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TODD SHALOM ON POETIC DECISION-MAKING

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

TODD SHALOM works with text, sound, and image to recontextualize the body in space with the vocabulary of the everyday. He is the founder and director of Elastic City, a nonprofit participatory walk organization. Elastic City makes its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit. Shalom leads walks alone and in collaboration with other artists, and works with artists in different disciplines to adapt their expertise to the participatory walk format. Walks use sensory-based techniques, reinvented folk rituals, and other exercises to investigate and intervene in the daily life of the city, its variously defined communities, and its identity politics.

We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

 

Odyssey Works: You talk about framing and the way that you direct people to essentially draw a line around a thing to be beheld—and there’s some kind of magic action that happens when you draw that line. It’s an action upon attention, on the way we see. How does that magic action inform your work writ large?

Todd Shalom: The framing is a prompt I give on a walk in which I say that one person’s going to make a composition with their fingers, drawing a frame, and the other person’s going to name that composition.

Each artist comes to a walk with different things that they can offer, given their practice, and we’re really hoping to shape the participants' relationships to the group and themselves and the neighborhood in a new light. We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

If we choose to use props, they’re generally very purposeful. Really, everything is purposeful on a walk. For example, the route—how we get from here to there—is just as important as what we do when someone gives a prompt at a spot where we’re all standing. The route is part of the walk. The walk is not about a thing, the walk is the thing. The walk is the performance.

 

Ideally  by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

Ideally by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

 

OW: What constitutes good in that moment? What constitutes effective? What constitutes where you’re trying to go?

TS: First, I want to make sure that the prompts are poetic, that they’re clear and concise, and that they give just enough information and boundaries to direct someone to do something, while still giving them space to dream. I think if you’re super specific, it can be really limiting, and someone can really shut down and not open up to the prompt. And if you’re too open, it’s overwhelming. I think there should be a balance.

In rehearsals, I’m always imagining the worst possible participant, and this is someone I love playing. I play the person who reacts against the prompt, who doesn’t want to follow it, who takes someone’s words and twists them into the disruptive or obnoxious.

A good prompt can really hinge on a keyword. If I say "box" instead of "frame," or if I say we’re going to make a “thing” instead of a “composition,” it changes the prompt. It’s good if people are participating, period. But it’s not great. I want more than that, so I change and tweak the prompts. The person leading the walk has so much agency, and I think that I really like to be in a spot where I feel comfortable enough to give that agency back. But again, if you give too much control to the group, the whole thing could kind of fall apart.

If the prompt is good enough, I think that it will get people to see the poetry in the words, and they’ll come up with new meanings. In one sense, this whole project has been about taking poetry off the page. So when people are thinking about the prompts in a poetic way, then I think the walk has been successful.

 

All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones.

 

OW: Tell us about your journey from poetry to your work with Elastic City.

TS: What I’m really interested in is what I call "poetic decision-making." All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones. What one names the file on their desktop, what one chooses to wear today, what route one takes—these are opportunities. In my work, I really want to bring forth these opportunities. Beauty or wonder or sorrow or nostalgia can be aspects of the decision-making process. So I think that everyone is in that way an artist, you know. Whether or not they’re making compelling work is for someone else to judge, but I think my work seeks to foreground the opportunities we have in our decision-making.

After studying poetry for a while, I felt dissatisfied with it. I just didn’t feel like poetry on the page was the best way in which I could express what I wanted to. And the performance of poetry felt limited, because I would have to read a poem aloud a bunch of times for someone to be able to get underneath it. I thought there had to be something else.

I’d always been interested in sound, and especially in how I could combine text and sound. Then I took some courses at Mills College, and someone told me to check out the work of Robert Ashley, and so I did. Then he was on the cover of The Wire, the UK music magazine, and the article following the feature on him was about acoustic ecology, which is the study of sonic environments. It was as if, all of a sudden, I’d found poetics in sound that were gorgeous and accessible. It didn’t seem wrapped in academic jargon. It was something I could easily get into. I especially loved the idea of soundwalks, walks that focus on listening to the soundscape around you. That's what gave me a way into this form. But I felt that the silent soundwalks with maybe some prompts given at the very beginning were a little too purist and a little too boring to me. While that serves a purpose as an academic exercise, I felt like there could be so much more engagement.

