For the past twenty years, New York native Grady Gerbracht has been making the most of his daily commute, taking photographs of unique elements he finds on city streets and walls, what he refers to as “incidental” works of art. He can be moved by rust, an unusual splotch of color, a piece of tape, stains, cigarettes in mud, and unusual surface textures. He posts the photographs on Instagram and Facebook, numbering each one and identifying them with pertinent information as well as adding his own interpretation; for example, “#incidentalart No. 18” is described as “#incidentalart #wrap #sculpture #architecture #christo #jeanclaude #form #stretch #storefrontforartandarchitecture,” while “#incidentalart No. 26” features the labels “#incidentalart #found #painting #composition #color #texture #patina #pattern #duct tape #grid #surface #marks #abstract.” As he notes in his hashtags, various pieces are reminiscent of the work of Mark Rothko, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Larry Poons.
A teacher, curator, “sonic sculptor,” and “spontaneous composer,” Gerbracht, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two children, has previously created such projects as “viaDUCT,” “Commutes: NJ Transit Series,” and “Site & Sound,” involving photography, sound, performance, and intervention in relation to architectural space. He’s had solo exhibitions and been in group shows at Sculpture Center, Smack Mellon, the International Festival of Performance Art in Toronto, the Queens Museum, the Drawing Center, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, and the Anarchist Art Fair. His current solo exhibit, “#incidentalart,” consisting of twenty-six of his #incidentalart photographs, continues at Senaspace through November 6.
twi-ny: You’ve been taking these “incidental” pictures for twenty years. What got you started?
Grady Gerbracht: I have been doing this for a long time, so it’s hard to say when it began. There was not a landmark event or aha! moment which started it all. It was more of a gradual evolution of personal formal style in confluence with certain conceptual concerns. I think every artist has a particular aesthetic sensibility which is unique to them. Each of us is compelled to make certain kinds of marks or forms, or make certain kinds of pictures, which is how we can tell one artist’s hand from another. I am sure that my openness to aesthetic sensibilities that are not my own has been influenced by a lifetime of learning and teaching about art. To teach, one has to be familiar with art history in all its variety. One also has to be able to get inside the mind of other artists during critiques and studio visits in order to provide constructive criticism. Chance operations (as per John Cage and others) are of interest to me as well. It seems that all of these elements add up to my interest in finding and calling attention to things that look like art in my everyday surroundings.
twi-ny: Why did you decide to call the series “incidental”?
GG: I chose the term Incidental Art because it is the best way I can explain my interests. There are other terms being used to describe similar ideas, such as involuntary painting and found objects. I find this nomenclature too limiting. Though I deliberately selected the works in this show to be based on ideas of two-dimensional painting for the sake of simplicity, my concept of Incidental Art is broader than that. The next exhibition could easily be images of things that look like sculptures, or of found situations that look like performance art or happenings.
twi-ny: The photos in the show were mostly taken in New York City, with a few from Chicago as well. Have you documented other cities in your travels, or is there something unique about the streets in these two metropolises?
GG: Another conceptual strand that runs through my work is the idea of turning the “wasted time” of my daily commute into productive studio time by actively making art during my travels between home and day job workplace. I made a commitment to do just that years ago when I had a three-hour commute to my first teaching job and I noticed that I was spending more time commuting than I was actually teaching. I could explain this through Marxist critical theory (and I have in academic journals) but quite honestly, it is just a practical way to make the best use of my time and it allows me to express myself creatively while on the go. I live in Brooklyn and my office is in Manhattan, so the majority of the images are from these boroughs. Sometimes I travel for my work, so there are images from Chicago and New Orleans in this exhibition because I have traveled to those cities recently.
twi-ny: Photography has changed a lot since 1996. What kind of cameras have you used over the years? Has that had any impact on the photos you take?
GG: Technology has changed a lot. I have made photos that fit into the umbrella term of Incidental Art with everything from professional 35mm and medium-format film cameras and DSLRs to my iPhone. The current exhibition is called “#incidentalart” because all of the images were made with an iPhone and uploaded to @gradygerbracht on Instagram with the hashtag #incidentalart. All of the images were produced actual size for the maximum resolution possible on my phone — that is why they are 15" square. I wanted to be honest about what they are.
twi-ny: You post your photos on Instagram as well as Facebook, which have become repositories for amateur and professional photographers. Do you think that helps or hinders the concept of photography as art?
GG: Because of my commitment to make work during my commutes, I had been using the tools at hand to facilitate my process. I was not taking it very seriously, so I had no problem using the iPhone and Instagram feed. The images became very popular among social media friends and acquaintances, and many times people would ask when I was going to exhibit these images “IRL.” I was not planning to do it, but eventually it became clear that there was a demand so I decided to go ahead and show them.
I could have used fractal software to blow them up larger and look more like “contemporary art,” but I wanted to acknowledge what they are and where they came from. I did not want to stray too far from the immediacy of this pocket-sized studio technology. I still make pictures with my high-resolution DSLR, but that is not what this exhibit is about. The gallery space is relatively small and the venue is not a slick, commercial Chelsea warehouse-sized space, so it seemed appropriate to produce the images at this size for many reasons. I come from a tradition of conceptual art and institutional critique, so I can’t show anything without some consideration of context. I always think about it when I show my work; in fact, many of my projects make direct references to the spaces they are shown in.
twi-ny: Is there a kind of aha! moment when you come upon something that you want to photograph? Are you looking for something specific? For example, many of the photographs in the show share a visual theme of looking like textured paintings, with three-dimensional qualities.
GG: I shoot things I am attracted to, but I also try to shoot things that look like art that I would not make — some of the images in the current exhibition look like Rothko paintings and I like his work, but the one used on the invitation card [ed. note: see top of page] looks very much like a Larry Poons painting and I never really liked the overly worked gobs of paint in his work. The fact is that I saw it on the street while traveling for work in New Orleans and thought, Hey, that wall in the alley looks like a Poons painting, so I framed it that way and the rest is history. I have been doing this so long my kids have begun to stop me on the street and say things like, “Dad, do you want to take a picture of that?” when they see some kind of peeling paint or some rich texture. They know what kind of surfaces I am attracted to — mostly things that look like paintings.
twi-ny: You’ve helped install many art shows in a professional capacity; did that make it harder or easier to install your own work?
GG: It is never easy for the artist to install his or her own work. It helps to have others whose opinions you trust to help with editing and placement decisions. Physically it is just math, so that part is easy.
twi-ny: The mounted photographs are hanging in very specific groupings. What was the reasoning behind how you decided to group them?
GG: I was not planning on hanging them in groups, but when I laid them out in the gallery and started looking at them, considering which should go where, I noticed that certain ones complemented each other, so the final groupings evolved out of aesthetic resonance. I also wanted to show that they could be purchased in groups or in pairs because they are small and affordable works one could compose with them, like tiles.
