STAIRWAY TO STARDOM
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
September 12-23, $18-$45, 8:30
Before there was Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent there was Stairway to Stardom, a no-budget New York City public access television show in which men, women, and children performed with big dreams in their heads, hoping to make it big. Writer, director, choreographer, performer, and “global paradigm architect” Amanda Szeglowski explores the American dream of reaching for fame and fortune in the vastly entertaining and ridiculously clever multimedia production Stairway to Stardom, which opened at HERE on September 12. The sixty-minute show features Szeglowski and her cakeface company, Ali Castro, Jade Daugherty, Ayesha Jordan, and Nola Sporn Smith, in glittery silver-sequined gowns and high heels singing, dancing, and sharing their successes and failures, their hopes and desires with a dry, wry mechanical delivery deliciously at odds with the spectacular longing for stardom that lies beneath.
The narrative follows the arc of a contemporary U.S. life in the arts, from what creative kids want to be when they grow up and what their parents expect of them to discovering their unique talent and then working odd jobs as they strive for artistic (and maybe even financial) success while also experiencing regrets. The performers are joined by Prism House — Brian Wenner and Matt O’Hare — who provide live video and music mixing, featuring excerpts from the original public access program. Szeglowski, who is also HERE’s marketing director, formed the all-female cakeface in 2008; their previous “linguistic performance art” projects include Don’t Call Me McNeill., Alpha Pups, and Harold, I Hate You. The new show continues through September 23; there will be a talkback following the September 20 performance, and September 15 and 19 are ’80s nights, in which the audience is encouraged to dress with their best retro flair. The show begins at 8:30, but HERE will be projecting clips from the original Stairway to Stardom in the lounge beginning at 7:00 every evening. Shortly after opening night, which kicked off HERE’s twenty-fifth anniversary season, Szeglowski found time to answer some questions about her own career trajectory.
twi-ny: As you were preparing for the opening of Stairway to Stardom, your native Florida — you went to high school in Tampa and college at USF — was being battered by Hurricane Irma. What was that experience like, balancing the two? Are your friends and family safe?
amanda szeglowski: Yes, thank you for asking. My family lives in West Tampa, so we were all watching the storm very closely. It was an incredibly stressful time to be in tech rehearsals all day and night approaching the culmination of a show I’ve been building for three years while this monster of a storm was creeping towards my family. I was checking in on them every chance I got and FaceTiming to see all the prep they were doing to their houses, going over the evacuation plans. . . . Being a part of that process helped me feel like I was with them. But growing up in Florida and having been through many hurricanes actually gave me some comfort as well. We know how to prepare and we take it seriously. That’s not to say that wine isn’t the first thing in the hurricane supply shopping cart — it is. But I felt better knowing this wasn’t my family’s first rodeo; they knew exactly what to do.
twi-ny: Were you ever a fan of such programs as Star Search, American Idol, The Voice, or America’s Got Talent?
as: I loved watching Star Search as a kid. As I got older and the shows got more scripted I lost interest. I think Idol changed the game by making the auditions part of the show, and then it became a gimmick of who could be the most outrageous. But I will occasionally watch clips from these shows when my parents call me and insist that they just saw the greatest thing.
twi-ny: What is it about the public access show that spurred your creative juices? You treat it with respect without getting overly kitschy or mean-spirited.
as: The TV show was so raw — so vulnerable. These weren’t people trying to become a character on a reality show; these were people really trying to make it. I respect that. There wasn’t any competitive aspect to the TV show; they were just performing and hoping to be seen. Sure, when you see clips from the TV show there are moments that you want to laugh, but I spent hours and hours interviewing people about their lives for my script, and a lot of it was pretty damn sad. At least these people were out there trying. I wanted to honor that drive and explore what happens to all of us along the way, because I think that fire is there for almost everyone in the beginning.
twi-ny: What kind of talent does someone have to display to become a member of cakeface? When someone is auditioning for you, are you more like Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, or Miley Cyrus?