I started using a bunch of soundwalk prompts from an acoustic ecology handbook I found in the Mills library. Then I started to create my own. And then I got sick of giving soundwalks, because I’d been giving them for almost five years, and I started to wonder what else I could incorporate into the form.  And I knew poetry, so I realized I could play with text, or maybe make a visual poem. Then I thought, “How can other artists work in this form?” At this point, I knew the walk form. I knew how to get people to participate. So I decided to find artists and work with them to take their knowledge in a given discipline and adapt that to the walk form. In the process, I’ve learned so many different ways of experiencing a place—from designers, therapists, photographers, choreographers—all these different artists. My experiences of many places, but especially of New York, are so layered now. For example, I can tell you what kind of sound a specific manhole cover is going to make when a car goes over it. I have this really weird knowledge of the city now, combined with memories from all these walks and personal memories. It’s saturating.

 

OW: How does the idea of personal or collective histories being part of the space inform the work?

TS: I gave Lucky Walk with Juan Betancurth, and we went near where I used to live on 15th and 6th. We looked around and gleaned text from the signage we saw on the street, and then we performed our text in chorus, almost like a Jackson Mac Low poem. My own personal history is definitely built into the walks, especially into why I may create a given walk. But it's more important to me to make room for a participant's experience.  

 

OW: There’s an idea that to be participatory means to be democratic in some way. If you’re literally and figuratively guiding the participants in one direction or another, do you think that’s still true in the case of what you do, or does it not really apply?

TS: Well, I don’t necessarily think it’s democratic, but the participants are co-creators of the work. They complete the work. Since I use the trope of a walking tour, people are looking to be led. And people are already participating without realizing it, just by walking, so that’s a nice thing that's built in. I’m facilitating, essentially. Everyone is given the option of not participating if they don’t want to. No one is being forced. (And we don’t use blindfolds, for instance, because I think that’s dangerous, especially in the city. It doesn’t allow you control if you need it in a split second, which you may. You may need to see because a bus is coming, who knows.) There’s no control over someone, there are just offerings. It’s up to the individual whether or not to accept them. But if no one goes on the walk, I’m giving prompts to no one, so we do need people to be on the walk.

I don’t think I’d call my work truly democratic, because that would imply total shared authorship, or maybe consensus, and that’s not it. I feel like when I’ve experimented with that, it's felt good, because everyone was involved in the decision-making, but aesthetically, I wasn't usually so pleased with the results. You often end up with a lowest common denominator aesthetic. I want to give some agency or authority back, but I don’t want to give it all over. I think it’s important to lead or facilitate, and it’s just a question of to what degree at a given moment.

 

Fabstractions  by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

Fabstractions by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

 

OW: Can you demonstrate what a prompt for this space might look like?

TS: Well, there’s a fountain here, and it’s not being activated. The obvious thing that comes to my mind is to throw a coin in there and make a wish. The other thing would be maybe to blow a wish into the fountain, so that you could see a ripple on the water. There’s something about a wish. When I see a fountain, I want to make a wish. Or, since the fountain’s not currently moving, perhaps it’s more melancholic. Maybe it’s a moment to think about someone who’s died, and place all of that in that bird that’s resting there. Our prompt can be, "If the bird were to fly away and travel with a message to someone who’s died, who would that message be to, and what would that message be?Take a minute or two, construct that message, and silently send it to the bird to deliver. We will not share these messages with the others who are seated here.”

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Interview by Abe Burrickson and Ana Freeman. Adapted from the live interview by Ana Freeman. 

Leanne Zacharias on Preventing Passivity

Credit Kevin Bertram.

Credit Kevin Bertram.