Children’s book editor and author Jocelyn Davies is one of the most upbeat, happy people you’re ever likely to meet. She’s always quick with a smile and a note of encouragement, sharing her positivity and funny sense of humor with all around her. I’ve had the privilege of being around her for several years now, working with her at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she edits young adult novels in addition to having written the trilogy A Beautiful Dark, A Fractured Light, and A Radiant Sky. Her latest YA novel, The Odds of Lightning (Simon Pulse, September 20, $17.99), was just listed by BuzzFeed as number 6 on its list of “23 YA Books You Need to Read This Fall.” The story follows four high school friends who develop special powers when the roof they are standing on gets struck by lightning, but this is no mere update of the Fantastic Four; instead, their powers stem from common fears that are deep within them, and us. As she prepared for the September 20 book launch of The Odds of Lightning at McNally Jackson, Jocelyn took the time to answer some questions about writing and editing YA novels, facing one’s fears, and living it up in New York City, where she was born and raised.
twi-ny: You’ve never been struck by lightning yourself. Is it a particular fear of yours? Or maybe you have a special relationship with storms since you experienced a blizzard in Central Park when you were still in utero?
Jocelyn Davies: Ha! Maybe I do! Or maybe I have a special relationship to Central Park, since many scenes in the book take place there!
I’ve never been struck by lightning — but one time, I almost was! When I was a teenager, I was hiking in Colorado when a storm rolled in very suddenly. It was pouring, and there was intense lightning and thunder, and we were up on a mountain, which is not a good place to be during a thunder and lightning storm. The group I was with basically flew down the mountain to base camp as quickly as we could, with lightning flashing all around us. Memory and imagination may have intensified the experience in retrospect, but I remember dodging actual lightning bolts (just like the kids in The Odds of Lightning when they’re riding their Citi Bikes across town).
jd: I guess the appeal of lightning is that it has this sort of mythical, rare quality. It’s beautiful but dangerous, is a pretty regular occurrence in nature, but it’s rarer to be struck. There’s something magical about it, which made it the perfect catalyst to kick-start the adventure in this book. It takes place on a literal “dark and stormy night.”
twi-ny: About seven years ago, I was electrocuted in a thunderstorm at an outdoor concert, and the shock actually led to some psychological benefits, although no superpowers, like the four main characters in the book receive. If you could choose any superpower for yourself, what would it be?
jd: I want to hear more about these psychological benefits! I’ve given this a lot of thought, and right now I would want the ability to teleport anywhere in the blink of an eye. I could visit my friends across the country whenever I wanted, travel to all the places on my international bucket list — even the really far places like Australia and Japan — as easily as walking down the block, avoid the subway rush hour commute, and I’d never be late!
twi-ny: I’m not sure even teleportation could help you avoid a New York City rush hour. The superpowers the protagonists get focus on important problems that most teenagers go through, primarily involving self-identity and trying to find one’s place in the world. Do you relate to any one character more than the others? I’m thinking it might actually be Juliet.
jd: Well, I did study theater in high school and college, like Juliet (and Lu). But on some level I’ve been a bit of all four of the main characters, at various points in my life, and I have this hunch that a lot of readers might feel that way too. I think most people go through phases where they question who they are, hold back from going for what they really want, fear getting hurt, and feel invisible. Tiny, Lu, Nathaniel, and Will’s stories are specific to their unique characters, but they also have a somewhat universal quality.
twi-ny: What was your biggest fear in high school? What is it now?
jd: I remember feeling like everything was always changing, that you couldn’t really trust or rely on anything, that even if things were going great one day, the rug could be pulled out from you the next. In the book, Tiny loves this line from The Great Gatsby about “the unreality of reality,” and the rock of the world being founded securely on a fairy’s wing. And that’s how I felt a lot of the time, that tectonic plates were always shifting beneath me, that nothing would ever stay the way it was — and that was scary. I probably relate to Tiny more now — that feeling of wanting to be heard and understood.
twi-ny: That never does go away, does it. With the stormpocalypse approaching, the high school students decide to have a blowout party, even with the SATs scheduled for the next day. Early on, you ask the question, “If it were the end of the world, would you stay at home?” What would you do if you knew that the end of the world was coming?
jd: I’d definitely spend it with my family and friends! And maybe go skydiving or cliff jumping. I would not stay at home — I’d be having one last adventure.
twi-ny: That might be a bit too adventurous for me. During the day, you’re an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, for whom you’ve previously written a YA trilogy. Is it hard to balance the two very different skills, writing and editing?
jd: I’ve learned a lot about the process of crafting a novel from working with so many talented writers and editors over the years. I learn new skills and lessons all the time while editing other writers’ books, and I’ve learned things from my own editors that I pass on to writers I work with. It’s a pretty symbiotic relationship. Writing and editing are two very different parts of the brain — you can’t really use both at the same time. Writing is boundless — you do a lot of experimenting, letting your imagination run wild, trying new things and seeing what works. Editing is about reining in, taking all that raw material and helping shape it into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, consistent characters, satisfying emotional arc, logical world rules. But at the end of the day, they’re both working toward the same end goal.
twi-ny: If you ever have free time to read something for yourself, what types of genres do you turn to? Or are you pretty much wrapped up in YA all the time?
jd: Sometimes I feel like I eat, sleep, and breathe YA. At any given time, I’m immersed in the world of what I’m writing, am reading a submission or a work-in-progress manuscript, and am reading a recently released YA novel. When I go on vacation and I’m looking for something to take me out of the YA world for a little bit, I gravitate toward literary fiction, humorous essays, and, lately, a good page-turning literary thriller.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in New York, and you currently live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. New York City is like a character unto itself in The Odds of Lightning. What are some of your favorite parts of the city?
jd: A lot of them — like Central Park, and the American Museum of Natural History — are featured in the book. Ice skating at Wollman Rink in the middle of Central Park makes you feel like a character in a New York City romantic comedy. I love the rich historic feel of the Upper West Side, the West Village, brownstone Brooklyn — places where stories were taking place long before I was born. Driving across the Brooklyn Bridge in a taxi with the windows down fills me with love for New York, every time. It always makes me feel like I’m home.
twi-ny: The launch party for The Odds of Lightning is taking place September 20 at McNally Jackson. What’s on the agenda?
jd: I’ll be having a conversation with children’s book buyer Cristin Stickles, reading from The Odds of Lightning, signing books — and maybe there will be some fun surprises!
Multidimensional actress Sophia Anne Caruso might be just fourteen years old, but she already displays the confidence and demeanor of a seasoned pro — which she essentially is, having acted professionally nonstop for the last five years. Born and raised in Spokane and now living with her parents in New Jersey, Caruso came to New York for a project when she was eleven and decided to stay. In her brief but busy career, she has played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, in a production directed by Patty Duke, who originated the role on Broadway in 1959; starred as Birgitta in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! opposite Carrie Underwood, Christian Borle, and Audra McDonald; appeared at the Kennedy Center with Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, and Tiler Peck in the Susan Stroman-directed Little Dancer a musical about Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for his famous “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” painting; and played AnnaSophia Robb’s little sister in the Lifetime movie Jack of the Red Hearts.
Here in New York City, she earned a Lucille Lortel nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as a young virtual reality fantasy figure for men in The Nether and a Lortel nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical and an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for Lazarus, playing the Girl in the New York Theatre Workshop world premiere by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove. Currently she is on Broadway in a show that cannot be named, as a surprise character not listed in the Playbill and which cannot be mentioned in reviews. Sophia also just teamed with opera singer, ballet dancer, photographer, and musician Kenneth Edwards on a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the Elizabeth Street Garden. Homeschooled by her parents, Sophia likes ghost stories, has never been to a concert, and is hypercritical of herself, intent on mastering her craft. She is also charming, thoughtfully positive, and wise beyond her years; as she notes, “I was a morbid little child.” On a recent early weekday evening shortly before her call time, Sophia and I met in a Theater District hotel lounge and talked about vintage clothing, cast albums, stalkers, the freedom her parents give her, and how much she loves what she does.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in Spokane, Washington. Are you still partly based there?