as: HAHAHA. I think I’m a Simon and Paula hybrid. I’m Simon because I have a crystal-clear vision of what I want, and if you don’t fit, I am not going to beat around the bush. I never want to waste anyone’s time. But Paula has a way of finding a spark in people and being respectful of their contributions, and I try to always do that. I’ve received many post-audition emails over the years from people that I didn’t hire saying the experience was really special. I’m proud of that.
twi-ny: Is anyone associated with the public access show still around? Did you have to go through any kind of permissions process to use some of the original footage?
as: The show was public access. But I did get the tapes directly from someone who was given them by the host of the show, Frank Masi, before he died. [Ed. note: Masi passed away in 2013 at the age of eighty-seven; you can watch a YouTube tribute to him and the show here.]
twi-ny: How amazing was it to perform in such great costumes, as well as high heels?
as: The costumes, which are by Oana Botez, are absolutely fantastic. It’s such a blast being able to sparkle head to toe on a downtown stage — very atypical for the scene. The heels are challenging, but anything else with those costumes would be absurd, right? And the performers are all pros, so they make it work. I wanted an over-the-top glamorous look that I could juxtapose with the stark reality of our words. Oana definitely achieved that.
twi-ny: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
as: The opening text, which I call a monologue (even though it’s delivered by five voices), is basically a run-on sentence ticking off all of my childhood dreams. It includes a mermaid, grocery store checkout clerk, princess, trapeze artist, restaurateur, and movie star. Of course, I always wanted to be a dancer, but that’s obvious, and our unfulfilled dreams are so much more interesting.
twi-ny: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
as: I’ve had a slew of them. The story in the show about working in the housewares department at Burdines was my life at age fifteen. I had no idea how to sell kitchen appliances and would literally walk away from customers and kick back in the stock room. That was pretty awful. There’s another story about a boss with revolting coffee breath; that was my first job in NYC. But another horrific experience was telemarketing. In high school I worked at a call center selling satellite broadcasting to elderly people in rural areas. I had to convince them they needed HBO. It was super sleazy, plus I got sexually harassed by my boss. I’d say fifteen was not a banner year for my career trajectory.
twi-ny: What would you like audiences to take away from the show?
as: I’d like them to be reminded of our often-naive notions of success and talent, reflect on the choices they’ve made, and leave with a glimmer of hope.
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS: THE BRAIN PIECE
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday, June 28, gala benefit $200, 7:30
June 29 - July 1, $25-$35, 7:00 & 9:00
New York-based director, choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece, premiering at New York Live Arts June 28 – July 1, continues her exploration of our internal organs, following on her extraordinary 2013 piece, 4Chambers, an immersive, multimedia, interactive journey inside the human heart. Performed by Oberfelder, Mary Madsen, Pierre Guilbault, and Hannah Wendel along with ten dancer docents, The Brain Piece is divided into two parts, “Mind Matters / Head Space” and “World of Brain,” combining film, visual art, installation, dance, music, and text for an audience limited to 72 members. The cerebral, multimedia piece includes her award-winning short film Dance of the Neurons, made with Eric Siegel, which turns firing synapses into a colorful, joyous dance. Oberfelder, a travel and yoga enthusiast and former lead singer of the punk band the Bagdads, founded Jody Oberfelder Projects in 1989 and has previously presented such works as The Titles Comes Last, Moved, Re:Dress, and Throb. The charming, gregarious, always energetic creator took a break from rehearsals to tell twi-ny all about The Brain Piece.
twi-ny: We recently bumped into each other at the Whitney Biennial, where you were serving as a docent for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” an installation of living trees paired with specific objects, one of which you contributed. As museumgoers made their way through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of improvisatory dance with nature, especially with you there. What was that experience like?
jody oberfelder: We’re actually called caregivers. The people who pass through sometimes don’t know we’re positioned as such as we, as you describe, do this improvisatory dance with people in conversation. The show has been up since March and we’ve seen the trees go from bare, to blossom, to leafing, and now they can’t wait to get planted outside. Many people have passed through. Asad’s work balances organic, inorganic, and human all in the space. Having a person in the room is as important as the trees and the caregiver’s placed object. I’m learning that conversation is often this invisible thread that links things together in the present.