LEANNE ZACHARIAS is a Canadian cellist, interdisciplinary artist, and performance curator. She has been breaking ground in the post-classical music landscape since the 90s, in collaboration with artists of all stripes. Zacharias' ongoing performance project Music for Spaces reimagines concert, public, and natural spaces with sound. Other notable work includes CityWide, which consisted of simultaneous recitals by 50 cellists to open the International Cello Festival, and Sonus Loci, a winter sound installation on Winnipeg’s frozen Assiniboine River. Her cello performance formed the climax of Odyssey Works' piece for Rick Moody, When I Left the House It Was Still Dark

 

A performance works best when everyone feels they are contributing.

 

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and what is the point?

Leanne Zacharias: The point is to prevent anyone, audience member or performer, from operating in anything resembling a passive or inconsequential mode. A performance works best when everyone feels they are contributing—via navigation, work, or some form of interaction.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

LZ: Experiences do more than most performances. They are lived rather than witnessed, so they exist differently in the memory. I think the best art is of this nature. As a performer, the task of creating an experience for someone shifts the intention from self-satisfactory pursuit to gift-giving. In giving a gift to someone, you ask different questions: What do they need? What do they want? What would they like?

 

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

LZ: To enable close encounters with live performance, sound, and other people. To create musical scenarios that engage both listeners and players in a more direct way than typical concert settings do. To enhance awareness of gesture, place, and time. To ask what the audience would like that they don't know of yet.

 

Credit Kevin Bertram.

Credit Kevin Bertram.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

In many concerts and performance situations, there's little to no collaboration between artist and audience. There's an agreement on the terms, often in the form of a transaction: audience pays admission fee, artist delivers a program. This agreement is a contract and playbook. It outlines expectations. To me, the most interesting place to find the artwork is at the explosion of that transaction—the moment when the audience realizes they're being offered a different type of contract, a new playbook with unorthodox or unclear terms. 

 

A heightened sensitivity to space, surroundings, and people invites elements of surprise and risk; it requires and builds trust, and creates an exciting tension that is integral to great performance.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

LZ: Crucial. If the work is a musical composition, the performer's role is interpretative. Even if a piece has been performed dozens or hundreds of times, it must be made new—through interpretive decisions, its placement in proximity to other musical works, its placement in the environment, or the placement of the performers and audience. Ideally, everyone is experiencing the discovery of a new interpretation of the piece together, in real time. I think of the entire performance, not just the music, as the work, so I attend to all the details: musical landscape, physical landscape, movement, proximity. A heightened sensitivity to space, surroundings, and people invites elements of surprise and risk; it requires and builds trust, and creates an exciting tension that is integral to great performance.

 

Credit Katalin Hausel.

Credit Katalin Hausel.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

LZ: I'm influenced by knowledge and language beyond my home base in music: architects on community, designers on space, choreographers on movement, visual artists on images and materiality, theatre artists on presentation, and athletes and yogis on repetitive practices. I'm also inspired by naturalists, wilderness gurus, and explorers. I admire their embrace of wildness and their expeditions in search of sudden, fleeting beauty.

My first encounter with Janet Cardiff's Forty Part Motet was significant. It didn't change me so much as distill or crystallize a fundamental part of my identity as an artist. The piece consists of forty individually recorded voices each singing their part of  Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium, playing through forty speakers placed throughout the space. It is a stunning, complex installation and a beautiful experience with a single musical work that never changes. Her piece succeeds as a rare opportunity for art-goers to become listeners, and get close to each voice. What it doesn't do is bring the piece to life as a unique performance, or allow listeners to get close to the musicians' real-time efforts, the physical and intellectual work of executing a single part of a grand composition that is unique with each iteration.  I had a very strong reaction: I realized my purpose as a musician involves advocating for liveness and finding ways for live performance to involve the level of accessibility, interaction, and immersion of Cardiff's piece. Come to think of it, the experience of performing for Rick Moody in the Straw Bale Observatory is a perfect example of achieving this.

Tom Pearson On Dream Logic

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

TOM PEARSON is one of the artistic directors of Third Rail Projects, along with Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Hailed as one of the foremost companies creating site-specific, immersive, and experiential dance theatre in the United States, Third Rail Projects is dedicated to re-envisioning how audiences can engage with contemporary performance. They are the creators of the long-running immersive theatre hit Then She Fell and the new immersive sensation The Grand Paradise, which is playing in New York through May 29, 2016. More information can be found at thirdrailprojects.com.

