Last Saturday I was fortunate enough to have plans, and luckier still those plans included attending a multi media event at Third Party Gallery in Cincinnati’s West End. The performance was the zenith of the annual art exhibition Autumedia, a show held, in part, at Semantics Gallery, featuring local sound and video artists whose current interests this year range from the sublime to the absurd. The culminating performance, Lateral Thinking, borrowed its name from the pick up band of UC professors, students, alum and friends who jammed that evening. It featured two percussionists: Zach Larabee and Carrie Magin, two wind instrumentalists: Regan Brown and Dave McDonnel, and one keyboardist, Steve Wiemer, improvising along with video artists Charles Woodman and Loraine Wible. The music alone would have been a treat; it was an intense spectacle of sound and motion, professional and meticulous. The video improvisation by itself was a delightful cacophony of image, spatial and ethereal at times, jarring yet engaging. The collective was an artful dialogue amongst artists, a true embodiment of community, sometimes in harmony, sometimes dissonance but always in cooperation. But, what made this proficient, but not yet transcendent event remarkable, was its staging.
The space at Third Party is essentially a large room, approximately 45 feet in length and 25 feet wide with a small, standard size door centered in its storefront. As one emerged through the entrance, the musicians were aligned along the space’s left wall, with Charles Woodman taking “center stage” projecting across the short axis of the room. In counterpoint, Loraine Wible was set just to the right of the door, her position framing the space the audience was to inhabit, with her projections washing both the room’s right wall, cascading over Woodman’s square and centered image, and the projected portion of the room’s rear wall, producing an almost three dimensional, hologram-like effect of light and movement. The final actor in this staging was two cases of Miller High Life; “the champagne of beers”, positioned in front of the projected rear wall, opposite the band and just under Wible’s elongated wash. The location of all three players was critical because of its effects on the audience, the unwitting but just as crucial second performer in the show. Lateral Thinking, of course, took top billing, but the curation of the space provided a choreography that involved the audience like no other public performance I’ve attended.
Entering the room one passed first through the threshold of the door, then through the gauntlet of performers set up flanking the entrance on both sides. A few chairs were brought out and arranged just to the left of the musicians for friends of the band, but beyond that, clear to the beer, the floor was uninterrupted. If you were fortunate enough to enter the space prior to the performance, you were presented with the challenge of figuring what the institution wished you to do. Confusing this negotiation were two cases of refreshing beer Charles Woodman so graciously provided and thoughtfully placed across the room. Some walked to the beer and naturally congregated there, chatting away. Some strategically pondered the situation of the room and positioned themselves and their entourage in spots that would garner them an unobstructed view to the band. This posturing continued until the projections began and offered yet another challenge to understanding how the space may best be occupied and performance best witnessed. The decision to congregate next to the beer was reconsidered because of its proximity to Wible’s image. The band centric patron now either had to crane its neck or move to see both projections on the wall. The amazing immediate choreography that took place happened just as the lights dimmed and the performers started to play. This act then orchestrated the crowd to organize itself in a manner that allowed for views to both the band and projected images simultaneously, clearing the floor of people. The crowd was then pushed back towards the entry, just beyond the band to the left and Wible’s station to the right, effectively congesting the door and forcing an ad hoc and equally improvised dance through the multi faceted now seated, ensconced audience. Cues to this dance were taken from the mood, rhythm, intensity and character of both the images and music, and as the crowd became more conformable with the scene, occasionally, a danseur would proceed to the High Life. Some even moved to the music. It was an amazing dialogue between performer and voyeur, an unrehearsed, unconscious collaboration of image, audio and body unlike anything I’ve ever witness or participated in. It was amazing.
I left the performance thinking that I had a personal, unique and completely unscripted aesthetic artistic experience until I chatted with, Charles(Charlie) Woodman, one of the video artists and organizers of the performance. I relayed to him how, although not new in form, engaging and provocative the piece was because of its play with the audience. I’m used to the milieux in my native Los Angeles, but have yet to experience in Cincinnati in almost two years in residence something this spectacular. He told me, at least for him, that was part of the point and part of the experience. Woodman has organized short of a dozen similar events under the moniker “Video Savant”, and Lateral Thinking was part of a noncontiguous series of these happenings that’s spanned almost fifteen years. The idea is a cross collaboration between complementary disciplines: film and music, and similar to avant-garde jazz, establishes weak rules of engagement that loosely governs a improvised performance. Over the years, he’s done this in both galleries and museums, bars and clubs alike to various effects and enjoys engaging this territory whenever prompted or when the opportunity presents itself. Lateral Thinking was an inspired assemblage of sound, image and motion that involves both audience and performer in tandem. I was delighted by the work of the artists as well as the dance of the spectators. Their actions was set in motion by the craft and cunning of a VJ whose spectacle extended beyond the screen to encompass all that inhabited the room, for me the definition of a total work of art. I hope the opportunity presents itself to Charlie again soon: I’m interested to see what a new set of people, parameters and provocations may produce.
Stephen Slaughter is a designer and visiting scholar currently teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design Architecture Art and Planning’s School of Architecture and Interior Design.