twi-ny: Your work is very scientific; were you interested in science when you were a kid?
jo: I would not say I grew up with a scientific bent. I had a fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Dowd, who explained the digestive system with panache (“...and out the other end” — we were all snickering). I’ve come to science through the body, and through a curiosity about what makes us alive. There is a beautiful ecosystem within us and a giant cosmos outside of us. Did you ever see that film by Charles and Ray Eames — Powers of Ten — it’s all about zooming out and zooming in. That, to me, is what science is about. Things can be very specific and very vast.
twi-ny: Yes, Powers of Ten is quite eye-opening. How did you find/choose your science collaborators — Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, and Ed Lein — and what did each one bring to The Brain Piece?
Word of mouth.
Cecilia is a dancer and a neuroscientist. She met one of my dancers, Mary Madsen, at a party. I loved talking with her from the very beginning. The thing she said, “The brain is everywhere in the body,” totally clicked with my premise of dancers illuminating brain life.
Wendy Suzuki, who helped illuminate the brain-body connection for me, introduced Wei Ji to me. Wei Ji has been a great collaborator. He comes to rehearsals to “fact check” and advise. He’s in Dance of the Neurons. I audited his class at NYU on illusion. We did a combo lecture / performance in Amsterdam.
Another neuroscientist introduced Ed Lein to me: Gary Marcus. My company manager at the time, Clare Cook, was giving him private Pilates lessons. Gary and I had several conversations, which culminated in him saying, “You know, you should meet Ed from the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He specializes in the biology of neurons.” Ed and I had a back and forth on a kind of Skype sketchpad, and he drew little pictures of how neurons are formed that eventually became the literal storyboard for Dance of the Neurons. I embellished, of course, and played with all the ways neurons “dance” and form synaptic connection. I’m most grateful to these scientists, who are also artists.
twi-ny: Without giving too much away, how will the physical space of New York Live Arts come into play? Only the second half will take place in the theater on a proscenium stage, correct?
jo: It’s my hope that there really is no separation between the sections, that the more experience-based portions of the work continue to inform the world of the brain in the theater. There are nine films in part two. When you go to movies, you don’t question that the actors are not that big. I think the problem with live theater is that we’re in a long shot for too long. I’m creating an atmosphere of a giant brain with moving parts. I think this is the nature of brain plasticity: zoom in for close-ups, see what the alignment of neurons are doing at this time, how we’re constantly in a perceptual loop.
twi-ny: 4Chambers involved a significant amount of interaction, at one point bringing the audience into physical contact with the dancers. Will there be anything similar in The Brain Piece?
jo: You’ll see.
twi-ny: Good answer. I only recently learned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein actually removed his brain and brought it home to study. What is the most unusual thing you learned about the brain while making this piece?
jo: That the brain is a noisy place and we’re constantly trying to figure things out and make sense of the world. And that our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections: That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. And dancers are the perfect vehicles to convey this movement.
twi-ny: How have the two works brought the heart and the mind together for you?
jo: The heart leads to the mind. When working on 4Chambers, I interviewed Wendy, who talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how all the way down from our brains our hearts operate. We feel our hearts, but it’s triggered by the mind. You know how what your brain is doing by what your heart is doing, and vice versa. “I can put my hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat, but if I put my hand on your skull, I can’t feel your thoughts.”
twi-ny: Regarding Dance of the Neurons, your choreography has always been very cinematic, and The Brain Piece includes that short film, which has been garnering prizes at festivals. How do you see the two disciplines merging in your work?
jo: Thank you. Someone at a festival said I was a filmic choreographer. I like that. I’m pretty visual. Like a filmmaker, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and hidden narrative. I use a lot of improvisation around ideas and look for dancers who can take the ball and run with it. I like to think that if I give the performers imaginative tasks, the content will form, and it’s my job as a director and choreographer to prepare for a rehearsal with a loose storyboard of possibilities, then go deeply inside the physical investigation for the interaction with audience members, the films, and the onstage content. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right.
