Friday, March 20, 2009

"Undercurrents" featured on WNYC's Studio 360

Visit the PRI/WNYC 
Studio 360 Blog for feature: "Undercurrents Wins us Over" by Josie Holtzman.

Pictured above: Zach Morris & Tara O'Con; photo by Chad Heird

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Undercurrents & Exchange" Displays by Zach Morris

posted by Third Rail Projects

The following video is approximately 10 minutes in length.  If you encounter a blank screen, or the video doesn't seem to progress, try reloading or refreshing your browser. Otherwise, depending on the speed of your connection, you may need to be patient while video loads.

The above slide show follows the evolution of the displays which accompanied performances of Undercurrents & Exchange in February 2009. In conjunction with the performances, dioramas created by Zach Morris, housed in vitrines throughout the WFC, highlighted the complicated web of historical, cultural, environmental and social facets that make the complex what it is. Each vitrine was divided into four 'scenes,' creating playful, evolving stories that visually reiterated the theme: That seemingly isolated and disconnected elements have the possibility to connect in fantastical and dream-like ways.

Archaeopteryx replica featured in the "Archaeopteryx Display" created by Barry Weil.

Friday, March 13, 2009

It Worked?

posted by Zach Morris

It’s been a couple of weeks now since we finished Undercurrents & Exchange
. Normally about this time, I’m in the throes of mild post-partum depression, having poured myself into a piece that, after some brief strutting and fretting, has disappeared. I’m not experiencing that this time around.

Maybe it’s because we had a full month to live inside a structure that we created. Or maybe it’s just because my body is thanking me for not making it roll up and down that marble staircase anymore. But I suspect that it has more to do with what happened to me and to the project over the course of this process.

I have to admit, this piece was borne a little out of skepticism and doubt on my part…

About three years ago, we submitted the proposal for this project to The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, framed as both a performance and an experiment to see if public art could actually make a substantial, noticeable impact on a space that it inhabited.

This wasn’t simply a matter for curiosity for me. I’d been making site-work for a couple years at this point, drawn to the idea of bringing art out of the art-house and into the public sphere. I’d hoped that this type of work might get me closer to what I’m interested in as an artist – namely finding ways to integrate art more into the fabric of our daily lives. I’ve come to believe that art, and dance in particular, is one of the few ways that we’re able to begin approaching the ineffable. For me, it’s a way to begin to understand the aspects of our lives that are so complex, so contradictory, so multi-faceted and layered that we simply can’t express them using the devices of normal communication.

Anyway, the point is, I thought that this was important to get out into the world. Especially in a society so obsessed with quantifying and rationalizing everything. I wasn’t interested in preaching, or “converting” anyone, or even to making any sort of profound statement. I was just interested in putting it out there as another, alternate way of expressing and understanding our crazy lives.

So when we proposed this project, I wanted to know if any of this actually held water. If the presence of public art was actually something that could tangibly effect a space and its inhabitants. Or, was I just being a rather pompous artist, assuming my little dances were making an impact when, in fact, they might not be.

I’m tremendously happy to say that we certainly did something. What that was, I’m not rightly sure. But over the course of February, something changed in the Winter Garden.

I can’t quantify the success of this project. But I know its there. Small observations and interactions lead me to believe that over the month people not only noticed us, they began to recognize us, and even anticipate our daily appearances:

On our first day, when Marissa came flopping toward me as the mermaid, our performance was met with a decidedly chilly response. However, when we repeated the exact same thing as part of a longer piece two weeks later, people stopped, smiling. We overheard them saying “Oh there she is”, “ That’s the mermaid”. They followed her progress as she wriggled up to perch next to me. They stayed and watched the dance until I eventually carried her up the escalator out of the garden.

Every day, we noticed that the number of people who stopped and watched slightly increased. As the weeks went on, whole groups would stop and watch, forming a perimeter around the performances. And at the end of these dances, we were often met with applause from all sides. A marked change from the nervous smatterings we’d gotten in the first week.

We began to recognize repeat visitors. We know of a couple WFC workers came to see every single performance.