Sophia Anne Caruso: My dad moved out here. He was still living in Spokane in our old house, but he finally sold it and moved here.
twi-ny: That must be great.
SAC: It’s a relief to have everyone together again. Long distance was hard for us, especially for me and my dad, because I’m a daddy’s girl.
twi-ny: What did you think of New York City when you first got here?
SAC: In Spokane, I got bored all the time, and it didn’t quite feel like home. But when I came here, I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t overwhelmed; it felt like home. Broadway, the theater area — the first show that I saw, when I was nine, was Billy Elliot, and I fell in love with theater. That’s when I knew, I want to move to New York and be on Broadway.
twi-ny: Around that time, in Seattle, you played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, directed by Patty Duke, who just passed away. What did you learn from her?
SAC: She gave me my very first real acting job; that’s when I fell in love with acting and I knew that I wanted to be an actress. Acting is my favorite thing to do, and she helped me realize that. She mentored me a little bit; at the time, I didn’t understand why she was sometimes harsh on me, but now, as an older me, I’m looking back, I’m thinking, that’s why. She taught me that I have to stay consistent, that when you’re doing a professional job, it’s to the centimeter. You have to be exact; it has to be perfect. She taught me that it’s not all fun and games, although a lot of it is. But it’s also my job.
twi-ny: Not to concentrate too much on death, but you were also in Lazarus, and while you were in the midst of the run, David Bowie died. What was that experience like?
SAC: I got to work with him directly; he came into rehearsals often, he gave me notes, we talked. I like to say that I knew him and that I collaborated with him, for sure. I was not aware of his illness; none of the cast was. His death came as a very big surprise to us, and the hard part, but also the good part, of the day after was that we were all together. We were recording our cast album, which was hard because our voices were in shock because of crying and the strain, but being there was bonding. Nothing would have been worse than staying home alone during that day, but we decided to do the cast album. We listened to the recording, and I think that there’s something so special about it.
twi-ny: In the show you sing “No Plan” and “Life on Mars.”
SAC: It’s an honor to sing his music. I’ve always been inspired by his music, and I’ve always loved it. My mom owned vintage stores, and she always had funky seventies stuff. She was always playing Bowie.
twi-ny: Your parents are clearly bringing you up with a certain amount of freedom to develop your own identity.
SAC: Yes, my family is sort of exceptional. My mom is not religious; she’s very free, she likes to travel. My dad is on the more right-wing side, but he has given me freedom to choose what I want, who hasn’t ever pushed me to go towards religion or anything else. They’ve really let me become who I am, who I want to be. They have let me have a lot of freedom, with my choices and my style. Like, I love vintage fashion, and maybe I don’t choose the most attractive clothes or what they would consider appropriate, but it’s me, and it’s what I love, and they support me. It’s a hard business to get through, and they have been there through everything. Nothing is better than having parents like that.
twi-ny: Regarding your choices, your last three plays in New York City were The Nether, about virtual reality and child abuse; Lazarus, in which you play a very complicated character who is no mere child; and now you’re on Broadway in a heavy play that we cannot mention by name because you play a surprise character. What draws you to those roles? And why do your parents let you do them? A lot of parents would say, “Uh-uh, no way.”
SAC: I personally think blondes make the best victims, in my opinion. [laughs] I have sort of become the go-to girl for those things, so they come to me. I chose to do The Nether because I think it’s a very important topic. I didn’t just do it because it’s edgy. I love that it was edgy and that it was out there, but what was most important to me was getting that message out there. If you look around [referring to other people in the lounge], he’s on a computer, he’s on his phone. There was this revealing moment: I was on the train, underground, and nobody was on their phone. We came aboveground, got service, and everybody got their phone out, and I was, like, “Oh my God, what has this world come to?” And that is what made me leap at The Nether. I was, like, I gotta do this show now.
twi-ny: You also played a scary part on Celebrity Ghost Stories.
SAC: I loved doing that! I thought it was so fun. They put me in these sort of seventies clothes, and they had this old haunted house in this very old neighborhood, and that was really fun for me. I try not to let the work affect me; I don’t think it does. I have a certain anxiety about it. Like with The Nether, a question that I ask myself now is, Did that inspire people to act those things, or did that prevent things? And that’s something that scares me as I get older; I think I didn’t have that problem as much when I was younger.
twi-ny: Have there been incidents?
SAC: Yeah, I’ve had stalkers.
twi-ny: Pre-Nether or post?
SAC: Both. I’ve had stalkers after The Sound of Music Live!, because that was very big, and I had a couple of strange stalkers after The Nether, but I ignore it. I just don’t respond to anything creepy and delete it immediately.
twi-ny: Does it affect your decision in what plays to do?
SAC: No, it doesn’t. That’s something that comes with being an actor or somebody who’s in the public eye. People become obsessed with your image, not who you are.
twi-ny: Did it scare you when it first happened?
SAC: I was never a sheltered kid, so it absolutely scared me a little bit. Because sheltered kids, they don’t know what happens, they don’t understand how bad the world is, and I always knew those things; my parents have always informed me on things. I watched the news as a kid, and I was never stupid; I knew how serious stalkers could be. And I now have people who protect me from that.
twi-ny: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut in a show where you’re not in the main Playbill and you’re not allowed to be mentioned in reviews?
SAC: Does it bug me?
twi-ny: Right. You can’t tell people what you’re doing.
SAC: It doesn’t bother me. I’m part of creating a great piece of art, and that’s all that really matters to me. And the fact that I get to go out on the stage and do something, that I’m in the theater. It’s just when I’m not in the theater that I’m miserable. When I’m not working, I’m miserable. But I’m honored to be working with fantastic actors. All that really matters to me is I’m part of telling an important story.
twi-ny: You posted a very interesting picture on Instagram recently in which you’re holding up a bunch of very adult plays that you were getting ready to read, including Equus, This Is Our Youth, and Killer Joe, and you even mentioned in the comments that Sarah Kane is your favorite playwright. Obviously, you’re drawn to this type of material.
SAC: Yes, I am drawn to it. People say that I have a dark sense of humor and I have deep thoughts, and I do, but I like to challenge my mind too. So Sarah Kane is something . . . At first, it takes me a minute to wrap my mind around it. When I finish reading the play, it’s one of those things where it makes me think as an actor. So I like to read those plays because I think it helps make me become a better actor. I don’t ever use them for auditions, but I do a couple of Sarah Kane monologues. . . . . For me, at least, I go to the theater to feel, not to be entertained all the time.
twi-ny: You did Little Dancer, about Degas, at the Kennedy Center. Did you become interested in his work at all, or is that separate?
SAC: When I was doing it, in the rehearsal room we always had prints of his pictures on the wall, and it really inspired the piece. There would be certain moments in the show where there would be a beat in the music and [director Susan Stroman] would say, “Hit the Degas pose.” So we would look at the dancers [in the paintings] and we would make that exact pose.
twi-ny: You’re fourteen, and you’ve already worked with Audra McDonald, Carrie Underwood, Michael C. Hall, Bernadette Peters, Famke Janssen, David Bowie, Susan Stroman, Ivo van Hove, Karen Ziemba, John Oliver, Anne Kauffman; that’s a pretty impressive list for anyone, but especially for a young teenager.