I worked with a wonderful dramaturg this time around: Jessica Applebaum. The piece has had many renderings. She helped me not be afraid of the complexity of the subject matter and to go forward making. Details and big picture always in mind. Jessica has also left me a lot of space these last months to figure it out on my own. Today our neuroscientist, Wei Ji, was there to see me finish the finale in our last moments of our last rehearsal!
I love it now. I’m even surprised by it.
twi-ny: I’m very much looking forward to being surprised by it as well. This might be an obvious closing question, but now with the heart and the brain covered, do you anticipate continuing to explore the mind-body connection with different organs as the focus?
jo: The sex organs will probably be combined with the guts. Like when you feel something in your gut. Intuition. Power.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 6-8, $26-$208 ($506 for PBR Elite Seats)
In her introduction to the 1931 book Family Fun: Games and Good Times for Children and Parents, Mabel Travis Wood wrote, “The family that plays together stays together.” The Byrnes have taken that to a whole new level, a kind of Flying Wallendas except trying to maintain their balance on bulls instead of the high wire (although, as the above photo shows, they do occasionally soar through the air). In 2004, bullfighting champion Ryan Byrne was inducted into the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame after a long and distinguished career. His wife, Kelley, is a barrel racer who has written a children’s book about bullfighting. They have raised three athletic sons, Bo, Tanner, and Jesse, who have been involved in rodeo since they were kids; together they run the annual Byrne Brothers Bull Riding and Bull Fighting School in their hometown of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Tanner, a bull rider who has to endure eight seconds atop two-ton bucking bulls, and Jesse, a bullfighter who protects riders from danger when they fall off the bull or dismount after a successful ride, will be in New York City January 6-8 for the PBR Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, as professional bull riding — “the toughest eight seconds in sports” — takes over the World’s Most Famous Arena for the eleventh consecutive year. As they prepared for this major event that kicks off the 2017 season, Tanner, twenty-four and married to Meghan, and Jesse, thirty and married to Canadian barrel racer Lauren, reflected on their family, their sport, New York City, and their harrowing run-in with Chocolate Thunder in April 2014.
twi-ny: You both grew up with a father who was a champion bullfighter and a mother who was a barrel racer, and you would all regularly go to the Calgary Stampede. Did you always want to get involved in bull riding?
Tanner Byrne: Yes, I was born into the rodeo and bull riding lifestyle. Tried all sorts of sports and was good at most everything I did, including lacrosse, baseball, basketball. I also played hockey until I was fifteen years old but decided to stick with bull riding. I knew from day one I wanted to be a world champion and follow my one true passion.
Jesse Byrne: Rodeo and bull riding have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I had always wanted to be a cowboy growing up; I loved riding horses, roping, and ranching. As I got older, I tried riding bulls, which didn’t seem to go well with my personality, which is code for, “It scared me!” Once I tried bullfighting, I knew right away what I wanted to make a career of.
twi-ny: As children, which one of your was more protective of the other, whether playing sports or tussling with other kids? Did you fight with each other a lot, and if so, who would usually win?
TB: I’d say as the older one Jesse was more protective of me and always has had my back, looking out for me whenever I was in trouble. If he thought I was doing something too young to do, he always let me know. As for fighting, I have a much bigger reach and height advantage on him now. I think I’d fare OK. But I’ve seen him take some solid hits in the arena and wouldn’t want to fight him, that’s for sure. We are lucky enough to be three brothers who are all best friends. As we got older, we grew closer together as buddies and brothers. We all have a really good relationship, unlike lots of brother combos I know.
