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Behind the Scenes: A Closer Look at Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications

MCDC Fabrications 1987
MCDC Fabrications 1987

Jed Downhill, Merce Cunningham, Patricia Lent, Helen Barrow, Victoria Finlayson, and Karen Radford in Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

In this week’s performance by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and The Northrop, Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications returns to the same stage where it saw its world premiere 30 years ago. That 1987 performance culminated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s (MCDC) three-week residency in Minneapolis and was the first of three Walker-commissioned dances from the company. Such commissions are just one component of the Walker’s longstanding relationship with Cunningham, which includes another eight residencies, a total of 17 separate engagements, and the acquisition of the 4,300-object Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.

Since the company’s Legacy Tour in 2010–2011, Cunningham’s pieces are licensed exclusively by the Merce Cunningham Trust to a select group of world-renowned companies, including CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, whose dancers are taught the work by former Cunningham company members. Fabrications was staged for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine by Patricia Lent (pictured above), who performed in the work’s premiere at Northrop and now works for the Trust. In addition to Fabrications, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine will perform Sounddance (1976) from the MCDC repertoire as part of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition.

“It is our hope, of course, that this residency will serve to be the pilot project for a continuing ‘second-home’-style relationship with the Walker Art Center and and the City of Minneapolis.”

—Art Becofsky, MCDC Executive Director, in a letter to the Walker’s then-curator of performing arts, Robert Stearns, April 9, 1986

Fabrications is not only an important work in the Walker’s relationship with Cunningham, but marks a unique period in the artist’s choreographic repertory. The piece has a notably stronger sense of narrative than much of his other work, which is a tone that is expressed through distinct choices in the design elements in addition to the arc of the actual choreography. The company’s long-time archivist David Vaughn has described Fabrications as somewhat “reminiscential”—Cunningham’s version of an “aging-artist-looks-back-on-his-past ballet.” The way the composition of the work moves between duets, trios, and group work hints ever so slightly towards a traditional ballet structure rather than the more chaotic and unpredictable puzzles of some of his other pieces, even though Cunningham used a process influenced by I Ching to formulate it. One reviewer for the New York Times went as far as to say that Fabrications has “a highly emotional resonance–surprisingly close to Antony Tudor’s ballets about young love, or more precisely, love recalled through the haze of memory.”

Draft of the program for the 1987 MCDC performance at Northrup, including Fabrications

Draft of the program for MCDC’s 1987 Northrop performance, which included Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

These kinds of interpretations were not endorsed by Cunningham, who was firm about stating that he does not put stories in his choreography. In early notes from making the work, however, he separates the piece into scenes whose names imply acknowledgement of the dance’s emotive potential: sorrow, anger, fear, and odiousness. Similar narrative tones in another work that premiered that same year, Shards, led critics to wonder if this marked the beginning of a new era of “emotionalism” for Cunningham. In Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, company archivist Vaughn reflects on an interview with Cunningham after the works premiered in New York:

“Did his dances have stories? Was there, as the reviewers were saying, a new emotionalism in his work? No, he replied. His dances had no stories, never had stories, and if people we seeing a new emotionalism in his work, ‘it’s just their eyes.’ Or maybe it was there, he said, but ‘I don’t put it in the piece. My choices are made in the movement.’ Movement, he went to say, could have a strong emotional resonance. ‘Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.’ In his dances, though, the movement was never ‘expressive of a particular thing.’”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance at Northrop Auditorium, 2/21/1987

Merce Cunningham observes the dancers rehearse Fabrications at the Northrop Auditorium in 1987. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

The design elements of Fabrications were crucial in influencing the audience’s experience with the piece, following the company’s rich legacy of commissioning works from fellow contemporary artists. Cunningham’s artistic advisor for this piece was the artist Dove Bradshaw, who created the original backdrop that will be transported to Northrop from the Walker’s collections storage for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s upcoming performance (the company usually tours the piece with a replica). Bradshaw was appointed as an artistic advisor to the MCDC, along with William Anastasi, in 1984, overseeing the production of numerous pieces until 2012. Her experimental work with indeterminacy, chance structures, and natural forces were appealing to both Cunningham and Cage, who believed her almost scientific approach to working with time and chance resonated with what the company was doing. During her time with MCDC Bradshaw designed sets, costumes, and lighting and was responsible for all three of these elements in Fabrications. The color palette for the piece–incorporated in both costumes and décor–is a reduced-Constructivist theme of red, blue, black, and white, which contributes to the period-piece feel along with the collection of mixed thrifted and couture fabrics. The costumes were a particularly notable departure from the standard androgynous unitards: for this work, Bradshaw costumed the women in vintage WWII–style silk dresses and men in loose pants and shirts. The backdrop is an enlarged segment of one of Bradshaw’s collages in which she drew and painted on images from medical, architectural, and mathematical books. To adapt the image to the dance she added on top of her enlarged collage intertwining spirals and targets to emphasize the effect of the dancers’ twirling skirts. Bradshaw’s final touch to the set design was to impart a warm tropical feel with the lights, complementing the light flowing fabric and rich colors.

Dove Bradshaw 2011.248 drop for Fabrications. Cunningham Collection. Scrim is a reproduction of Dove Bradshaw's mixed media work "Without Title" (1986). FIRST PERFORMANCE: Northrup Auditorium, Minneapolis, MN February 20 ,1987. Walker Art Center Commission. COSTUMES: Dove Bradshaw. MUSIC: Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta "Short Waves" Hi-res file stored on 2015 WAC PC 050 cd.