SAC: Age is just a number. I don’t really see myself as my age. I feel very special to have worked with them, but I think of them as equals; I don’t think of them as stars. I think of them as brilliant minds and things, but I don’t think much of it, to be frank, and I try not to make too much of it because then I psyche myself out and get all weird about it, and I get anxious when I’m around someone like that.
twi-ny: You can’t be a fan; you’re a colleague.
SAC: Yeah. That’s the thing that was hard for me with Michael Hall. I was such a fan, ’cause I watched his work on Dexter and Six Feet Under and I loved that stuff. I had so many questions to ask him, and I was ready to talk, because he inspires me as an actor, but I had to not picture him as Dexter anymore; I had to picture him as [his Lazarus character] Thomas Newton and Michael, my friend. I mean, that wasn’t really a struggle, but it was interesting to navigate through that.
twi-ny: What is it like working with van Hove?
SAC: One of my very favorite directors. He taught me this thing that I’ve used from then on, which was, the first day, you go in memorized. It’s so smart, too. Because then you can just focus on the acting and what you want to do. You don’t have to worry about holding a paper or looking down at your notes on the paper. That was one of my bad habits. [In the past] I would have all my notes on the paper and I would look at them. Between every scene I would be like, I have to remember this, I have to remember that. But on the first day of rehearsals [for Lazarus], I had my notes on all my papers, and Ivo goes, “You don’t need this,” and I never got my papers back.
twi-ny: He took them away from you?
SAC: Yeah. I got rid of the papers and he let my instincts fly and that was it.
twi-ny: What else is coming up?
SAC: I’m scheduled to do Runaways by Elizabeth Swados for Encores. I actually was looking through records today and I found this vinyl of the original cast album and I was like, “I need this!”
In our 2011 twi-ny talk with Janet Biggs, the Pennsylvania-born, Brooklyn-based video artist told us, “I am drawn to the ends of the earth. Locations that represent empty lands and blank spaces are ripe for interpretation. Even though these once unknown places have been mapped and surveyed, increased knowledge has not replaced my endless fantasies of discovery in these regions.” Biggs’s previous adventures have taken her to a sulfur mine in the Ijen volcano in East Java (A Step on the Sun), the Taklamakan desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (Point of No Return), a coal mine in the Arctic (Brightness All Around), and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (Vanishing Point). For her latest show, “within touching distance,” which has just been extended through February 20 at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in Chelsea, Biggs ventures into new territory, deep into the human brain while also turning the camera on herself. In the four-channel installation Can’t Find My Way Home, Biggs interlocks three separate narratives: Inspired by family members’ battles with Alzheimer’s disease, she follows a mineral collector at a gem exhibition, films University of Houston PhD candidate Mahshid Sadat Hosseini-Zare as she studies a rat’s brain in a lab, and hikes down into the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany, to see its remarkable crystal cave, where the formations resemble the plaque found in a brain with Alzheimer’s disease.
In the two-channel video Written on Wax, Biggs makes herself the subject as she participates in an experimental study in which she receives jolts of electricity while looking at quick clips from her videos, focusing extensively on her experiences with horses as well as such athletes as synchronized swimmers and wrestlers as she attempts to turn positive associations into negative ones. With Can’t Find My Way Home and Written on Wax, Biggs explores memory in intimate, poetic ways, facing recognizable, everyday fears with beauty and grace. For this latest twi-ny talk, the engaging, thoughtful, and funny Biggs discusses erasing remembrances, riding horses, Alzheimer’s disease, Charles Baudelaire, and where she’s going next while her husband and occasional cinematographer, Bob Cmar, weighs in on the risks they both sometimes take.
twi-ny: At one point during the gallery opening, you were being crowded by well-wishers as you stood in between the two video pieces, both of which feature you prominently. Is it difficult to watch yourself onscreen, especially in front of other people?
Janet Biggs: I am much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, but there comes a point in the process, especially during editing, where I stop being self-conscious. I don’t see the protagonist as me any longer and I can make decisions without worrying if the shot is flattering or not. It’s almost as if the piece takes over and I’m along for the ride. When I watch the work, I’m aware of the ideas behind it rather than my image . . . at least most of the time.
twi-ny: You’ve now appeared in several of your latest videos. In our 2011 twi-ny talk, you said that you appeared in In the Cold Edge for practical considerations. How did that change for Can’t Find My Way Home and Written on Wax?
JB: I was on an artist’s expedition in the high Arctic when filming the flare shot for In the Cold Edge. I was the only one certified to shoot a firearm so I had to make my first appearance in front of the camera.
Can’t Find My Way Home traces very specific memories of my family. Memory tracing became part of the conceptual underpinning as well as part of a physical exploration in this piece. I frequently mine my personal history as part of my process, but in a much more general way. With Can’t Find My Way Home it felt false to use an actor. It was essential that I document my personal journey.
My grandfather was an amateur mineral collector. Long past the time when he could recognize his children or other family members and friends, he could tell you detailed information about the samples in his collection . . . details like where they came from, specific extraction information, and their scientific names. I wanted to figuratively and at times literally place myself inside the minerals as a way of immersing myself in my grandfather’s experience, to physically inhabit his moments of presence in the sea of loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease.
As part of my research and production on Can’t Find My Way Home, I spent a lot of time with neuroscientists. I learned about new work being done on memory altering and erasure. Having just completed a project on a disease that strips memories, I was fascinated by the idea of voluntarily choosing to alter or erase a memory. I volunteered as a subject for a human study on altering and erasing memories and used some of the information I gained through the process as inspiration for Written on Wax.
Written on Wax was also too personal to ask someone else to undergo the process . . . especially as it involved electric shock to change a positive memory to a negative one.
twi-ny: What drove your decision to make Can’t Find My Way Home in three distinct sections and turn it into a four-channel installation?
JB: Can’t Find My Way Home exists as both a four-channel installation and as a single channel piece. [Only the installation is shown at Cristin Tierney Gallery.] I rarely create pieces that exist in multiple forms, but occasionally some subject matter demands that I look at it both in terms of an experiential and immersive installation, and also in terms of its emotional, intimate impact, better conveyed in a single-channel video. A minute detail, a small gesture can be as powerful as being surrounded by twenty tons of gigantic crystals!
The three distinct sections grew out of a desire to explore memories from my personal perspective, imagine them from my grandfather’s perspective, as well as try to understand them from a biological perspective.
Exploring the crystal cavern allowed me to feel as if I had stepped inside a geode. I decided on the Merkers crystal cavern in Germany for a number of reasons. It was definitely immersive, absolutely gorgeous and otherworldly, but there were some specific details that made me sure it was the right location. The shape of the cavern is a negative of the shape of the hippocampus, the location of memory within a brain. Also, the crystal formations had an uncanny similarity to the shape of amyloid proteins and tau tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
I also thought that the conditions in the cavern, the extreme heat and the need to filter particles in the air with a respirator, might challenge me physically and cause disorientation . . . some of the same sensations that my grandfather experienced as the disease progressed.
So, on one hand, I have this intense physical experience inside the cavern that alters my perceptions of things around me, which I juxtapose with the sterile, quantifiable, scientific methodology of a bio/chem lab.