On Friday of the third week as I walked to my starting position, I passed a group of people. I heard them whisper, “There’s the dancer.” They then moved to get better view.

During one of our evening rehearsals, one of the guards walked up to Marissa, Tara, and I. She wagged a finger at both of them. “Which one of you is the Mermaid?” she asked suspiciously. Marissa indicated that she was. “Why did you steal the chocolate?” the guard asked with a grin, referencing one of the videos we’d put up on the Garden’s plasma screens. Likewise, other guards would pull visitors aside during these night rehearsals and tell them about us, about the mermaid, and especially her proclivity for candy stealing.

On the final week, Tom was preparing to film the daily dance from the balcony near the entrance to the AMEX tower. As the piece was about to begin, a slew of people came down from the tower and stood watching. Over the course of the performance, Tom heard them comparing this dance to other’s they’d seen. One person noted a repeated choreographic pattern that echoed an earlier piece. Others rated this dance next to their favorites. When the dance was done, they went back up to work.

The interesting thing is, we didn’t accomplish any of the things that we sometimes mistakenly equate as hallmarks of success in the business of art making:

Will the people who saw our daily performances seek us out when we have our next gig? Probably not.

Did we get a sudden boost in our individual funders, with new audience members eager to lend support? Not a one.

Will the contemporary dance world see a spike in attendance at performances due to our efforts? I wouldn’t count on it.

Do most of the folks who witnessed a performance have any idea who we are? No. I expect that most of them couldn’t tell you our names.

But none of that is really the point, of what we do is it?

Instead, for a short month I was just the guy in the yellow shirt who showed everyday at 1:00pm and, with his cohorts, kinda torqued reality for a couple minutes. And during that month, some barrier was eased down, just enough that I stopped being the weird artist you avoid, and instead became a person you could approach.

My last interaction at the Winter Garden was when I was standing outside, still in costume, waiting for a final photo to be taken. A man walked up to me:

“I’ve seen your dances. I’ve come to a couple now. What is it that you call that type of dance?”

“Um, Contemporary, I guess.”

“So is this what you do?”

“Yeah. It is. What about you?”

“I work up at AMEX.”

“Oh, cool. How’s that treating you?”

“Good. Good.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Well. I should go back to work.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Well thank you.”

“Thank you. And thanks for stopping to talk.”

“Ok. I’ll see you.”

“Alright. I’ll see you.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Re-Choreographing the Day Through a Camera Lens

posted by Tom Pearson

Afforded a couple of week's of hindsight, I think I can finally start to get at some of the finer points of how the process and resulting performances of Undercurrents & Exchange have affected me. Marissa, Tara, and Zach have done a great job of speaking to our concerns and responses during the perpetual
cycle of rehearsing and performing daily on site. And though I shared choreographic responsibility with them and engaged in the same creative process, in many ways I felt very much outside of the work, filming and editing each day's performance for broadcast on our blog.I know that filming every day and sharing the videos has been a really great way for us to connect with audiences all over the world, and many have expressed their excitement at being able to follow along on this project. And, by the way, a big "thank you" to everyone who has followed this process and left their responses. The idea of doing work in the public sphere, free performances that put art into everyday spaces seems to naturally extend to the public space of the internet. And the same rules often apply. It was my job throughout the month to translate our daily performances and experiences for our blog and post them as quickly as possible to allow internet audiences to follow us day-by-day.

But, I also now wonder if my presence with the camera affected audiences reactions there on site?

Zach was the live link, unifying all the daily dances with his business man persona, and I was the behind the scenes counterpart with my nose in the camera each day. I wonder if the folks that began to recognize the performers through repetitive exposure also began to follow my daily presence, setting out the signs to announce that we were filming (a legal necessity), setting up the camera, filming, and then disappearing after? And though we have largely left this aspect unacknowledged as a daily fact of the performances, it must have also lent some sort of notoriety to the event, very similar to the way the photographers in Hong Kong did when we performed Strangers on Tong Chong Street. Just the fact that a camera comes into the space says something about the import of what is about to happen.