Dove Bradshaw, décor for Fabrications (1987) paint on scrim.  Photo: Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Original music for Fabrications was composed by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who will be arranging the sound live onstage during this week’s Ballet de Lorraine’s performance. The piece, titled Short Waves (1985), further contributes to Bradshaw’s tropical ambiance with its recorded short-wave radio sounds captured in the Amazon forest. The snippets of human voices in his recordings are often attributed as key in influencing some audience’s narrative interpretations. Throughout the dance the sound moves in and out of radio, music, and static without large swings in tempo or volume. Vaughn characterized the feeling as “like something heard from a distance.” In addition to his sound compositions–which have been performed by other legendary avant-garde musicians associated with the company like John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff–Pimenta is known for working on a diverse range of projects in visual arts, architecture, intermedia systems, photography, and urbanism. His work often interweaves art with science and technology and overlaps with Cage and Cunningham in his experiments with time and space.

There was minimal communication between Cunningham and the designers while they were creating, consistent with his Artaud-inspired belief in not explicitly coordinating the various elements before their completion. The separation wasn’t as extreme as in other work, however, resulting in a notably more cohesive theatrical feel. Before the season even began Bradshaw asked Cunningham if she could use dresses at some point, which he agreed could work with one of the pieces he had in mind–so despite the absence of any explicit discussion about a narrative, there was some common understanding about the tone of this specific dance.

Fabrications is a distinctive example of Cunningham’s ability to evoke interest and feeling with calculated abstraction. Even in this work that leans uncharacteristically towards a narrative, Cunningham leaves enough unsaid that we’re not limited by a specific plot. Rather the space given by his abstraction opens our eyes to the power of a complex and multidimensional experience. However, this taste of emotionalism was fleeting for Cunningham, and as Vaughn mused, his next season (including works like Eleven and Carousal) could have been titled, “There is No New Emotionalism in My Work.”

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine/Fabrications by Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performing Fabrications. Photo: Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performs Fabrications, along with Cunningham’s Sounddance and Devoted, by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Northrop. Merce Cunningham: Common Time is on view in the Walker galleries through July 30, 2017.

Stillness and Spectacle: An Interview with Maria Hassabi

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will […]

Maria Hassabi STAGING (2017) Installation view, Walker Art Center Performer name is Kennis Hawkins Photo by Gene Pittman

Kennis Hawkins performing Maria Hassabi’s STAGING (2017); installation view, Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will inhabit various locations within the Walker Art Center, including the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, creating a sculptural movement installation. Occupying a space between live performance and visual art, her art explores the tension between human form and artistic object through stillness and sustained motion. Here, in an interview with curator Aram Moshayedi, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Hassabi discusses her live-installation work, her approach to institutional spaces and the body, and the relationship between the spectacular and the intimate.

Aram Moshayedi: It makes sense to begin our conversation with PLASTIC (2015), a work that you first presented at the Hammer Museum for a month in February 2015. As an “installation” of choreographed movement for four performers, it’s a work that inhabits slowness. In some sense, it relies on its performers to move almost glacially or tectonically slow. This characteristic was something that I was first drawn to when I saw you perform Intermission (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of the Cyprus and Lithuania Pavilion. Can you talk about the relationship between these two works and any conceptual ties that bind them?

Maria Hassabi: Both PLASTIC and Intermission belong to the format I call “live-installation.” This is a term I coined in collaboration with my team, Hristoula Harakas and Paige Martin, when we were asked in Venice to describe the kind of work we were presenting. In principle, live-installations have an ongoing presence in an exhibition space, and their duration is determined by the opening hours of the institutions in which they are presented. These works lack any dramaturgical arc (usually necessary in theater), as there’s no definite beginning and ending.

My works in general are characterized by their slowness, even though slow per se has never been my concern. I’m interested in creating a space where the viewer is given plenty of time to see and be, a space where even the smallest details of motion can become visible. In order to do so, I pare down my material and slow its rhythm.

Maria Hassabi INTERMISSION (2013) Installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28 – June 4, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Robertas Narkus. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou, Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013.

Maria Hassabi, INTERMISSION (2013); installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28–June 4, 2013. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou: Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013. Photo: Robert Narkurs, courtesy the artist

For a long time now I have been preoccupied with stillness and the paradox of this idea in live performance. Working with stillness, and finding a way to support it, has turned my attention toward how to move, uninterrupted, from one place of hold to another (which can result in a “tectonic” appearance). I find the only way to succeed in this un-interruption is to approach movement very precisely, with full awareness of its image. The performers need to be aware of the representations their bodies are producing at any given moment. This takes time, both for the performer to inhabit this awareness and for the viewer to observe it.

This approach results in material that is detached from more typical rhythmical patterns. I try as much as possible to avoid any accentuated rhythms in my work, as that tends to create a hierarchy among movements, and can inadvertently turn the attention of the viewer toward a search for meaning.

Moshayedi: Given that the commitment of time and the expectations of viewership are different in works presented in a theater, such as PREMIERE, would you say your interest in “the image” still applies? I ask because, in some sense, the experience of static images also lacks any determined duration.

Hassabi: Yes, definitely, it applies. When my works are presented in a theater, I’m still dealing with images and their representation. I consider dance to be an abstract art form, yet it is one that is represented by human beings. The material of dance is people. This means that dance cannot avoid representation, especially with works like mine that tend to be so static. In terms of time and expectation, I think the biggest difference between a theater work like PREMIERE and a live-installation like PLASTIC is the nature of the tension between performer and audience. The closed space of a theater contains anticipation in a very particular way—the audience and performers are locked together for a shared experience that lasts for a specific duration. In an exhibition context, performers are present at all times, while the “visitors” come and go as they wish. This removes the nervous tension the performers usually carry within a theatrical presentation, which in my works doesn’t evaporate easily. Also, in my theatrical works I tend to exaggerate the idea of seeing, theater being the seeing place, by adding lights that are very bright and are treated as another sculptural entity in the space. They also produce a lot of heat that is felt throughout the duration of the work and intensifies the shared experience within the enclosed space. This is an element that I don’t involve in live-installations, even though at the Hammer iteration of PLASTIC an idea of this was materialized in the gallery space. So works like PLASTIC and Intermission tend to be less about the tension created and rather about the constant presence of the performers in the space.

PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Moshayedi: How does the idea of an image translate specifically to your conception of the choreography and the role of the performers you’re working with?

Hassabi: When I began creating PLASTIC, for example, there were specific images I had in mind as well as concepts—rounded torsos, a falling body, an overall plasticity of the body. There were also specific images of sculptures made by other artists that were very present in my mind while I was creating the movement. One in particular came from a conversation with you while we were looking at an exhibition of three solid stainless steel figurative sculptures by Charles Ray at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

For some works, including both PLASTIC and Intermission, I first make the material myself—they are solos, after all—and later on I teach it to the dancers. This gives me the opportunity to understand the images I’m thinking of and to really explore their physicality at a point when I’m not yet ready to articulate ideas very clearly to my collaborators. So I work alone for a while, and once things become clearer the collaborators come into the process. Everything changes immensely once they translate the movement I’ve created. Each physical body is very different, with its own limitations, abilities, and temperaments, and this is something I find very exciting, as it brings information into the process that I could not develop on my own. As far as the people I choose to work with, I’m drawn to them instinctively, while being aware of their technical capacities. I also pay attention to gender, ethnicity, age, and body type, as those are critical aspects of the images created. That said, some of my collaborators are consistent, such as Hristoula Harakas, who has performed in my work since 2002.

Moshayedi: This attention to both the technical ability and “look” of your dancers is an interesting one. In her book on Yvonne Rainer, Carrie Lambert-Beatty makes a distinction between Merce Cunningham’s company and Judson Dance Theater on the grounds of pace—how the pedestrian pace of a choreography by, say, Steve Paxton, or the slow-motion movement between poses in another by Yvonne Rainer, might lack the surprise, glamour, and sparkle (in Paxton’s words) of a work by Cunningham.1 How relevant is this tension today? Are there trajectories of dance that are more loyal to one lineage and theory of movement than the other?

Hassabi: I suppose there are, but honestly I’m not so concerned with historicizing my work in any way. I make the work I make. Yes, it has its influences—in fact, all the names you mention have influenced what I make today: the pedestrianism of Judson, Cunningham’s approach to time-space.

Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC (2015) Installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. February 21- March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

And you know, I never really found Cunningham’s work to be “glammed-up.” Yes, he had bigger production values, fancier costumes, sets, and many people on stage—for sure a different economy in terms of production. But for me, his work still always had the feeling of investigation and experimentation of form, even in the later productions.

Moshayedi: Specifically with regard to Cunningham, to what degree are you tied to his legacy and what challenges does your participation in an exhibition of this sort at the Walker pose to the way you conceive of your work?

Hassabi: I love his work. I always have, even when I didn’t enjoy being part of the audience. His work lacks any sense of entertainment or concern with being entertaining. That’s one of the things I love about it. My most direct tie to his work, at least for my approach toward this exhibition, is in relation to John Cage and his interest in silence. I find it similar to my understanding of stillness in dance.

Moshayedi: The notion of silence, or rather muteness, might also be used to describe the reticence of images. Of course, there is a relationship here to Tacita Dean’s film Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films) (2008). This film is interesting in terms of your practice because I think that up until recently your work has been characterized within an art context according to a sculptural logic, one inherently tied to objects and the body as sculpturally bound. In line with your thinking, Dean’s film of Cunningham considers the image of movement rather than fixity of form. Do you think your new work—particularly in relation to your evocation of Cage and a different idea of what constitutes noise or sound in relation to dance and movement—might start to elicit a new language around your practice?

Hassabi: I started making this style of work because I was interested in creating images within live performance. Dealing with how to support images while avoiding easy theatrical tricks—change of lights, change of costumes, etc.—became my objective. Stillness, and a quiet and detailed way of transferring from one place of stillness to the next, was what made sense to me. Yet the more I worked with stillness and precision, the more I realized that what was produced was very sculptural as opposed to being a framed image that is very much bound to its framing. The body in live performance is three-dimensional, and I feel very comfortable with this idea of sculpting the body in each passing instance.

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

I often talk about the paradox of stillness in my performances, because stillness can’t really exist—we are breathing, and even if it’s imperceptible, it’s still a movement. Certainly this is congruous to the paradox of silence as John Cage understood it. I see them as the same concept rendered in different materials. This is something I want to continue pursuing in the new work I’m making for Common Time. What I’m planning to create will be heavily sculpted. It will also be the first work of mine in which I am not performing, and I hope that this will allow me to sculpt every passing second even more, since I will be outside of it. And, yes—I hope I do discover something new.

Moshayedi: To date, your works have sought to inhabit different contexts according to specific registers of time—how performers move and occupy space according to the conditions on offer. How much is location a factor in determining the contour and pace of a given choreography?

Hassabi: The context of where my works are presented is crucial to how I conceptualize them.

For museum works, I’m interested in an ongoing presence as it relates directly to the format in which the other art is exhibited, and one that allows the visitors to continue their patterns of behavior in these spaces. It’s up to the individual visitor to decide what they prefer to view, in what order, and for how long. I find this arrangement much more democratic than asking someone to take a seat in a specific location and watch us for a particular duration. Instead, we (the dancers) are there and fully committed to our product beyond any unscripted interactions that may occur with the visitors.