Things like seizures, brain trauma, and Alzheimer’s disease all cause a hyperactive state in the brain. For my project, I filmed a University of Houston PhD candidate, Mahshid Sadat Hosseini-Zare, as she takes a disembodied brain from a rat that was bred for predisposition to seizures and places it under a high-powered microscope that can identify individual cells in the brain. She uses audio sensors and permeates the exterior membrane of two individual cells, induces a seizure, and records the sound of cells communicating in a hyperactive brain such as one with Alzheimer’s disease. I used both the visual footage of this process in my video and the recorded sound as part of the soundtrack for my piece.
The final component in Can’t Find My Way Home is footage of a mineral collector that I met at a gem and mineral exhibition in Denver. He ties the other two visual elements together by symbolizing a kind of presence, a sense of self, within the extremes . . . of loss, of a diagnosis like Alzheimer’s, of overwhelming and extreme physical conditions.
twi-ny: In some ways, Written on Wax is a melding of your past, present, and future, as you react to clips from your personal and professional life. Besides the general positive and negative reactions we see on your face onscreen, what else was going through your mind as you watched the clips? What kind of memories did they stir up?
JB: As I’ve mentioned, I was thinking about willingly altering or erasing memories when so many experience loss that is out of their control. I was also thinking about how we are remembered; the role memory plays in our individual senses of self, as well as cultural memory in relationship to past, present, and future. I was thinking about moments of intent and moments that are inadvertent; both can be personally and historically pivotal.
twi-ny: In the catalog to your “Echoes of the Unknown” show at the Blaffer Art Museum, Barbara Polla compares you to Baudelaire. What do you think of the comparison? Have you been directly or indirectly influenced by his work?
JB: Barbara Polla is a wonderful writer and I was honored and inspired by her comparison. Baudelaire was certainly someone who struggled with the complexities of individual survival, self-definition, and morality, never turning away from things hard to witness and always willing to confront the unknown . . . something I aspire to.
I have always said that the act of pointing my camera is political, whether at a sulfur miner working inside an active volcano, at someone struggling with an extreme diagnosis, or at the disappearing Arctic. While there is certainly an activist side to my projects, I judge their success by my ability to find poetry.
twi-ny: Many of your works feature men and women either performing dangerous actions and/or risking their health, and ultimately their lives, because of the type of job they do. What attracts you to these kinds of situations?
JB: I am attracted to extreme locations and situations, and to people who have found a way to exist and define a sense of self in the extreme. I didn’t originally intend for my work to address risk in terms of occupations. I originally looked at risk as an extreme athlete often does . . . a possible result of an action, but one well worth taking for the chance to excel at one’s given sport.
As my work developed, it began to focus on extreme landscapes and often included high-risk jobs within these landscapes. The stark, elemental, and otherworldly locations that draw me also often included sulfur dioxide fumes, frozen seas, methane gases, blinding salt particles, and molten lava. To hold a job in these landscapes can often mean unimaginable health risks.
twi-ny: What about your own health and safety?
JB: For me, “feet on the ground” filming can include experiences with a degree of risk, but I’m a tourist, a momentary witness of the risk taken by the people I focus on.
twi-ny: Bob shot all of the scenes in which you appear, including descending into the crystal caves in Germany with you. How was he as your photographer?
JB: Assisting me is no easy job. Bob has assisted me on some of my more extreme shoots, including riding camels for eleven hours a day in 120+ degrees across the Taklamakan desert of western China and filming inside an active volcano in Indonesia during an earthquake. He occasionally asks me why I can’t just make a project in the south of France.
I think he considers the crystal cave a fairly easy project even though he had the added pressure of being primary camera . . . It was only eight hundred meters down, twenty-six kilometers into the earth, and only around one hundred degrees.
twi-ny: Bob, what was the shooting like for you?
Bob Cmar: Shooting the footage for Can’t Find My Way Home was actually quite pleasant. We’ve dealt with far more difficult conditions — A Step on the Sun required a hike up a steep, tropical volcano — lugging backpacks filled with heavy equipment. Once inside the volcano, we’d shoot until almost asphyxiated. We alternated sleeping on the rim in gas masks with hiking back down to eat a bowl of rice at the one local guesthouse, wash it down with coffee (as we couldn’t trust local unboiled water), catch sleep, then start again in a few hours. Luckily, the rainy season began on our last day.
The crystal mine, on the other hand, is located near a small, pleasant resort town in the former East Germany. The shoot itself was tough — hot as hell, but once we got out, we were back in civilization and creature comfort. Janet always travels on a tight budget, but the hotel provided luxuries we don’t usually get on shoots — WiFi, color TV, and sit-down toilets. I also got to watch the Germans win the World Cup in a local strip club!
twi-ny: Do you ever worry about Janet when she goes off to these unique, often dangerous locations, or are you used to it by now?
BC: Do I worry? Of course, and with increased awareness, I probably worry now more than ever. Janet and I often talk about safety and risk. The thing is, once she gets a vision (“Filming motorcycles while hanging off a truck at one hundred mph!” “Armed salt miners in a war zone!” “Kayaking around icebergs to film polar bears!”), there is no stopping her. We both know the reality of risk. We’ve had close calls, she’s broken bones, and we’ve mourned the loss of other artists, people she’s filmed, and journalists who have pushed safety limits. However, we both know that life isn’t worth living without taking risks.
twi-ny: Janet, you’re an accomplished equestrian, but a while back you suffered a severe accident in a fall. Written on Wax includes new footage of you riding a horse standing up, learning equestrian vaulting. Was it easy to get back up on a horse like that?
JB: My accident actually occurred when I was on the ground, hand walking a horse, so getting back on wasn’t a problem. I’ve done quite a bit of riding since my accident (although it’s been about five years since the last time I sat on a horse). Standing on a horse, especially when it’s cantering, is a completely new proposition.
twi-ny: Would you say you were doing it primarily for the video, or for yourself, or is there no difference between the two for you?
JB: Passion, desire, fear, pleasure, pain, freedom, terror, success, and failure all coexist in my work as they do in life.
twi-ny: Where might you be going for your next piece?
JB: I recently filmed local Afar militia and Ethiopian Army soldiers as they patrolled Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea, part of the Afar Triangle region. The landscape is extremely harsh and volcanic, with daily temperatures hovering between 100 to 115 degrees, but also extremely beautiful and breathtakingly otherworldly. It was once named “the most unlivable place on the planet” by National Geographic magazine, so I was curious about the people who lived there and were defending a land that much of the planet thinks is unlivable.
I’m now hoping to travel to Eritrea and Djibouti. I want to witness the other sides of the borders that split the Afar Triangle.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 15-17, $25-$207 ($505 for PBR Elite Seats)
Professional bull rider Cooper Davis had quite a 2015. The Wharton, Texas, native turned twenty-one, had a son, got married, and, in October, became the first rookie since Jody Newberry in 2003 to win the World Finals, earning him a check for a quarter of a million dollars. Davis will be in New York City January 15-17 for the Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, when the best riders in the country will be battling bulls and the clock at the World’s Most Famous Arena for the tenth consecutive year. Started in 1992 by twenty bull riders from the rodeo circuit, the PBR has been growing ever since; in April 2015, it was acquired by entertainment, sports, and fashion heavyweight WME | IMG, which owns and produces such live events as the Miami Open tennis tournament, distributes more than 32,000 hours of sports programming each year, and represents such stars as Oprah Winfrey, Cam Newton, Ben Affleck, Adele, Wayne Gretzky, and Serena Williams. Davis recently took more than eight seconds — the time a competitor must stay atop a bull in order for the ride to qualify — to discuss his family, his weight conditioning, his favorite bulls, swimming with sharks, getting hazed as a rookie, and coming to New York for the first time in this exclusive twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: Congratulations on winning the World Finals event in Las Vegas. You surprised a lot of people with the victory; did you surprise yourself?
