Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, June 03, 2005

The MTSU travelling puppet show

Before getting into its typical mix of local and touring musicians abusing unoffending objects and devices with contact mikes placed where they don’t belong, last night’s Angle of View started with a puppet and sound performance by a class of MTSU art and music students. MTSU professor Tom Thayer brought the group together for an intense, short-format summer class during which they ate dinner, made puppets, and composed a play based on their dreams and subconscious using Futurism, Dada, and Surrealist theater experiments as explicit reference points. They brought the results of their work out for a public performance as part of one of the shows Chris Davis organizes at Angle of View.

Going into the Angle of View performance space, you found that the MTSU group had taken over much of it. They built a set from three sheets of foam rubber hung from the ceiling, with clothes and cardboard and other flotsam strewn on the floor in front of it (looked a lot like my college dorm room).

Like Red Moon Theater in Chicago, they combined types of puppetry: shadow puppets projected onto the foam from back lighting, stick puppets that appeared like Punch and Judy above the top of the foam when it was front lit, and a marionette which was walked out into the front space of the set, as well as people in costumes and masks, including the musician.

I don’t know if the play had a discernable narrative, but it worked for me on a more musical level as a series of events that shifted and combined perspective and scale. The music, an assemblage of samples and noise, pushed into fairly high levels of volume and activity, and the stick puppets lurched and cavorted along with it. The costumed characters maintained a consistently slower rhythm, first one slouching out into the set, laying down, and then working her way off the stage. As she headed off the stage, she was joined by another person wearing a costume composed of many nylons stuffed with fabric hanging off the costume, a pelt that was between fur and scales. The sequence and counterpoint of these events was pleasurable. The foam also worked nicely as a scrim, with its yellowed color giving the shadow puppets sequence an antique feel.

This was a great addition to an Angle of View bill for several reasons. Most importantly, it explores a huge piece of common ground that the visual arts and experimental music share. “Musical” performances at Angle of View often include theatrical elements, sometimes masks and costumes. Many non-traditional art works include sound elements or go all the way into performance. The visual and musical communities do not always recognize what they share, and do not explore the fringes of each other’s fields. Interaction between the two groups adds energy to the experimental art community, and makes everyone more sophisticated in their use of multi-media elements. Performance itself has unique potential to build shared experience, and it connects to some great historical periods of collective aesthetic effort like the Dada movement or Black Mountain College.

It was also good to get some more exposure to the MTSU visual arts community. I don’t get to Murfreesboro very often, so it is extremely convenient when it comes to me. My impression is that there are interesting things going on there, like the pocket gallery Thayer and Andrew Kaufman started (Adrienne Outlaw did a radio piece on it Kaufman has shown very good work at Ruby Green and Zeitgeist. I’d like to see more of what the students are doing, along the lines of watching the Watkins students.

I don’t see any reason the visual artists in town shouldn’t bring their experiments with performance into venues dedicated to performance, and would like to see options open up for the sound work created by musicians to become a more common part of gallery presentations of art.

In addition to this nice change of pace from the MTSU students, the show Thursday included a particularly good set by Taiwan Deth. Parts of it rocked over the chugging beat of a noise loop. Towards the end the set seemed to be winding down, but Angela and Derek let a single sound keep popping intermittently and then started to fill it in with amplified breath and brought it back up in intensity. All through, the sound events had very clear definition, and the pacing was really effective. Their performances seem to be getting better and more coherent, but it may just be that I’m getting better at listening to them. This seems to be happening for Dave, the sound guy at Angle of View, who has gotten to the point where he sets up their sound in a way they really like.


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