The kind of attention that visitors pay to a live performance changes depending on whether they view it in a theater, a museum, or some other kind of public space. Even so, sometimes the approaches used in a work can be portable across those contexts. For example, on a few occasions I have presented a “theatrical” work—one with a specific duration, a clear beginning and end, a dramaturgical through line, and fixed seating for the audience—in the context of a museum. Pretty much the only thing that changed was the overall color and scale of the piece, due to the switch from black box to white cube. The attention required of the audience remains pretty much the same.

Moshayedi: With regard to PLASTIC, how much of the choreography is determined by the conditions of the space when it’s re-performed in different contexts? What were the constants and what were the variables in each of its iterations at the Hammer, the Stedelijk, and MoMA?

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31-March 1, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31–March 1, 2015. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Hassabi: It was pretty constant, but there were variables due to changes in architecture and crowd flow. A simple example: the difference in the number of stairs at each of these institutions required me to add or cut material from its original presentation at the Hammer. MoMA is a much busier museum in terms of attendance, so for that iteration I also added more performers. At the Hammer, a very crucial element of PLASTIC was the gallery project—a single dancer, throughout the duration of the piece, who was situated within an installation of sequenced light and sound. Neither the Stedelijk nor MoMA had gallery spaces in the same way, so that aspect of the project was not able to be remounted. But for MoMA, I made a new part for the work, which occupied the atrium area; it was loosely based on the Hammer gallery project. So there were variations, but the overall identity of the work did not shift.

Moshayedi: As you moved PLASTIC from one institution to the next, how concerned were you with some idea of an audience and its ability to apprehend, experience, or even just receive the work?

Hassabi: There is a through line in all my work, despite the context of presentation. I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts. What shifts are concerns of duration, whether or not there is a clear beginning and ending, and my approach to addressing the audience and our shared intimacy.

A good friend mentioned to me awhile back that in theater we tend to treat the audience as a single body, because you cannot consider each audience member individually. In a gallery or an open space, this doesn’t have to be the case. Without a framed beginning and end, the performer is not aware of when visitors enter a gallery, when they pass by, or how they will choose to behave. This changes the intimacy between performer and viewer, and even the work’s intensity and temporality. But in a gallery or museum setting, there’s a feeling at times that we are performing for just one person, or for one body, and I think this can be quite luxurious for both the viewer and the performer.


Notes

1 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 60.

Ocean: How a Cunningham/Cage Collaboration Was Reborn in a Minnesota Quarry

Charles Atlas’s film Ocean (2011)—which captured the 2008 performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean (1994) in a granite quarry in central Minnesota—screens February 9, 2017, as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. In conjunction with the screening, we share this essay by Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither from the Walker-designed exhibition […]

left to right: Robert Swinston, Daniel Squire, Brandon Collwes, Rashaun Mitchell, Daniel Madoff, and Silas Riener performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Robert Swinston, Daniel Squire, Brandon Collwes, Rashaun Mitchell, Daniel Madoff, and Silas Riener performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Charles Atlas’s film Ocean (2011)—which captured the 2008 performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean (1994) in a granite quarry in central Minnesota—screens February 9, 2017, as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. In conjunction with the screening, we share this essay by Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither from the Walker-designed exhibition catalogue

Ocean was conceived in 1990, the year John Cage was invited to make a special work with Merce Cunningham for a James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zürich. Long inspired by Joyce’s writings, Cage accepted immediately.When he discussed the idea with Cunningham, they both recalled mythologist Joseph Campbell’s speculation that if Joyce had lived to write another novel, it would have been about the sea. With that in mind, Cage named the new work Ocean. He imagined an immersive, ninety-minute piece realized within a constellation of concentric rings. At the center would be a large, circular dance stage surrounded on all sides by audience members, who would in turn be encircled by a large orchestra. Since Joyce’s final two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, had seventeen and eighteen parts respectively, Cage and Cunningham decided that Ocean should have nineteen sections. Cage thought the work deserved an orchestra of 150 musicians, each of whom would be playing her own individual score with a musical structure based more on time than on notes.2 He also wanted his longtime collaborator David Tudor, who was at that time music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), to create an electronic soundscape that would be played live, simultaneously with the acoustic orchestral score.

In the end, no suitable venue in Zürich could be found to meet the work’s unique demands, and the idea was shelved.3 Then, in 1992, not long after Cage’s death, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, suggested to MCDC that the score for Ocean be completed posthumously so that the project could at last be realized. To do the work, Kuhn suggested Andrew Culver, a composer who had worked as Cage’s assistant since 1981. Culver and Cage had discussed Cage’s ideas for the music for Ocean; since Culver had stored notes from their conversations on his computer, he was confident that a score could be created that Cage would have approved. After commissioning funds were secured from several European festivals, Culver went to work, using the indeterminate theoretical concepts and early compositional ideas favored by Cage.4

Rigorous conception guided Culver’s score, which he titled Ocean 1–95 (1994). Culver explained its complex structure:

Ocean 1–95 consists of 32,067 events spread over 2,403 pages divided [among] 112 musicians. There is no score, no place where all that will sound simultaneously can be viewed simultaneously. There is no conductor. […] Played throughout are five simultaneous but non-synchronous sequences of compositions, the players jumping from place to place, layer to layer, as they become available, each of the five layers having nineteen compositions in sequence, hence the ninety-five compositions referred to in the title. Each time a player enters a new composition he or she will find it composed according to a different set of rules and parameters (1 of 20), and that it must be performed according to 1 of 7 sets of performance practices. Ocean 1–95 is my homage to John Cage.5

David Tudor took a different tack to create his electronic score. Soundings: Ocean Diary (1994) is an otherworldly soundscape made from the processed sounds of gurgling water, barking seals, arctic ice, whale calls, and other underwater effects, providing Ocean’s most literal connection to its title.