Cooper Davis: I don’t think I really surprised myself because I put a lot of hard work and dedication into preparing for that event. Since I started working out three months ago, that was my original goal — to win the World Finals. I didn’t expect to win an event before the World Finals, because I knew it would be a process getting my weight down and adjusting my riding to the new weight.
twi-ny: Yes, you recently dropped a lot of weight. What do you think your ideal weight is?
cd: Going into the finals I was 144; I think my ideal weight is 145–150 pounds.
twi-ny: What kind of diet are you on to maintain your conditioning?
cd: Two thousand calories a day — two thousand good calories, not fried chicken and burgers. Eating healthy and clean and continuing to go to the gym will be critical to my performance here on out.
twi-ny: You recently got married and have a baby boy. Does having a family change the way you approach bull riding? For example, how do you balance the desire to earn more money to support the family with the need to be safe and healthy for your wife and son? Or is it that you’re only twenty-one, so anything goes at this point?
cd: Bull riding is going to be a dangerous sport no matter if you have a family or not. You have to put that in the back of your mind — take one bull at a time and don’t put the pressure of providing for your family on yourself. You know, it does feel good though when you can provide for your family doing something that you love.
twi-ny: How did you get involved in professional bull riding? You played football and baseball in high school in Texas as well, but you started riding bulls when you were fourteen, is that right?
cd: Yes. I didn’t start riding until my sister started dating a guy (to whom she is now married, Clayton Foltyn) who rode bulls professionally. He even went to the PBR World Finals a couple of times. I looked up to him a lot and learned a lot from him. I have to give a lot of credit to him.
twi-ny: Does it get scarier or easier as time goes by?
cd: You have to learn how to deal with the pressure. When I’m out there, I don’t think a lot about the bull riding aspect of it. My mind is pretty blank when I nod [the signal for the gate to open and the ride to start]. I can sit on the back of the chutes beforehand and hang out and joke. I don’t get very emotional about it.
twi-ny: Nothing else is going through your mind that split second before you nod and the gate is opened?
cd: A lot of the time you can study a bull and try to figure out his patterns. However, I think the less you think about it, like I do, is better so you can react to him. He may not always follow the pattern that you study.
twi-ny: You’ve said that Black Betty is your favorite bull, all fifteen hundred pounds of him. What makes riding him so special?
cd: It was one of the first bulls that I got a 90-point score on. He was really showy. I like a few other bulls now, but he will always be one of my favorites. Any bull you can be 90 points on is going to be on the favorites list.
twi-ny: What is the experience of riding a bull like?
cd: I went swimming in Cancun over the summer with some whale sharks, and it was the same type of adrenaline rush. It’s like you’re looking right into the face of death sometimes, and I guess the closer to death you get, the more alive you feel.
twi-ny: Do you have any rituals you perform the day of an event?
cd: I will go to the gym and run two to three miles depending on how I feel. If I am sore, I will stretch and try to work it all out. I’ll then go to sports med and try to get to feeling the best I can. I am not very superstitious, though. A lot of guys won’t eat chicken beforehand, because you are what you eat!
twi-ny: When you’re not riding bulls, you’re a student. What are you studying?
cd: I don’t go to college anymore. I went for a semester and figured out that college was not for me at this point in my life. I didn’t want to waste my prime years of bull riding and then wake up years from now wondering what I could have done.
twi-ny: Might law be in your future, down the road?
cd: While I did want to be a lawyer when I was younger, now, however, I would go back for occupational therapy. I would like to work with special-needs children.
twi-ny: As a rookie on the PBR tour, is there any kind of hazing or teasing you get from the other riders?
cd: Some of the older guys like to pick a lot, like J. W. Harris. I’ve been around him a lot. He likes to joke and pick. One time I came into the locker room and my gear bag and rope and helmet were tied to the ceiling. There’s a lot of picking, but they do give you good advice, too. You just have to go with the joking stuff.
twi-ny: Does any of it change after winning such a big event as the World Finals?
cd: No. All of the guys like to pick around. And, I like to joke as well so I don’t think it matters if you’ve been there fifteen years or are a rookie — there’s a lot of picking going on.
twi-ny: The PBR will be celebrating its tenth anniversary at Madison Square Garden January 15–17. In general, MSG is more well known as being home to the Knicks and the Rangers, boxing and the circus, and the Grateful Dead and Billy Joel than country music, rodeos, and bull riding. Will this be your first time riding in New York City, or first time in NYC at all?
cd: It will be my first time in New York. I am really excited about it. It’s one of the events I’ve been looking forward to all season long. It will be neat to ride in MSG because it’s not something New Yorkers get to see every day, and it will be a different atmosphere for me, as well.
twi-ny: What do you expect from the fans?
cd: While I would expect they won’t be as familiar with the bull riding as fans in southern cities, they may actually enjoy it more because they’re not around bull riding as much.
twi-ny: While you’re here in the city, is there anything you’re looking forward to doing aside from competing, like seeing any specific sights?
cd: I am going to walk around Madison Square Garden and take in as much of it in as I can. I will probably only go there once a year, so I am going to try to see as much as I can.
ME & Mr. JONES: MY INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH DAVID BOWIE
The Slipper Room
167 Orchard St. between Orchard & Allen Sts.
Monday, November 16, $15-$20, 8:00
It’s a particularly good time to be a David Bowie fan. After a long hiatus, the Thin White Duke has been busy of late, releasing new albums, composing music for Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and even writing a television series theme song. That especially makes Raquel Cion happy. The New York songstress, whose alter egos include cabaret performer Cou-Cou Bijoux and a city librarian, included Bowie tunes in her previous one-woman show, Gilding the Lonely, but her latest work is dedicated exclusively to music by the artist formerly known as David Jones. In Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, Cion explores deeply personal aspects of her life through the lens of Bowie and his long career, from his days as Ziggy Stardust to his acting in films and onstage and ultimate transformation into an international icon. Wearing a series of glittering glam gowns that would make Iman proud, Cion tells stories and sings hits and deep cuts with a crack live band, all while projections of both her life and Bowie’s pop up behind her. Cion is taking the ever-evolving show, previously performed at Judson Church and the PIT Loft, to the Slipper Room on November 16. As she prepared for this latest iteration of Me & Mr. Jones, twi-ny talk returnee Cion discussed the making of the show, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and having her mother in the audience amid all the raunchy revelations.
twi-ny: You’ve performed Me & Mr. Jones at several venues in the past, including Judson Church and the PIT Loft. How has it evolved over time? For people who might have seen it before, how will it be adapted for the Slipper Room?
Raquel Cion: The response to the show has been amazing. The previous two shows were standing-room only and now at the Slipper Room, which is just such a beautiful venue, we have the room for our audience. Big, gorgeous high ceilings, it’s part club, part jewel-box proscenium with really good acoustics. The band is going to sound fantastic since there’s a great backline and sound system to support them. This band freakin’ rocks! We have Bill Gerstel on drums, Jeremy Bass on guitar, John Brodeur on bass, Chris DeAngelis on piano, and on vocals DM Salsberg and Matt Cleaver. They’re amazing. We can’t wait to fill that space. We’re gonna really be able to kick out the jams!