It became a beacon too, I think, for many of the repeat visitors who would seek me out to find the "best" place from which to watch the performance. In fact, I often I had a small group that would form around me to watch from my vantage point. So, I was careful not to telegraph too much, to wait and allow the performers to infiltrate the space, invisibly, and then emerge on their own terms. It was tricky sometimes. On occasion, I would shoot my B-roll for the day – the ceiling, the floor, the audience, some highlight of the space – sometimes in a deliberate attempt to scatter the focus so people couldn't lock into where they thought the performance was going to occur. My little pre-performance dance became a daily ritual too, I guess.

But as a choreographer and a performer, I began to feel little pangs later in the process. I was always watching my own work and the work of my collaborators through a camera lens, and I just wanted to be able to lift my head and see the larger picture, to feel the total energy of the space. That did not happen much for me, except at night when setting the next day's dance, anticipating how the choices I made in the relatively empty space at night would transform during the lunch-hour frenzy. And sometimes I really missed the feeling of performing. Though, again as a choreographer, I was afforded a sweet relationship to the material that was unique to me alone, the ability to revisit each day's footage as I edited it for the blog.

In a way, I became intimate with each choreographer's work as I "re-choreographed" it for life on film. Owing to the different nature of the medium, I had to make certain choices and edits to ensure I captured the true spirit of the day's work. What feels one way in a live situation does not often translate into film; and therefore, it's vital that accommodations are made, that close-ups, pans, and clips to simultaneous actions occur in order to accurately convey the intentions of the live work. In those late hours of editing and posting to our blog, my thumbprint was suddenly on everything. It made for very long days, and a very long month, but I think that the documentation of this process as well as the ability to share the performances worldwide on a daily basis, has been a crucial part of the mission for this work: to get it out of the small spaces and open it up to the public, to make offerings of art, make it available, and surprise people with how much there is to actually see in our everyday lives and our everyday spaces.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Full-Time Artist, Full-Time Job

posted by Tara O'Con

The funny thing is, I thought my time at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden would be easy, breezy, and not too time consuming. A fun little extra gig on the side with my fellow Third Rail artists. It soon became clear that I was wrong. The immediate cause-and-effect nature of our performances led us into a sort of real-time art making process. Each day was full of new information from our responses, both personal and critical, to the ever-changing dynamic of the Winter Garden. This constant information feed manifested a rehearsal process like I have never engaged in before. Most often, I am involved with projects that focus on drawing out one set of ideas over a long period of time that culminates into a performance. However, for Undercurrents & Exchange, each day's experience was in some way folded in and immediately turned around for the thought process and motivations behind the creation of the next day's experience.

Thus, we entered into a delicate balance of a) of time management, planning ahead to allow adequate rehearsal time for each performance; and b) allowing the fresh sense of immediacy to infiltrate each performance in a way that energized the space with a genuinely new dance every day and yet directly derived from all of the previously accumulated experiences.
Hmm ,what does this way of working remind me of?
Ah ha! A job! How stimulating!

For the month of February, I worked as a full-time artist for one project, with a daily routine, a work schedule of performances, rehearsals, and meetings, making decisions based on both in-the moment scenarios and forecasted events. It was my full-time job, the set of responsibilities and agendas that I commuted daily into Manhattan from Brooklyn to carry out.

Why are such stable, concrete platforms for creativity and alternative routines of interpersonal exchange within society so few and far between? Even more curious, how come it took me a five weeks to figure out this was actually a new way for me to work, even though I do consider myself a full-time artist?

At Ease: Getting Comfortable On Site

posted by Marissa Nielsen-Pincus

Toward the end of our first week of Undercurrents & Exchange, I got a call from Zach one afternoon saying he had some bad news. I had, so far, only been involved in the first day’s performance where I, as a mermaid, had flopped though the palms and up the stairs to meet Zach, the businessman. That first day, we had met a chilly response from our audience, who seemed uncomfortable with not knowing the how, when, where and why of what we were doing.

When Zach called with the "bad news" and before he had a chance to share, it flashed through my mind that perhaps there had been too many complaints about us disturbing peoples' lunchtime, and Undercurrents and Exchange was being canceled. This was, of course, not the case. The problem was a logistical issue that was soon solved. But thinking back to that first week and my response to Zach’s call, I realize how far we came in the month, both in terms of our own comfort in the space, and the comfort of our audience, who accepted and enjoyed our presence in the Winter Garden by the end.