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn (foreground) and Koji Mizuta performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn (foreground) and Koji Mizuta performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Cage’s plans for Ocean focused on the immersive sonic allure of having an audience surrounded by a complex construction of overlapping acoustic and electronic sound. Cunningham now took up the challenge of devising a movement score of equal complexity. In a sense, it was a given that he would do so; aside from his Events, which were often realized in museum galleries and public spaces, he produced very few large-scale choreographed pieces meant to be performed outside of standard theaters, and no substantial works in which the audience was seated on all sides. The 360-degree viewing environment required an entire reevaluation of his approach to choreographing movement. Years later, Cunningham recalled that when Cage had first suggested he create a dance in the round, he had agreed, even though he had had no idea what that would mean. “I prefer ‘yes’ to ‘no,’” he explained. “‘No’ cuts everything off; with ‘yes,’ you can go on.”6

In hindsight, it is clear that working in the round was less a departure for Cunningham than a dramatic expansion of two strategies he had long employed: rejection of the conventional, centrally oriented proscenium stage (for him, every foot of visible stage space held equal importance); and the embrace of Einstein’s belief that there are no fixed points in space. He called the process of creating Ocean “an extraordinary experience for my psyche. … It was absolutely, incredibly difficult, but it was fascinating.” To accustom his dancers to a creation that strove to be “constantly in the round, constantly moving,” Cunningham told them, “You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round that keeps turning all the time.”7

In the end, Cunningham constructed 128 different movement phrases. He began by making one for each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams, and then doubled the total so he would have enough movement variety to fill a ninety-minute work.8 He organized the phrases into solos, duets, trios, quartets, and dances for groups of any number from five to fifteen. He used tossing of dice and the I Ching to determine not only how the 128 phrases would be choreographically sequenced for each dancer but also which way each dancer faced, which entrances and exits they used, and when they used them. “For reasons of practical sanity,” Cunningham also split the stage into twelve different areas and used the I Ching again to decide where the dancers would be placed onstage.9

Notions of time and space were visibly reinforced by Cunningham’s decision to place large digital clocks on the four “corners” of the stage, which counted down the work second by second from ninety minutes to zero. These bright numbers not only provided cues to musicians and dancers but also confronted audiences with constant evidence of the unstoppable passage of time, even as the unfolding sound and movement of the piece did the opposite—it stretched, condensed, or distorted one’s temporal perception, reinforcing the Einsteinian ideas that were foundational to Cunningham’s thinking. The time-based structure also served to create dramatic tension—a sense of breathless kinetic and sonic energy that built as the work raced toward its full ensemble climax.

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Ocean premiered at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels on May 18, 1994; two months later it was presented in Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival.10 Both productions attracted a high level of international attention, but in later years the work was produced only infrequently; thus, it became a pilgrimage for Cunningham’s ardent fans and something of a holy grail for live arts producers, festival directors, and programmers tempted by its scale and inherent challenges. With each of the subsequent nine productions, Ocean took on greater rhythmic complexity as Cunningham found further solutions to the problems of choreographing in curved space and even discovered new ways to choreograph curvature within the human body. He later reflected that Oceans success gave him confidence to take on other complex challenges that required new choreographic or conceptual solutions, and often, as with Ocean, demanded tremendous perseverance to solve.11

During MCDC’s 2005 residency at the Benedicta Arts Center at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, MCDC executive director Trevor Carlson was given a tour of some local sites by Benedicta staff, including the nearby Rainbow Quarry. Upon seeing it, he thought it might be a remarkable place to produce Ocean, although at the time he couldn’t foresee the complexity of such an undertaking. But Cunningham was also intrigued, so the staff began exploring what it would take to produce the massive work at the site. It soon became clear that the difficulties would be extreme, perhaps insurmountable. If it were to happen, a lead producer would clearly be needed.

As the central beacon for Cunningham and Cage in the Midwest since 1963, the Walker Art Center was the logical choice to take on the challenge; as the Walker’s curator of performing arts, I jumped at the chance when Trevor and longtime Cunningham friend and patron Sage Cowles came to meet with me about it. For eighteen months, the Walker’s staff threw itself fully into the challenge, raising a half million dollars, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, and overseeing, with the quarry managers and workers, the building of new roads and parking lots around the site and the hiring of dozens of transport buses to carry Twin Cities audiences the 108 miles from the Walker to the quarry. The partnership with Rainbow Quarry’s corporate owner, Martin Marietta, local managers, and hourly workers was an unexpected joy. Although at first skeptical, they ultimately embraced the utopian undertaking with gusto. On September 10, 2008, quarry staff and their families nearly filled the 1,200 seats for the final dress rehearsal.

Three performances of Ocean took place September 11 through 13, 2008. All shows sold out, and nearly five thousand audience members got to experience the enigmatic, cool beauty of Cunningham and Cage’s conception. The choreography alternated between statuesque stillness and flowing circularity and ranged from solos and duets to sections featur ing the full ensemble of thirteen dancers.12 The combination of the orchestral and electronic music, in tandem with the constantly evolving gestural language of the dancers, produced a remarkable energy, even though only a fraction of the kinetic and sonic information being delivered could actually be absorbed by any one viewer. Cunningham and his lighting designer, Andrew Coop, devised a dramatic finish: during its final eight minutes, the surrounding quarry cliffs, which had only been dark silhouettes though most of the piece, were fully and spectacularly lit up while the stage was flooded with white light—a dazzling effect suggestive of an unnaturally long lightning strike. At the exact moment the last dancer departed, the lights were extinguished and the audience, plunged into darkness, erupted in applause.