The projections by Dusty Childers and video edited by Jason Speenburgh will be much more visible since they’re above the band. Not to mention that my coat and gowns, designed by David Quinn, will look fab in the Slipper Room.
My wonderful director, Cynthia Cahill, and I have streamlined the script. I’ve added a bit of research I’ve been doing on the brain, how listening to music affects us and our limbic system, which is the neurological seat of love in the brain. I feel that Bowie has very distinct neurological pathways in me.
At the PIT Loft we did a live request where the audience called out a song and me and our former bassist, Keith Hartell, played it on acoustic guitar. Since this venue is bigger and we want things to be fair(ish), we’ll be giving out ballots with seven images of Bowie from different eras (my director reined me in and kept me to seven), so each audience member will choose their favorite era. The seven choices cover eras that we don’t cover in the show. We’ll be doing an encore from the time/album that has the most votes for an encore. Majority rules. Maybe we can do the second and third or more runners-up if they’ll let me. The first time I did the show at Judson Arts Wednesdays’ Open Swim we toyed with the idea of having the audience call out Bowie songs and having me sing a little bit of said songs acapella. We ended up not doing it because it felt a little like a parlor trick. But, hey, if anyone wants to spend some time with me, I’ll gladly turn that DB catalog trick for you.
twi-ny: The subtitle of your show is My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, and you indeed share some very intimate details about your personal life. Is that difficult for you, or is it more of a liberating experience? You really get into the whole sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll thing; what was it like to perform it in front of your mother and other relatives at the PIT Loft?
RC: Is it difficult or is it a liberating experience? My answer is yes. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I love Bowie. I wanted this show to be based in that “soul love” for Bowie, but I really wanted to dive in and look at why we love who we love, the lengths we go to connect with that entity, whether they are someone who we are sleeping with or someone who we have relied on as our emotional touchstone for decades. My last show, Gilding the Lonely at Joe’s Pub, was about loneliness, and I wanted to examine and embrace another emotion. Maybe a more silver-lined emotion, and I thought “love.” When I think of what or who I love, who has been my most devoted, chosen relationship, I think of David Bowie. As I say in the show, “His is the voice I have heard the most in my lifetime.” Of course, when I began working on creating the show, what showed up but loneliness. Damned if you do. . . .
I’m actually a pretty private person. So revealing things about myself that are maybe a bit messy is difficult. It’s a risk to own your stuff, your quirks, your heartache, because we’re all in that together, “not alone” and “wonderful.” Having the structure of the script, the incredible songs, the presence of the band, it all creates such a safe space. I love performing this show; it is an absolute joy. Really revealing the depth of my love for Bowie and how it reverberates throughout my life is indeed liberating and difficult.
In terms of having my family there, well, they’re somewhat used to the fact that I’ll say some things that will make them a bit uncomfortable, but they also know that seeing me perform is where they’ll most likely find out that information. My family can handle it. They’ve known me a long while. My mom, she takes pride in both my and my sister’s creative work. Hell, we grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and she has one daughter who sings Balkan music for a living and me. I think she enjoys her moment in the show where I talk about her dropping me off at gay bars as a teenager. Oh, she’ll be there, along with lots of the mishpucha next Monday. Hopefully she doesn’t show up during tech, though.
twi-ny: There’s been a flurry of Bowie activity recent, with the surprise release of The Next Day in 2013, the new song “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” in 2014, Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop opening later this month, and his new album, Blackstar, due in January. How has all of this impacted your intimate relationship with Mr. Jones, both personally and in your show?
RC: Isn’t it great to be amidst a flurry of Bowie activity? There’s a section in my show about when he released “Where Are We Now?” and The Next Day (though I don’t name the album) in 2013. There was something in the last incarnation of the show about “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” but they didn’t make this draft’s cut. There is, of course, a bit about Lazarus and the new single and Blackstar. Oh, I have so much to say.
Let’s start with Lazarus. I have been losing my fucking mind over this since it was announced in April. New York Theatre Workshop is probably my favorite theater in New York. Ivo Van Hove is my favorite director. Enda Walsh is an incredible playwright, and, well, it’s Bowie. New music from him. Really, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the announcement. They’re rehearsing now. He’s going to rehearsal. I’m beyond excited about it, and at the same time my heart is aching because, well, he’s right there. Right there. Doing the kind of work I love. I would give anything to be in that rehearsal room. Anything. Uh, so, yeah, that’s been my state of mind since April on that. I’m going to the show five times. And, uh, I don’t think five times is enough. I feel like I have to learn that show. Every piece of it.
I really could go on and on about the new music, which I really love. What I think is fascinating, though, about all of this is how brilliantly Bowie claimed his place in the psyches of his die-hard fans, new generations of fans and the media. He’s doing all of this on his own terms, creating because he is an artist and it’s ontologically necessary for him to create. I mean, there were whispers about new music coming over that near-decade of radio silence from him but two years of recording without it being leaked. It’s astounding in this age of constant “This is what I’m doing, eating, seeing . . . right now.” It’s a testament to the longevity of his brilliance and his relevance. He’s speaking only through his art. Not giving interviews. Not touring. We get the sound and vision through video, incredible short films he’s been making — hell, has always made — and the music. That’s it. He’s above the fray, and his work is unexpected. He’s working in different genres. Continually pushing boundaries. Please, put any of your readers in touch with me if they want to discuss any of the albums in detail. For real, I’d love to do that.
Obviously, I can’t wait for the new single. I’ve YouTubed the hell out of The Last Panthers opening credits to learn that song. Word on the street is the new album and single are gonna blow our minds. I’m all in.
Oh, you didn’t mention the song being written for the new SpongeBob SquarePants musical on Broadway. That’s happening too!
twi-ny: Yes, I did indeed skip that one. At the PIT Loft, you encouraged the audience to take photos and video. Will you be doing that again at the Slipper Room? Do you not find that distracting?
RC: I describe this show as a play disguised as a Bowie tribute show. Since it’s more toward cabaret or a tribute show, the phones come out anyway, so might as well embrace it. It’s kind of the way of the world right now and, well, it actually helps get the word out for the show. We do ask that the phone is silenced. Believe me, if I get distracted by someone’s phone, the whole audience will know about it.
twi-ny: Over the course of your love affair with Bowie, are there some songs you might have not liked at first but have since rediscovered, and are there others that you perhaps have grown tired of?
RC: Tired of, not really. Songs I’m not fond of, yes. This is another thing I’ve been investigating within this show. Why him? I get sick of pretty much everything but Bowie. I have an endless capacity for all things David. There are eras I don’t revisit much but I know all the music within those eras. I somehow always find a way in. It can be a certain melody, a quality of his voice within a song or even a note, a musical phrase or lyric. Once I’m in, I’m in. But I will say, as an example, “Never Let Me Down” let us all down. Hell, he’ll even say that.
twi-ny: When you’re not listening to Bowie, who are you listening to?
RC: I have very diverse taste in music. Lately I’m listening to a lot of Gladys Knight, Paul Weller, Dwight Yoakam, Lizz Wright, Prince — the list goes on and on. My musical choices are very driven by my mood and, well, I have Bowie for all of my moods, so he’s pervasive.
twi-ny: When you’re not onstage performing, you’re a librarian. Do you wear glitter at work?
