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Cosmological Plants / Corvus Corax / To Speak of Future Delights – Second Annual Festival of Poets Theater: Night 1

by Amelia Ishmael

“If poets theater is a form of sociability, page play, agitpop, or post-dramatic theater,” read the curatorial note handed out before the first performance, “fully distinct disciplinary boundaries have internally divided it as a field, and dispersed our knowledge and the influence of its practitioners.” If theater can be music, choreography can be composition, performance can be sound, and sound can be poetry; but how does one approach hybrids such as motion-poetry and theatrical sounds?

The Annual Festival of Poets Theater is a fundraiser and celebration that supports the Green Lantern Press*. Now in their second year, the 4-day festival took place at Sector 2337 and Links Hall, December 7-10, 2016, highlighting cross-disciplinary work that expands approaches for performing poetry. Co-programed by Devin King and Patrick Durgin, the festival included traditional poetry readings and new-media performances that incorporated interactive software, digital video, and sound.

Photo Courtesy of Joseph Clayton Mills

Sector 2237 regularly showcases performance art, literature, translation, visual art, and music with both experimentation and sophistication. They tap into a highly specific, thriving community in Chicago—particularly those engaged in multiple disciplines—that previously lacked a platform. Sector 2337 encourages audience members to apply their artistic tools in the real world; they combine community building and auxiliary programming in a politically active way.

Opening night featured California-based composer, Michael Pisaro. Commissioned by the festival, Pisaro’s “Cosmological Plants” included a series of theatrical events performed by Toby Altman and Dao Nguyen. The performance was composed of two 10-minute acts, both of which included one male and one female performer in roles named after three figures in Greek mythology and their corresponding constellations—Triangulum, Cassiopeia, and Andromeda. The plotting of the constellations served as markers for stage blocking used throughout the composition. As the actors moved through space and time along their predestined paths, there were sonic elements featured at each point—either texts to be read or objects to be interacted with—yet these components seemed to offer themselves as stage props or triggers used to prompt scripted actions rather than as musical instruments to be performed in a more traditional sense.

The piece began with a man sitting at a table, reciting: This table does not stand by itself. It takes its place in a chain of connected objects with invisible lines drawn from it to others, like the walking lines of the constellations. Such textual elements were captivating—musing on stars, the potential loneliness of gravity, and the invisible connections between things and people. The performers navigated their routes, reciting texts, pouring millet and white beans on a large sheet of aluminum foil, watering plants, reclining on a mattress, and so on. Apart from a pre-recorded track that incorporated resounding sine waves that sometimes incorporated guitar, the sounds of the performance largely consisted of either the acoustic phenomena of objects or spoken word.

Photo Courtesy of Michael Pisaro

In the following piece, titled “Corvus corax”, composer Joseph Clayton Mills performed alongside musician Noé Cuéllar and poet Jeff Deutsch. A cluster of cassette tape players and a stack of 7 suitcases were situated near a desk. Cuéllar stood on the opposite side of the stage next to a podium that held an intercom transmitter and Deutsch sat in front of an intercom receiver and a typewriter. One by one, a voice reading excerpts from the poem, Wild Horses Think of Nothing Else the Sea (SARU 2014), emerged from the tape players. Although the tape player voices were recorded, layered, and then looped throughout the performance, listeners rarely gleaned a complete recitation; after a few seconds, the cassette player was placed into a suitcase and muffled. A bell rang; Cuéllar took the suitcase to the other side of the stage, unpacked the cassette player, and let it sound on the intercom. Meanwhile, Mills played another cassette player from his collection. Cuéllar then re-suitcased Mills’ cassette player and set it aside with its muffled voice still sounding.

This process is repeated seven times, sparingly accompanied by Deutsch typing and transcribing the text emanating from the intercom: forgetting… that we will stay with each other alone in our togetherness… remind me that I am here…walking north along jagged coastline…all that is left of myself, the ruffle of my mouth…. Mills’ Kafkaesque process-oriented compositions incorporated playfulness and musicality into the repetitive performance of simple tasks. He often works with acoustic phenomena to reveal hidden sounds, exploring the relationship between objects and how they are enclosed, activating sound within the plasticity of time. 

The final performance of the evening was Kevin B. Lee’s “To Speak of Future Delights,” a performative lecture accompanied by video projection. During his performance, Lee stood behind a podium with a laptop mirrored on a projection behind him, facing the audience. Within this pedagogical structure, Lee presented a series of travel photos and videos. Instead of speaking out loud, he communicated by typing into a text-processing software, which the audience read as the words appeared on the projected video. The sonic element here was largely limited to the sound of fingers tapping on plastic keys, a gesture made spectacular through Lee’s donning of multi-colored LED finger lights. About half-way through the performance, when words and typing-sounds persisted despite his fingers having left the keyboard, it was revealed that the digital and textual aspects of the performance were prerecorded. Such aesthetics and methods may recall glitch art performances by Nick Briz or Jon Satrom, where digital technology is used to critique our relationship with digital culture.

The cross-pollination of media presented during opening night was hardly anything new, but is nevertheless important to differentiate from other, more prevalent approaches to performance in Chicago. It was apparent that the performances were site-specific, unrepeatable. By stage blocking performers, architectural spaces served as another compositional impetus. This expansive approach to performative work heightened the awareness of audience members, so that listening was not merely limited to the perception of acoustic phenomenon.

*a publisher co-directed by Devin King and Caroline Picard, who also run alternative arts venue/gallery, Sector 2337

Amelia Ishmael is an independent writer and curator who specializes in the trans-disciplinary relationships between visual art and experimental music. She is currently editor at Radius, an experimental radio platform based in Chicago, and was previously editor at Helvete: a journal of black metal theory. Her recent publications include Bleeding Black Noise (Punctum, 2016), Enemy: 1550 N Milwaukee Ave., Third Fl., 2012-2005 (Holon, 2016), and Listening and Its Not (Sonic Arts Research Unit, 2015); recent exhibitions include I am the Sun (Art Institute Chicago, 2016), Bleeding Black Noise (Sector 2337, 2016), and divinitusssanimalusssacréusssorganusss (Experimental Sound Studio, 2014)

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