JB: Growing up, I was always pretty protective of others, I guess. I’ve never been the biggest person. But what I lacked in size I made up for with heart. If someone was trying to attack, it wasn’t going to go unchallenged as far as I was concerned. Being a far bit older than Tanner, we never really fought amongst each other as typical brothers would, which I’m thankful for, as it didn’t take him long to have the reach advantage over me. One thing I know for sure, if you mess with one of us, you are going to have to deal with us both.
twi-ny: In April 2014, you were both involved in a dangerous encounter with Chocolate Thunder, with Jesse ultimately jumping on Tanner to shield him from the rampaging bull. At the time, are you both just operating on pure adrenaline, or were you well aware of each other, knowing it was brother and brother fighting off the bull together?
TB: At the time of that incident I was unconscious. I didn’t know what was going down, to tell you the truth. After a couple days and seeing the video replay, I was very appreciative of those guys and knew my brother, Shorty [Gorham], and Frank [Newsom] did everything in their power to get that bull off me like they do for all the riders, day in and day out. I know Jesse treats all of us riders like his brothers, and when any of us goes down he really takes it personally. So I’m sure it was more traumatizing for him to see me down. I was out of it so don’t have much recollection.
JB: Being out there to protect the best bull riders in the world comes with a huge responsibility and a lot of pressure. When you then add family to the mix, it definitely creates a unique situation. However, the difference in my mind when it comes to Tanner lies more in his success than safety. I get nervous and excited about the outcome, just being closer to him than any of the other riders and seeing firsthand what he puts into the sport. No matter who comes out of the chute, it’s my job to do absolutely whatever I can to get them out of there as safe as possible. It all comes down to reaction; there’s really no time to think in those moments.
twi-ny: Do you have favorite bulls?
TB: Yes, I do. I like the bulls that I can get the best scores on and the bulls I’ve won the most money on! Some stand out due to riding them at special events. There’s a bull called Compact who I rode at my first event in the championship round that ultimately got me on the PBR Built Ford Tough Series tour, and the rest is history. I also rode that bull again at the World Finals in Las Vegas that led to a top-three finish and lots of money. So my favorites are ones I have a personal history with.
I was recently in contact with Compact’s owner, trying to buy him once his bucking career is over to retire him on my ranch. He’ll live out his days in luxury. He was good to me; I want to be good to him. As a bull owner myself, I’m part of a group, Flying Four Bucking Bulls, raising our own bucking bulls. I’m really fond of growing our young bulls from calves, seeing them grow up and develop as buckers, and go on in their bucking careers.
JB: I’m a huge bull riding fan, and getting to see it up close week in and week out I have the utmost respect for the bulls. They are amazing athletes with a crazy amount of power and agility. It’s always exciting to watch the elite, and when you see the likes of bulls such as Air Time, Long John, and Bruiser, to name a few, you just never know what to expect. But it will definitely be something you remember.
twi-ny: What is the worst injury you’ve suffered from a bull?
TB: Lots of bumps and bruises and broken bones but, “knock on wood,” I’ve been fairly lucky compared to others injury-wise. My knees and wrist give me lots of trouble with torn ligaments that are common with bull riding. It’s nerve-wracking coming back after an injury, but I let my training and my work ethic give me the confidence to know I’ve got what it takes to ride at this level.
JB: Obviously the danger factor is quite high with bullfighting. Like everyone else in the sport, I’ve had injuries to deal with. A few minor surgeries and definitely some broken bones but nothing major in comparison to others. I think the hardest part about injury is not knowing how much your body can take and having to wait to come back to get your answer. It’s not something you can simulate before stepping off into live action.
twi-ny: Tanner, you previously mentioned also playing lacrosse, baseball, and basketball. What other sports did you play as children, along with Bo?
TB: Any sport or athletic event we could do we did. Our parents helped us in all sports and aspects of life. We never were forced into bull riding, probably more pushed to other things like hockey. But we all loved bull riding and rodeo, and with a dad who is a superstar, you grow up wanting to do what your hero did. Like having a dad who played in the NHL or NFL, you’re never forced to do the same, but it’s what you know from day one and all we ever wanted to be. I played a lot of hockey and was a good prospect. Played until I was fifteen and quit when my bull riding and hockey collided. I ultimately had to choose between the two. Josh Manson, one of my best friends and teammates since we were little kids, went on and is now playing in the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks.