There was unplanned drama, too. Unseasonably cold and wet weather dogged every rehearsal, requiring us to install heaters in the dressing room tents and around and under the stage. Thousands of gallons of rainwater, which threatened the stage and seating area, had to be removed by industrial-size pumps. The rain stopped long enough to fully realize the first two public performances, but on September 13, during the final performance, a light drizzle turned into a downpour and the various parts of Ocean slowly disintegrated. String players scrambled to pack up their valuable instruments while others musicians forged on; dancers continued to perform even as the audience fled for shelter in waiting buses; and the show was ultimately cut short by twenty minutes. In hindsight, it seems fitting that nature and chance played such large roles in the final performance ever of this monumental piece.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

As with all site-based producing, the process was part of the creative act for everyone involved. Cunningham had wanted more than just a successful production in a stunning natural setting; he also hoped that this Ocean would inspire people creatively and generate a sense of discovery and ownership, particularly within the communities that surround the quarry. In the months leading up to the performance, talks, presentations, and information sessions with a wide range of central Minnesota civic and community groups were offered by the staffs of the collaborating copresenters: the Walker, Northrup Dance at the University of Minnesota, and Benedicta Arts Center. In addition, MCDC company members offered classes and talks during their final two-week residency. These activities, combined with the involvement of 150 classical musicians drawn mostly from that area of the state, led to a work that would be widely embraced throughout the region. In the end, Ocean was the largest, most complex single performing arts project in the history of the Walker Art Center. It may never be surpassed.

Alone for a moment backstage following the last performance, the normally reserved Cunningham was visibly moved as he thanked me, telling me that the production was one of the artistic highlights of his life. Although he always preferred to look ahead rather than back, I sensed that he was allowing himself a moment of reflection on his long creative and personal life with Cage. Certainly for me, and I think for the thousands who attended, this mounting of Ocean in an unforgiving but awe-inducing setting felt like a moment of completion in the life of one of the most fearless, inspired artists of our times.

Notes

1Cage was particularly taken with Joyce’s final literary work, Finnegans Wake, which inspired his 1979 composition Roaratorio and the 1983 dance-music collaboration of the same name with Cunningham.

2Because of cost and complexity, the original producers balked at the requirement that the orchestra include 150 musicians, so Cunningham and Culver compromised at 112. This was the number used for all subsequent Ocean productions until 2008, when the Minnesota production realized Cage’s original concept of 150 for the first time.

3 Instead, Cage and Cunningham created the repertory work Beach Birds for the Zürich Festival. David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 258.

4John Rockwell, “Reporter’s Notebook: A Valedictory Dance from Cage and Cunningham,” New York Times, July 4, 1994.

5Andrew Culver quoted in “News,” mercecunningham.org.

6Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008, Walker Art Center; transcript, Walker Art Center History: Cunningham Collection, Walker Art Center Archives, Minneapolis.

7Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Cowles and Culver (see notes 5 and 6).

8Known in English as The Book of Changes, the I Ching is an ancient divination text and the oldest, most influential of the Chinese classic texts. Cage and Cunningham used it as a system for chance operations, because they felt it would offer fresh approaches to structuring their works.

9Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.

10Following the presentations in Brussels and Amsterdam, productions were mounted between 1997 and 2006 in Venice, Belfast, Berkeley, London, São Paulo, Miami, New York City, Montpellier, France, and Niigata, Japan.

11Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.

12According to former company director Trevor Carlson, Ocean was always intended as a work for fourteen dancers, although there was a short time when there were fifteen dancers in the company because two were needed to dance one role due to the departure of a major company member. However, the work was performed in Minnesota with only thirteen dancers because company member Andrea Weber sustained an injury a few days before opening. Carlson, telephone conversation with the author, May 31, 2016.

Found Sounds and Lost Memories: A Glimpse into the Synaesthetic World of Aki Onda

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I […]

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I tried to instill them in my head. So, early on, I gave up on music.”

Instead, he found an expressive outlet in photography. It seemed like a natural fit for Onda, who was born into a family of artists. His mother was a painter, and his father used to document his travels with a Super 8 camera. The grainy images captured Onda’s childhood imagination. As a teenager, Onda began taking photographs of musicians, leading to magazine commissions and photographic encounters with the likes of John Zorn and Arto Lindsay. Inspired by the new currents in art and music represented by these artists, Onda soon left his native Japan, traveling widely. While in London in the late 1980s, his camera broke. “I did not have enough saved for a new camera… I settled for a cassette Walkman…”

Cassette Memories

His decision to settle would prove auspicious: the Walkman has become his trademark instrument. For more than 20 years, he has used the Walkman to document the sonic contours of his daily life, accumulating a vast archive of personal field recordings. This archive has become the foundation for his much-lauded Cassette Memories project, an ongoing engagement with personal memory in which he fragments and layers his own recordings to obliquely reconstruct his memories.

Reading through Onda’s biography brought to mind a passage in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that postulates a relationship between recording technologies and memory: “In the camera, man has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramophone does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory.”

This idea of materializing memory is central to Onda’s working practice. Through its attentiveness to spatiality and its relentless temporal abstraction, Onda’s music, often devoid of any metric pulse, seems to embody a distinct material presence. He wrote in his Cassette Memories project description, “What emerges from my sound memories is a sonic collage of ritualistic tape music.”

Aki Onda. Photo: courtesy Sandrine Marc

Aki Onda. Photo: Sandrine Marc

The phrase “sonic collage” underscores Onda’s interdisciplinary conception of music. It has become a cliché to describe texturally inventive music as “painterly,” but in Onda’s case such visual metaphors are almost unavoidable. He told The Wire, “The truth is, although I am labelled a musician, my musical influences are few and far between and I pull most of my ideas from other media.”

Perhaps a more fitting visual analogue to Onda’s music than collage would be the three-dimensional assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. Like one of Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Onda’s music reaches out beyond the frame, beckoning to the listener even as it maintains its distance. It seems to teeter at the threshold between comprehensibility and inscrutability, the secret memories it contains hovering elusively, just beyond our reach.

