In October of last year, the Walker invited me to produce a stage companion to the Walker People’s Archive, the crowd-sourced photographic and anecdotal history launched on the museum’s website earlier that month. After looking over the archive, I met with Jennifer Stampe, project manager for the WPA, and Ashley Duffalo, coordinator of Public and Community Programs for the Walker, and we discussed our incipient ideas and settled on a performance date in mid-January. The commission was appealingly open-ended. Ideally, the show would represent, recontextualize, and have fun with the archive, but the means by which it did so was unfixed.
Imagining a variety show that would blend the authentic WPA material with a modest fictional element, I started working on scenes and songs and reached to out to a group of collaborators: actors and codirectors Lara Blackwood Avery, Jenny Adams Salmela, and Bill Schoppert; singer Jayanthi Kyle; and bassist Jeffrey Sugerman. In the end, “The WPA Revue” was composed of three interlaced parts: an emceed slide show of WPA photos and their accompanying text; a lounge act of sorts in which Jayanthi, Jeffrey, and I performed original songs and thematically apt covers while photos flashed by without commentary; and a playlet centered on a fictional Twin Cities family, the Heitkes, Walker patrons and barons of the typewriter industry who fell into embarrassed circumstances with the rise of the personal computer.
The archive itself is a mix of tones: some of the submissions are goofy, others poignant; some are snapshots, others carefully composed. My hope was that the show would echo this tonal mix, that it would be funny but sometimes openly sentimental, loose but considered, and that it would casually treat some of the ideas suggested by the photos.
For instance, the Walker owns or has displayed many pieces made up in part or entirely of reflective surfaces, sometimes both reflective and distorting ones. Not surprisingly, WPA submissions often take advantage of these surfaces toward a kind of funhouse metaphotography. The archive includes selfies taken in one of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, Three Girls on a Balcony, in sculptor Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, in a Morris Graves set piece for Merce Cunningham’s Inlets. These submissions in particular spurred thoughts about memory, photography, distortion, and point of view.
In the show, Lara played Jessica Heitke, an aspiring artist who’s working with a group of photographs found in an alley by her friend Emily. The project has led Jessica to research what psychologists have to say about memory perspective. “In field perspective,” she summarizes to Emily, “you picture the memory more or less as you actually experienced it: through your eyes, watching your hand shake someone else’s hand—you’re the subject. In observer perspective, you see your whole body in the scene, right? As if you’re in a movie or a photo.” (Maybe the vantage of every era and place resembles its signature entertainments: Don Quixote is the hero of novel who believes he’s the hero of a novel; we create online personas and sometimes feel as if we’re the stars of our own biopics.) Emily answers that all of her childhood memories are like photos. “But sometimes that’s because they are photos,” she says. “I don’t know whether I’m remembering the moment or the photo.”
Probably most of us have memories like this; they’re conflations of lived experience, photographic documentation, and the stories that attend the photos. The raw and the cooked blur: the photo might seem to provide evidence for a memory, which we understand to be fallible; or the photo might seem to have altered or created the memory. Now that many of us can easily photograph everything—our parking spaces, our children, our lunches, our outfits, our kegger antics—regular and photographed life are presumably blurring still further. It’s currently conventional to worry that our lives are so mediated that only documented and publicized personal events feel real. The ironies aren’t subtle. On holidays we take a break from our families to post on social media about the importance of spending time with one’s family. We use our phones to post a TV clip of Louis C.K. talking about how estranging current technology is, how it’s a defense against underlying sadness, and how he found an antidote when he stopped to weep over a Bruce Springsteen recording playing on his car radio. In other words, we see new technology as phony, impoverishing, defensive; old technology as authentic, enriching, cathartic. (I mean, I’m with the comedian to a point: I love the Boss and have resisted getting a cell phone, which is how I know how easy it is to get sentimental over this stuff.)
The last time I went to the Getty Museum, another visitor stepped in front of me to get an obstructed photo of—I don’t know, some painting. I kept an eye on this ludicrous man for a while and found that he was swiftly moving though the galleries, apparently photographing every piece of art the Getty then had on view. (If only I’d had a camera, I could have photographed him photographing art, à la Thomas Struth.) As I’ve already let on, I felt superior to this man shooting rather than seeing art, art that had already been professionally photographed and could in most cases be viewed on the Getty’s fine website. Then again, it wasn’t as if my viewing that day was terribly deep or concentrated: I can’t remember the painting the man stepped in front of, after all, and for several minutes he interested me far more than the art did. Who knows, maybe he’s not a compulsive collector of photographic souvenirs, but rather a postmodern aesthete who can only enjoy art at one remove. I count as favorites many paintings that I’ve only seen in reproduction, or that first caught my eye through a photo. Case in point: I had stood in front of Günther Uecker’s White Field before seeing Alycia Anderson’s WPA photo of it, but only her close-up made me a fan.
When my mother-in-law was in hospice a few years ago, my wife posted a few old family photographs to Facebook. The moment I saw these photos (alone at my computer), I started to cry, more than I did, it turned out, at the funeral a week or so later. Partly I was responding to the outpouring of support for my wife and her sisters in the comments section, but also there was something about how the images looked on the screen. I thought immediately of the photos that turn up with the closing credits for based-on-a-true-story movies, those yellowing snapshots of the actual person whose life has just been dramatized. Those photos tend to prod tears as well, and I found myself in an ambivalent spot: I was having a profound, genuine emotional experience that was triggered in part by its association with kitschy, manipulative TV movies. To get to the real, I had to summon the fake.
Our show ended with Jessica and Emily sitting and talking in James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, a piece Jessica was originally wary of because she suspected, at second hand, “a certain coercive spirituality.” Her view has changed by the last scene, though, and she and Emily have a tender, perhaps transcendent, moment inside the piece, a moment of tenderness and transcendence that they self-consciously decide to preserve with simultaneous cell-phone snapshots. Then—I suppose I was thinking again of those TV movies—the selfies were projected on the Walker Cinema’s screen and (a recorded) Robert Smith, of the Cure, started singing, “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you / that I almost believe that they’re real.”