JB: Since I grew up in Canada, hockey was a big part of my childhood as well. Rodeo in the summer, hockey in the winter. I also enjoyed playing baseball. However, its season overlapped with rodeo, so it was one or the other, and, well, I’m sure you can guess which one I chose. These days I’m still a fan of both hockey and baseball, and I enjoy getting out for the odd round of golf.
twi-ny: During your off-week from the Built Ford Tough Series each May, you both take part in the Byrne Brothers Bull Riding and Bull Fighting School. What kind of programs are at the school? Is it open to everyone, or do you need some experience?
TB: Yes, we are proud to give back and help everyone we can with the knowledge and work ethic it took for us to get to this top level coming out of Canada and doing well in our fields of riding and fighting. We teach the basics and mindset and try to share everything we know and have in our power to help everyone from advanced riders to rookies to first-timers thinking it would be fun to get on a bull. It’s a fun-filled weekend, and we’re proud to see our students pursuing their careers and succeeding in this sport.
JB: We accept students of all experience levels. If it’s your first time, we provide an introduction to the sport in the safest way possible, teaching the proper basics from day one. If you are experienced and trying to take your skills to the next level, we will work on fine-tuning your approach and eliminating bad habits. Not to forget the mental aspect, which everyone of all skill levels must continuously work on. It’s fun to be able to contribute to the future of our sport and share the passion.
twi-ny: When you’re not involved with bull riding and bullfighting, which seems to be almost constantly, what other things do you like to do?
TB: I love to be home in Canada with my family. We have cattle and bucking bulls, so that always keeps us busy. We love horseback riding and roping. Between events, when my wife and baby daughter, Layla, are able to come with me, we tour around and are tourists everywhere we go. They’re my biggest support, and I owe the world to them. I’m involved in some real estate ventures and different businesses, setting up for life after bull riding, so when I’m not riding I’m always staying busy with one thing or another.
JB: For the last twelve years, bull riding has consumed the majority of my time, if not at an event, traveling to get to the next one. The weeks get pretty short, but I’m thankful to be able to go home for even just a day or two and reconnect with family. Give the senses a break from all the action, let the body recover, and enjoy the calm before it’s back to action.
twi-ny: You’ll be in New York City January 6-8 for the Monster Energy Buck Off. Are the crowds at the Garden different from those at other venues?
TB: I can’t wait! There’s nothing bigger than Madison Square Garden. The crowds are great; they don’t see it often, so they usually get loud and wild. There’s always people we don’t see at other events in New York.
JB: New York is without a doubt one of my favorite events of the year. I get excited just thinking about being able to start our season in one of the most legendary buildings in the world. The passion and energy the fans of NYC bring is contagious.
twi-ny: Do you have time to take in any of the city, and if so, what are some of your favorite things to do here?
TB: I’ve seen lots of popular tourist spots, but the ones that stand out would be the 9/11 Memorial, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Wall Street. And obviously there’s a lot of shopping when my wife comes with me. I love New York; the atmosphere of it is like nothing else I’ve seen.
JB: I typically find myself arriving a day earlier than a usual event or even departing a day later after it’s over just to take in all the city has to offer. Whether it be Broadway for a musical, touring the shopping districts, or spoiling myself at one of my favorite steakhouses, you can bet you won’t catch me spending much time in my hotel room.
twi-ny: Finally, Tanner, last year I interviewed Cooper Davis, and he went on to win the PBR championship. How do you like your chances for MSG and the season?
TB: I’m planning on the same fate as Cooper! I’ve stepped up my training regimen with my team, Jared Allen’s Pro Bull Team, which is owned by NFL superstar Jared Allen. And I’ve dedicated myself to winning a world championship this year. I believe I have a really good shot in MSG this year and as the winner this year in the PBR as a whole. I’m looking forward to the 2017 season.
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.