Onda’s intent is not to retrace his memories indexically, but to lay bare their underlying morphology, their imperfect architecture. His sonic excavations seem to exist in the folds of memory, conjuring evocations that can’t be placed, indistinct somehow in their sensuous particularity. He told Tiny Mix Tapes, “I have to cut the bond with the original meanings first. Then, I’ll be able to use them for re-creating the other meanings. So it’s not like telling you about my personal history, which I’m not interested in at all. I’d like to make it abstract and open to the others.” What Onda is describing amounts to an auditory palimpsest. The original meaning and context of the audio is erased, but the audio itself remains as a trace upon which Onda and the listener can inscribe new meanings. Onda actively cultivates this intersubjective process of making meaning, telling The Wire, “My music exists where [the audience’s] gaze and my gaze cross.”

One question that remains is: why does Onda continue to use a cassette Walkman when there are a host of more modern gadgets available to him? Onda has said that he likes the characteristic imperfections of the cassette sound. “I just like things that are damaged, destroyed, scratched, ruined, wrecked, and not perfect,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes. This wabi-sabi ideal permeates nearly all of Onda’s work. Brian Eno captured the allure of damaged, lo-fi aesthetics in A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996) when he wrote, “The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

Onda’s music is indeed momentous, but it is rooted in the mundane. In one of Onda’s soundscapes, birds chirping might give way to cars honking. It’s a familiar mixture of sounds to most people, but Aki’s careful curation and cultivation renders it unfamiliar.

Theorist Shuhei Hosokawa famously examined the Walkman’s capacity for defamiliarization in his piece “The Walkman Effect.” Writing in 1984, four years after the Walkman’s original release in Japan, he concluded, “the practical meaning of the Walkman is generated in the distance it poses between the reality and the real, the city and the urban, and particularly between the others and the I.”

Hosokawa saw this distancing effect as inevitable, a product of the private, hermetic nature of listening to a Walkman. Onda, however, by rebroadcasting his private soundscapes into a shared public space, seems to suggest the possibility of traversing the distance between “the others and the I.” After all, the Walkman’s very name implies an act of traversal. For that reason, Onda could not have selected a tool better suited to his art.

….

Aki Onda will perform live in the Walker galleries on Thursday, May 14 at 6, 7, and 8 pm.

The Inherent Elegance of superposition: Noah Keesecker on Ryoji Ikeda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji […]

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer and multimedia artist Noah Keesecker shares his perspective on last night’s performance of superposition by Ryoji Ikeda. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Ryoji Ikeda doesn’t require you to care about quantum physics anymore than quantum physics require you to care about art. Which is to say that Ikeda’s superposition is not about the math as much as it is of the math and in Ikeda’s world to be of math is to have inherent elegance.

In an interview with MoMA regarding his collaborative duo Cyclo., Ikeda states that “to me, sound is a property of physics; vibrations of air. Music is, in essence, a property of mathematics; without mathematical structures, sounds are merely sounds”. Speaking to him after the performance we chatted about a major underpinning of his work which is that even without our human aesthetic values about sound the mathematical visual derivations he is drawing would still exist. He didn’t invent the sine wave, moiré patterns, Lissajous curves, or the Qubit, but he has invented an astonishingly crisp and pointed work that easily translates the vastness, precision, violence, and subtly of physics and art in a brilliantly crafted audio-visual work.

In general Ikeda’s work stands out for its extremes and superposition is no different. It doesn’t shy away from amplitude (your program comes with earplugs), it doesn’t pander to the moderate audio frequency range of your radio (you can leave your compression at home), and it doesn’t even bother with the topic of popular music idiom comparisons (it’s not about that bass, but there is plenty of bass). What is significant about these extremes is that he is working with a full palette, because if you are going to try to make a work about quantum physics you’re going to need every hertz, decibel, and pixel you can get your hands on.

But what about the show?

It’s a fast 65 minutes. The architecture is pristine, the visuals are surgical, the music is searing at one moment and cool and atmospheric the next. You are gently lulled into Ikeda’s quantum machine and then soon overwhelmed with data. Don’t try to make sense of it all, you’re not supposed to. Someone asked me about a particular section and “what it means.” The work is not narrative anymore than a mathematical theorem is narrative; the meaning determined and extracted through its practical application and relation to a body of knowledge.

Word, words, words. Ryoji isn’t into describing art with words either. Yet words are everywhere. The live performers pound out virtuosic Morse code in unison, illuminate, obscure, and then decode the principles of quantum superposition with keyboards, analog microfilm and live video feeds. In the one quirky and lighthearted section of the work the performers have a simultaneous thought stream like two computers arguing the 1’s and 0’s of the same data set, trying to grapple with humanity, science, religion, matter, life, and meaning, and there is something cute, revelatory, and terrifying about the whole segment. And then, like a text book definition of superposition, when you try to read the position and speed of a particle at the same time, the Qubits hit the fan and the result is explosive and mesmerizing.

Addendum: What Ryoji and I talked about afterwards.

The tuning forks. I overheard half a dozen people raving about the tuning forks and for good reason. I was particularly interested in this section because to me it is the most simple and magnificent execution of superposition, and the music and math that makes it. Two sound waves firing back and forth at each other, each frequency precisely chosen (Ikeda has made hundreds of custom tuning forks at peculiar and precise tunings) for the visual moiré patterns that it produces. It’s like a mathematical proof for Superposition; simple, elegant, factual, and brilliantly rendered and this, this is beautiful art.

Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition will be performed again tonight, October 25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater.