RC: Ha! Once you’re glittered, it never ever fully goes away. Just ask any of my ex-boyfriends. I do love me some glitter, and there’s always a little residue.
Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, composer, and producer Roarke Menzies knows about collaboration. For the past ten years, Menzies has been working with dancers, storytellers, choreographers, visual artists, and film directors, creating soundscapes and scores primarily using electronics, vocals, and his body. He’s been involved in projects at the Kitchen, the New Museum, Jacob’s Pillow, Abrons Arts Center, the Bushwick Starr, and the Vancouver Biennale in addition to composing music for a VICE web pilot and an award-winning educational app for children. But now Menzies, a self-described “sonic explorer,” is entering new territory, putting himself front and center with the release of his debut album, Shapes (October 13, Coup de Glotte). The record features six soundscapes, running in length from 2:11 (“Man in the Myler”) to 13:58 (“Music for Spatial Shift”), that take listeners on an ethereal journey through space and time, from the gentle, lilting “Those Pretty Lights” to the echoing, wind-strewn “Pulse Inflections.” Earlier this year, we did a twi-ny talk with Menzies and Rome about their show Philadelphia and Other Stories. Now we go it alone with Menzies, as he discusses sonic phenomena and the material world, his rather heady reading list, Aboriginal artist Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and more.
twi-ny: We first met five years ago, when artist Nuala Clarke invited us, along with several others, to perform at her art opening, “You Delight Me,” on Shelter Island. How’s life been treating you since then?
Roarke Menzies: Yeah, that was a lovely event. Nuala contacted me out of the blue. We’d never met before. I was working on some music with my brother in LA and got an email from her asking me to participate. I think she’d found something of mine online.
I’ve been so lucky, in a lot of ways. I get approached to work on a lot of compelling projects, and between that and my other jobs [in performing arts management] I’m able to earn enough to support myself and pursue creative endeavors.
twi-ny: I’m really enjoying your debut album, Shapes, which takes listeners on a fascinating sonic journey. You wrote and play all the music as well as handle the production, recording, and mixing. How long did it take you to put it all together?
RM: That’s awesome. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. These are works that have developed slowly over the past several years. The earliest recorded material on there is from late 2009 and has been revisited and reworked a number of times. I’ve put a lot of thought and care into these tracks. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely a labor of love.
twi-ny: You describe Shapes as both creating space and filling it up. Can you expand on that a little?
RM: I’m actually referring not just to the sounds on Shapes but to sound in general, and how we interpret sound phenomena in relation to our sense of space.
If you’re on an underground subway platform, every sound you hear reverberates in ways that inform your sense of that space. Even without visual cues, your mind can put together the cavernous space you’re in. That same effect can be simulated artificially using reverb. Sound designers and engineers make practical use of it all the time, in film or radio, for instance, creating the sense of size or the characteristics of the space you’re “in” using only sound. But that space doesn’t actually exist, at least not in the way “existence” is generally understood. It’s a fiction fabricated using particular signs and signals that your mind interprets as a space.
In other instances, the sheer “density,” “mass” or “volume” of a sound can create this feeling that it’s there in front of you — “a sound filled the room” — like you could just reach out and touch it in the same way you can touch a glass of whiskey or a person on the cheek. But sound doesn’t really behave that way either.
One of the curious aspects in working with sound as a material is that it’s not, in fact, material. And yet it seems to have this power to at times convince us of its materiality, even if just temporarily, and to completely change our sense of the material world around us. I’m interested in how those processes play out.
twi-ny: Where do you get your sonic inspirations? I have a feeling that when you traverse the city, you listen to all the cacophony and noise in a different way than the rest of us, gathering ideas for your work.
RM: I’m definitely a sound-obsessed person, and I’m often mesmerized and perplexed by the city’s sound culture. I do a lot of listening and a lot of reading. I find reading fuels my creative life like nothing else, whether articles, essays, books, blog posts, Wikipedia entries. Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 is a recent favorite, and I have a long reading list that I’m slowly working through of texts related to performance, sound and technocultural studies. I think the next will be Brandon LaBelle’s Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.
twi-ny: That’s some heavy stuff. Shapes includes a tribute to the great La Monte Young. Who are some of your other musical influences?
RM: I feel like my influences are all over the place — Arvo Pärt, Portishead, Fluxus, Sam Cooke’s gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s soundtrack for Akira, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the choral works of Morten Lauridsen, the rugged lands of early RZA, the pop masterpieces of Max Martin, the subterranean cityscapes of Burial, the codeine-soaked tapescapes of DJ Screw, the Courvoisier-soaked jiggyscapes of early 2000s Neptunes, etc. I’m a huge music appreciator.
twi-ny: Who do you listen to on your iPod?
RM: All that being said, there’s really not a lot of it on my iPhone. Other than work-related stuff and that U2 album we were all force-fed (I never bothered to listen to or erase it), all I’ve got on there at the moment is Cocteau Twins, Arthur Russell, Nico Muhly, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Blake, a vintage Soweto compilation, and a few mixes from the UK music publication The Wire.
twi-ny: What about seeing live music?
RM: Recent highlights that come to mind include Tyondai Braxton’s new Hive project at the Kitchen, FKA Twigs’ Congregata for Red Bull Music Academy, a riveting set from Pharmakon at St. Vitus, the experimental synth duo Long Distance Poison at Pioneer Works, and an improvised set from saxophonist Colin Stetson, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Greg Fox (of Zs) at Outpost.
twi-ny: You also compose scores and soundscapes for Paul Rome’s story presentations, Jack Ferver’s multidisciplinary performances, and such choreographers as Adam Barruch and Meredith Glisson. How does your creative process differ for such diverse projects, or do you approach them all the same?
RM: My approach can be radically different, depending on the project and the working styles of the people involved. I try to learn the vocabulary and codes — “When they say this, they mean this” — then develop an understanding for what will best support the work.
twi-ny: You’ll be celebrating the release of your debut album, Shapes, with a party on October 10 at Bunna Cafe in Brooklyn, and you’ll be joined by Rome, Katie Mullins, and David Kammerer. What do you have planned for the event?
RM: I’m planning a very warm, intimate event. Bunna’s a great Ethiopian restaurant with a small stage. It’s a favorite spot of mine. We’ll likely open the evening with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Then Paul will read a new story he’s been working on, David and Katie will each play a few new songs of theirs, and I’ll perform a short solo set. The performances will be relatively brief since the focus is really to celebrate with friends.
I actually have a really exciting last-minute addition to the night’s festivities. The Ghanaian xylophone virtuoso SK Kakraba is going to come to Bunna after his show at Bossa Nova Civic Club for an informal late night solo set. I have to thank my good friend Mike Visser (of Imaginary Tricks) for arranging that one. It's going to be a really special night.
twi-ny: What do you do when you take a break from music, if you ever take breaks from music?
RM: I definitely take lots of breaks. When I’m not at work or focusing on a specific project, I don’t like to be holed up in my studio for no reason. I like to get out and see things, or spend time with friends and loved ones.
I recently saw an incredible painting show at Salon 94 on the Bowery. It’s the first solo show in the US by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, who along with his family was living nomadically until they were “discovered” in the ’80s. [Ed. note: The show, “Maparntjarra,” continues at Salon 94 through October 24.] Apparently this guy is revered as an important leader and healer among Australian tribes and is also considered one of the most important innovators in contemporary indigenous art from Australia. All I can say is it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had at a painting show, incredibly inspiring.