Permission to Engage: Meaning Machines

Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in artists, performance art
Permission to Engage: Meaning Machines

“Meaning Machines, a 3.5 hour ensemble performance piece by Rooms, the Chicago-­‐ based performance art duo (couple, team), Marrakesh and Todd Frugia, was exhibited June 4th, 2013 as part of the Rapid Pulse Performance Art Festival. 7 performers, dressed in white linen costumes were blindfolded and listened through earphones to a series of pre-­‐recorded, individually researched and randomly shuffled cues throughout the performance. The performers presented the audience an opportunity to study repeated colloquial phrases in different languages, vaguely familiar gestures and subtle, careful jostling upon two large factory-­‐made Persian carpets. The carpets were connected by a thin stone structure, serving as a bridge for the performers.

According to Todd, the piece was conceived and had its initial performance years ago. Since that time, the structure Rooms uses for these ensemble works has become simpler, in a sense. The choreographic cues, while remaining detailed and tight, have evolved so that their interpretation can be done live within performance. It seemed important to Todd that a performer could learn the few directives and participate in the performance immediately. The performance becomes an exploration of spontaneously generated group dynamics within spatial, temporal, aural and gestural terms. I first saw him circling the performance, appraising the fleeting compositions created by performers spatial configurations, as if participating in the work from the outside. The mathematics of the spontaneously generated choreography arose as a topic in our brief discussion, as we stood off to the side of the performance space, one eye still glued to the evolving, shifting patterns taking place upon the carpets. I have been working with algorithms conceived as part of a computer-­‐model that simulates flocking behavior in bird colonies as choreographic cues for an ensemble piece and could imagine each performer as a set of points upon a three dimensional graph. The patterns and flows of these points could, within this finite space, be expressed as equations.

This mathematical dimension to the performance was precisely what interested Todd, as well, and we decided to continue our discussion further another time.

I started to interpret the piece on my own, as I snapped some photos for the blog, before speaking to Todd, seeing the piece as a poignant exploration of urban living within the incessant performative interactions and moments of jarring isolation. I was most engaged with the overlaps and separations of meaning, volume, timing and languages, as the performers recited and repeated their phrases. The interweaving patterns of gestures developing across the space, prompted only at the individual scale, captivated me, as well.

I could stand within hands length of a performers face, as her bare feet sensed the edge of the performance space, stopping her from progressing any further in one direction, or simply stopping short of the edge due to a choreographic cue within her ITunes playlist. Perhaps she was reciting text or repeating a gesture. No matter how close I came, I was confronted by her performative ambivalence towards my presence. One audience member, Justus Harris, chose to fan a performer’s legs to explore the boundaries of this indifference. The sense of privilege in this performance was engaging to me, too. I could witness, as if I were some sort of micro-­‐community urban spy, a not particularly memorable moment in the life of an individual. I was privy to intimate conversations between friends (at least one side of the dialog) and gestures enacted, ostensibly alone in the kitchen, in one case, during the loving preparation of a family meal, over and over again, as if to reassure me that this was an artist’s portrait of daily life, regardless how private it may seem.

As the spatial arrangements got re-­‐worked continuously, I could imagine trails being forged, some of which led to the outskirts of the city, the edges of the carpet, and others which led to the mass transit infrastructure, the stone bridge, between carpets. At this level of the community metaphor, I played witness to singular moments and interpersonal relationships within the macro-­‐perspective. Three performers, for example, may have found themselves navigating the bridge or inching about at its periphery. Without speaking or literal gestures, they had to negotiate the confined spaces, sorting through their physical placements within the shared intention of traversing the bridge. This intention was complicated by the fact that another performer may have stopped upon the bridge, locked within their playlist for the time being at a movement-­‐related cue. Often times, performers began moving in one direction only to find a pathway blocked, necessitating the reappraisal of options and, possibly, a bold commitment to perform a complete 180 degree turn.

At 6:30pm, Marrakesh broke the boundary of the performance space by stepping onto the carpet and began to tap each performer upon the shoulder gently, awakening them to the reality that the performance had ended. In this last action, the communicating to performers the cessation of the piece, I conjured up words like grace and mercy, as if some angel had lifted the community, one by one, from the maze of urban existence with a common, easy gesture of silent permission.

Photo by Natalia Nicholson

Natalia Nicholson is a performance artist, currently working on her MFA at The School of the Art Institute. She earned her BA in English from The University of Iowa. She’s an Illinois native, living for the first time in Chicago. As a writer, she’s published poetry in the Prairie Light Review and blogged for City Phish. Most recently she’s working with a podcast series of performance artist interviews, for FNews.