 

Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you seeking to accomplish with your work? 

Tom Pearson: In all of my work, I am hoping to give audiences intimate and transformative experiences by making room for them in the work and making the work about them. I hope each piece becomes a Rorschach blot for their own reflective experiences and takes them on a heightened symbolic journey.  At the end of the day, I hope they see and examine something of themselves in everything I make and that they walk away having perhaps discovered something they didn’t know before.

 

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in  The Grand Paradise . Credit Third Rail Projects.

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in The Grand Paradise. Credit Third Rail Projects.

 

OW: You create work that is both immersive and site-specific. Can you explain the relationship between these two qualities? 

TP: They relate in that they provoke similar approaches to creating work. Many of our public site works focus on the discovery of the narratives that are bricked into the architecture of a place.  In site-specific work, there is a rigorous engagement with real-world architecture and a deep sense of place.  I think that’s true for immersive work as well, but often it involves creating the place ourselves rather than excavating the meanings of pre-existing space. Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.
 

 

OW: How would you characterize the exchange you facilitate between artist and audience? Where is the artwork itself located? 

TP: My work is about creating scenarios that keep the audience in mind from the outset—so they are necessary to the work, and each scene is built with that exchange in mind.  I think I am trying to achieve intimacy, but also to challenge audience members' expectations, bypass their rational minds, put them in places with smells and tastes and textures that trigger emotional or physical responses and put them into a place of strong receptivityand then turn a corner to go into deeper, more symbolic, meaningful places. The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.

 

Roxanne Kidd in  Then She Fell . Credit Darial Sneed. 

Roxanne Kidd in Then She Fell. Credit Darial Sneed. 

 

OW: Unlike some other experiential art, Third Rail’s pieces seem to have a strong narrative focus, yet they are also clearly structured differently from traditional theatre. Can you talk about the role of narrative in your work?

TP: Our narratives are always fragmented, which is the nature of immersive work, and what is most effective about it.  Audiences seem to need to hook themselves onto some sort of narrative to navigate the worlds, which is why the writings of Lewis Carroll offer so much to Then She Fell; audiences have some cultural and literary signifiers that are easy to understand, so they can relax a little more into the figurative and fragmented and symbolic aspects of the work. They can go deeper into the dream logic because they have an anchor in the narrative images. It’s harder with something like The Grand Paradise, where we are hooking the audience’s attention onto broader cultural signifiers...like the idea of "paradise," a status quo family from Middle America on vacation, a coming of age, a midlife crisis, the collective cultural fantasies of the late 1970s, and the Fountain of Youth.  These are anchor points too, but much looser ones.

 

OW:  Immersive theatre is often compared to video games or other interactive virtual experiences. Why do you choose to create embodied experiences? What does liveness mean to you? 

TP: I think immersive theatre is just a more obvious form of liveness than other theatre, maybe because audience members feel some agency and control in it, but also because it allows them a more personal, tactile, intimate encounter with art.  And I think video games and the last 20 years of digital living have made us all crave liveness, while also preparing us to navigate these real worlds that follow video game logic. Like a video game, immersive theatre trains you, sets you loose to unlock possibilities, and then levels you through based on your choices; there are boons along the way, and a sense of discovery as you put the structure together for yourself through your own experience of it.

 

How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

OW: Tell us about your process for creating a piece. 

TP: It can start and finish in a myriad of ways. Often, it begins with a movement idea that becomes an organizing principle, or a narrative fragment, such as a sense of duality, or a yearning for the Fountain of Youth. Then She Fell began with the idea of a personality torn in two directions, towards two separate agendas, with both halves operating on either side of a real-life event. The Grand Paradise was inspired by archetypal psychology, by the idea of characters representing different aspects of a single psyche. I envisioned that psyche being that of a place, a sentient place that gives birth to a pantheon of archetypal characters who promise to fulfill audience desires. From those kinds of starting places, the choreography, writing, and scenarios spin out around the idea of audience inclusion and what that could mean. How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

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Interview by Ana Freeman