June 26th, 2005


A spooky shaman and a peacock

Anybody who's ever made something will recognize the mysterious moment (or perhaps it's a place?) when nothing turns into something, when structure and content suddenly appear. It's the easiest thing in the world, and also the hardest. Easy because form and content seem to come from nowhere, from outside of you, from the tools you're using, from your unconscious or (if you're religious) from God. Hard because you're deliberately out of control, receiving this stuff from who-knows-where, and yet you have to make decisions on the fly, order the material as it comes in, work with what you get and what you have. You listen to your instincts and to your "primitive prompter", then you scrabble around making sense of it, making it sound like you're in control, doing a smooth presentation, moving on to the next bit. If you're fluent and slick, open to your unconscious and yet good at giving conscious decisive form to what arrives, you can do all this in real time, on the fly, improvising.

The first day of "I'll Speak, You Sing" was a success. Three tours came through the gallery, some people sat there for two hours listening, art world celebrities (Takashi Murakami!) dropped by and listened, chuckling, and the two most important critics of the New York art world came by and seemed to leave impressed: Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice and Roberta Smith of the New York Times. Saltz told me afterwards the show was great, and Smith stayed for 45 minutes taking notes. She also asked for pictures, so it looks like we may get a lead review in the Times next Friday or the one after. We shouldn't count chickens, but the reviews may well be good.

I know all this because gallerist Zach told me later; for the five hours of the performance I was completely oblivious to my surroundings, in a sort of trance, concentrating only on the stories I was murmuring into my head-mounted mic, or the strange music (Harry Partch tones) I generated with the laptop by my side. I was aware enough of Mai's singing and pacing to give her the space she needed, though. Mai is so magnetic, so confident and childlike! Everyone loves to watch her, and she handles the attention well. Together we're like a spooky shaman and a peacock. Although my face is covered by a red veil, and I can't look at the audience (the spell, the concentration, would be broken if I did), I can hear Mai rotating around me, moving around the 3D space of the gallery. She surprised me later by saying "I was so nervous!" I was surprised because Mai seems so confident, but it's true that her role is more difficult: she has to walk around and sing in the real physical space of the gallery, with the people. Meanwhile I'm off in some netherworld where I feel safe, hidden and protected by my red veil.

When I conceived this show I thought I was just going to be narrating landscapes, but on the day, there in the gallery, I found I was telling stories. The stories started off as descriptions of levels in imaginary computer games but quickly developed characters and plots. They were very, very odd. I can't remember everything I invented, but it started off with a thing about a king who needed to be activated by colours, then became a story about a man who works in a marble quarry on the top of a mountain, then concerned a war between travelling detergent salesmen and sugar salesmen, then turned into a story about a man who rides broadcast waves from the top of a TV tower down into someone's TV and has to perform in a soap opera, then became a tale of an ice skater who could reverse time by skating backwards... The stories just came continuously into my mind as dreams do when you're sleeping. I've always known I could do this, and been a bit surprised. In the past I've only done it with lovers, whispering these stories to them as we fall asleep. Now I'm sitting in a gallery doing it daily for strangers. I'm not doing it for money—nothing is for sale in this show—and it's not even being documented; there's no recording, no web-streaming. It's like experimental theatre: Mai and I are there walking the high-wire of improvisation, and if you're there in the gallery you might share some extraordinary moments of magic, or you might catch us falling on our ass (there were moments towards the end where my brain got tired, my speech slurred, I lost my poise and my sure-footedness, the stories fell flat).

But this show works. It's somewhat extraordinary in the context of a gallery, the oldest thing in the world (a vaudeville double act, someone telling a story, someone performing and singing). And yet, in the context, it's something quite new. Of course other people have done things a bit like this—in a sense it's one part Spalding Gray, one part Laurie Anderson—but I believe we've really captured the moment of creation, where nothing (an empty concrete gallery, an empty head) turns into something (a gallery full of rapt listeners, a story, a landscape in your head). And the reason it's not really boasting to say that I know this show works is that it's not really me there, slumped in a robe and headscarf by the pillar, cross-legged on the concrete floor. It's everybody who's ever told a story, everyone who's ever said something that surprises both the speaker and the listener, it's our collective unconscious, it's the process of creation itself. Mai and I have made ourselves the portal nothing squeezes through when it becomes something. The success of this show is that we managed to locate that simplest, most basic thing—that portal between nothing and something—and put a frame around it.

(Main photo courtesy Brian Fee, others by Lord Whimsy.)