and it will play out the way I write it. It’s sort of like animation, where you can really get in there and plot the timing on a very macro level and get it just the way you want it. And you can’t really do that with people.”
Steinke does manage the experience as it’s going, and he improvises as the robots play out. Robots don’t crescendo, so he adds those colors. He sees himself as somewhere between a technician, a puppeteer, and a musician. It’s similar to the way DJ’s manipulate loops and vinyl. He suggests his storytelling is similar to filmmaking, but also closely aligned to soundtracks and music compositions.
“I guess the best way to describe it is that it’s a film without film. It is immersive. It surrounds the audience. There are sound devices that are behind the audience, and along the sides and projections that happen even behind the audience and to the side and the front as well.”
Some of the projections are ambient, and some are live feed. Steinke created zoetrope projectors and shadow lamps that rotate like a planetarium projector throughout the space. The storyline is abstracted to write the music. Steinke extracted visuals from the storyline to create a representational narrative.“I come from a fine arts background, so I’m always thinking more abstractly about work and moving in that direction with it. I think, especially, one of the thinks I really love about the history of music composition and composers is that there’s this long history of composers trying to write music about really abstract things. You know, like “The Planets.” Gustav Holst. And telling stories through this very abstract medium, which is music. So that’s kind of where I’m going with it. I really like that idea of attempting to be literal through a form that’s inherently abstract. It’s emotionally driven. I want them to get the raw feeling from the episodes in the storyline. I also want to expose them to a new kind of storytelling experience that is abstract but also immersive.”
For those interested in making their own robots, Steinke is hosting a Scoring Sculpture Workshop in which he shares how he makes the machines that pound and pluck out his score.