Data Swarms and Physical Sound: The Cerebral and Bodily Art of Ryoji Ikeda

“Somebody said something very interesting. That if you listen to a Ryoji Ikeda CD, you feel minimalist but if you go to see his performance you really feel he is a maximalist, physically.”—Ryoji Ikeda in a 2006 interview with David Toop in The Wire On the surface, it might appear that sound and visual artist […]

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

“Somebody said something very interesting. That if you listen to a Ryoji Ikeda CD, you feel minimalist but if you go to see his performance you really feel he is a maximalist, physically.”—Ryoji Ikeda in a 2006 interview with David Toop in The Wire

On the surface, it might appear that sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda only creates pieces for isolated academics hiding on the top-floor of some New Music ivory tower in Switzerland, squirreling away on their next incomprehensible paper about the “acoustic phenomenology of stereophonic subjectivity.” Ikeda recently won the Prix Ars Electronica Collide competition at CERN, which granted him a two-year research residency at the famous nuclear laboratory. In 2008, he collaborated with Harvard number theorist Benedict Gross on V≠L, a series of multimedia installations investigating a mathematical concept of infinity known as the “axiom of constructability.” superposition, the audio-visual piece Ikeda presents at the Walker on Friday, October 24, and Saturday, October 25, gets its title from a principle of quantum theory.

A brief, superficial listen of any Ikeda album might lead you to conclude that his work is purely theoretical. The ascetic tone of the sine wave is the bedrock of his sound. Melodies, rhythms, and discernible narratives are all largely absent. He seems to relish bizarre juxtapositions and tonal shifts.

Yet the portrait of Ryoji Ikeda as a totally cerebral artist can be alienating and inaccurate. Ikeda isn’t an academically trained musician or visual artist. He began his career DJing in clubs in Toyko in the early 1990s. This is perhaps where he first learned how to use music and visuals as forms of stimulation to provoke the body and create visceral spectacles. Ikeda’s ability to manipulate an audience’s physical response to his work is what makes him such a vital and accessible artist.

Shards of static tickle the insides of your ears. You can feel his impossibly heavy bass drones in the pit of your chest. Sine waves bouncing back and forth between the left and right channels increasingly disorient your sense of space. Ikeda reminds us of the very physical nature of sound. In an interview with MoMa’s Inside/Out blog, he refers to sound as “vibrations of air.” The rapidly shifting digital images that accompany these sounds also produce physical responses. Streams of data collide on-screen to create a sensory overload that can literally cause an epileptic seizure. Ikeda’s work often circumvents cognitive processing by going straight for our bodies, and you don’t need a PhD in theoretical mathematics to feel the effects.

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition is Ikeda’s first piece featuring human performers since his days collaborating with the Japanese theater collective Dumb Type. For this performance, experimental musicians Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould will act as “operator/conductor/observer/examiners,” according to his website. In the past, Ikeda has expressed distrust in his capabilities as an improviser and a desire for total artistic control. “When I create a piece, music, installation, or audio-visual concert, my vision is so clear I need control,” he told The Wire in 2006. It’s possible that, with the introduction of human agents, superposition will be even more in touch with the human body, because it’s being created by sensitive performers in real time.

Walker audiences may already be familiar with the collaborative side of Ikeda. The Walker co-presented, with the Guthrie Lab, his work with Dumb Type in [OR] in 1999 and Memorandum in 2001—two early examples of the types of immersive spectacles Ikeda has become known for.  Unlike anything that had been seen before in the Twin Cities, the assaultive quality of those performances astonished and thrilled audiences.

In recent years, Ikeda has created a number of massive public art pieces that have maintained the astounding nature of his performances with Dumb Type, while shying away from the shock tactics of those earlier works. His piece spectra, which sent immense beams of white light into the sky, toured multiple major cities in Europe. Every night this October, his audio-visual work test pattern has taken over the forty-seven digital screens in Times Square from 11:57 pm to midnight. Despite the theoretical background of these pieces, their visibility suggests a growing populist sentiment in Ikeda’s work.

Now, none of this is to say that there isn’t deep intellectual complexity embedded in all of what Ryoji Ikeda does. The power of his work is that it’s able to remove truly profound and moving mathematic concepts from the stasis and inaccessibility created by academic jargon. In superposition, Ikeda makes the data that swarms around us visible, audible, and sublime.

The Walker will present Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25, 2014 in the McGuire Theater.

superposition , 2012. © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

superposition, 2012. Photo: © Kazuo Fukunaga / Kyoto Experiment in Kyoto Art Theater, Shunjuza

By Invitation: Maia Maiden on Scaffold Room

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities dance artist Maia Maiden shares her perspective on Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room. Agree […]

Okwui Okpokwasili, during an Open Rehearsal of Scaffold Room at the Walker. Photo: Gene Pittman

Okwui Okpokwasili during an open rehearsal of Scaffold Room at the Walker. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities dance artist Maia Maiden shares her perspective on Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments.

Some of you may need an invitation for this, some of us won’t. Or some of us may need an invitation for this, some of you won’t. Whatever box you may fit into, check that one and move into the box of the Scaffold Room. Enter black art in a white space. Now take away the undertones and hidden messages of what that could mean and deconstruct. Literally, black art: black creator, black artists, black content, black structure (physical and mental). Literally, white space: white walls, white floors, white lights, white box. With permission and without definition, Ralph Lemon enters the space to tell a story of blackness. From his own mouth, he discovered something… This is why it is partially a lecture and a musical. From the lens of a black man enters the presentation of a black woman to the world. Unapologetic for his experiences and outlook, the connections between literature, music, radical politics, sexual exploration, and Beyoncé will make you question your opinions on how you entered the white space. Tap into what you know (well, maybe). Ask questions about what you don’t know (well, maybe not). Find your box… by invitation.

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