Even before we began performing, my visits to the WFC and our early rehearsals were filled with a tentativeness. We would arrive around 7pm, right as they dimmed the lights in the Winter Garden. We would look around, talk about the space, try out little bits of ideas and choreography on the stairs or on the benches, but it felt as if we were afraid of breaking something, or getting caught, or being seen, even though we had full permission to be there. It didn’t feel like a safe space to experiment in. It wasn’t ours yet.

One of those evenings when we were rehearsing for the first day’s performance, I put on the mermaid tail and began to flop though the palms. I was almost immediately stopped by a worried guard who told me, "It’s against the rules to roll on the floor. God forbid you hit something and crack your head open, or God forbid you trip someone else and they crack their head open.” Clearly, it wasn’t just us who were uncomfortable with our presence in the space.

But through the month of February, we DID become comfortable.

Maybe it was the amount of time we began spending there. . .

I agree with what Tara wrote in her earlier blog entry: the WFC is a little city of its own. Once you enter you don’t have to leave. You can eat lunch, get coffee, buy clothes, buy toys. There is a drug store, Japanese, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants, places to eat, sit, walk, flowers and chocolates to buy. There is really no reason to leave the complex. So, in our long days of rehearsing, performing, and more rehearsing, we began to live there, eat there, nap there, work there. We became inhabitants of the space, using it like everyone else who works there. We were no longer outsiders.

But in addition to the time spent there, something else shifted on the Friday of the first week.

Baby Jane Dexter, a well known Jazz singer, and her trio were scheduled to perform that day at lunchtime, and Zach and I were going to slip in during her set and dance to one of her songs. We rode down the escalators on opposite sides, ducked under the stantions, and met in the middle. We then danced in a roped-off area in front of the band, with a big audience seated in chairs in front of us, an audience that warmly applauded when we finished. It felt strangely successful, even though in many ways it was the opposite of what we had intended to do in this project, to have an audience seated in chairs set up for a "Performance" and to dance in a roped-off area. That is not our idea of performing in public spaces.

But our audience had been comfortable, and because they were comfortable, they enjoyed us. In our discussion afterwards, we were able to verbalize what now felt like our real job for the month. There are tactics we can use as performers that allow the audience to "understand" that we are there for their enjoyment, hooks that draw the audience to us and help to familiarize us to them... and that serves to make them comfortable with our presence and put them at ease. Our job was to experiment with different combinations of these hooks, to play with how few we could use without losing our audience, and to discover how many we needed to keep them traveling with us: loud music, creating recognizable characters, dressing the same daily, playing our images and video shorts in the space all day long, building choreographic themes that developed throughout the month, dancing in high traffic areas that did not allow us to be ignored, staging large groups that a were also impossible to ignore. These were a few of our discoveries.

By the end of the month, it felt like we could do whatever we wanted and not only get away with it but also be appreciated for what we were doing: rolling on the floor (and it didn’t seem to scare anyone); just walking around (and still be recognizable as performers); dancing without music (and we were still clearly "performing," which hadn’t gone so well our first week); dancing up and down the entire staircase (and forcing all the people to move out of our way without feeling that we were resented by our audience); and performing simple duets that could hold the attention of the entire space (people circled all the way around the entire balcony to watch us).

We reached out to our audience, an odd assembly of people who are not accustomed to seeing dance not on a formal stage. And they eventually followed us. And accepted our quirky offerings. And enjoyed them.

I am left with a feeling that somehow in sharing our vocabularies we ended up with a strange amalgamated language of corporate culture and contemporary dance/performance/ art/ spectacle that we all could speak and feel at ease with. And somehow, this language feels almost radical, like we snuck into the World Financial Center and sprinkled a little counter culture into this corporate world, and it stuck.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Undercurrents & Exchange: Week #4 Photos

posted by Third Rail Projects

Week #4 (Feb. 23-27, 2009) photos from Undercurrents & Exchange
Photos courtesy of arts>World Financial Center.