Ever felt overwhelmed when visiting a big museum, and promised yourself next time you’ll focus on just one section of it? Tomorrow, Tuesday you can limit your perusing to just three galleries on the second floor of MoMA, and still get totally overwhelmed by the whole museum!

Members of the theater company Elevator Repair Service will be amid the public, presenting a performance that uses the museum’s entire collection database as its text, conceived in collaboration with the multidisciplinary research group Office for Creative Research. The performance, called A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things), part of the series Artists Experiments, presented in conjunction the Department of Education, is open to anyone visiting the museum.

Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has become known for creating theater pieces from texts not meant for performance – prose like The Great Gatsby (Gatz) and the Sun Also Rises (The Select), or Supreme Court transcripts (Arguendo) – opting to use it in its verbatim form to prompt always fantastically imaginative stagings. Alessandro Magania spoke to John Collins, founder and creative director of ERS, about the performance at MoMA.

Alessandro Magania: Tell me about this project at MoMA.

John Collins: First of all this is a collaboration between ERS and Office for Creative Research, a company started by Ben Rubin and a couple of other people. Ben did the projections design for Arguendo and we worked with him and another of the OCR partners, Mark Hansen, on a project we did called Shuffle. They do multi-media installation art. The material for their installations is drawn from databases. To give you an example, you know the sculpture that hangs in the lobby of the Public Theatre? It’s called the Shakespeare Machine. It has 37 LED blades with text on them, and the database on that piece is drawing from all the text of all of Shakespeare’s plays. They write algorithms that analyze the text for, say, grammatical connections or words that repeat, and re-arrange and re-present it. Another piece of theirs is in the lobby of the New York Times headquarters. In that one, two big facing walls are covered with 512 small green screen monitors filled with information pulled from the archives of the Times. It will do a similar thing, where it will analyze the text, and, for example, find a phrase that begins with ‘before”, followed by a phrase beginning with “during”, followed by a phrase beginning with “after”, and it will repeat that little pattern over all the monitors. It creates a kind of algorithmic poetry. They are really sophisticated with the way they analyze these things. Sometimes they can analyze for sentiment — positive phrases, negative phrases, angry phrases. And they can do things with rhythm and timing. When we work with them we start with the idea that we’re going to use actors, rather than video monitors or speech synthesizers, as the voice of the piece. So we start by looking for ways in which the actors can get the information. In Shuffle the text was being delivered to them on their phones. The phones were tucked inside their books and they were walking around the library appearing to be reading from the books. For the piece that we are doing at MoMA, actors will be wearing little microphones, and the information will be coming to them on iPads. The database, in this case, is all the information that goes on what they call tombstones, the little cards next to the art, from all of the MoMA’s collection – artists, titles, materials, dimensions, dates. We’re creating basically an audio piece. You’ll be handed a pair of headphones and you’ll be walking around hearing actors speaking various overlapping scenes. Some of them might be titles that free associate one to the next. Or we do these things we call chains, one person will say “boy”, which is the title of one work, and some other person will say a title that has a relation to that… “boy holding shovel”, and the next one will be “steam shovel in Central Park”, and the next “steam” and some other word…

AM: In that case would they all be titles or could the entries come from other information on the tombstones?

JC: No I think they would be all titles in that case. Or sometimes just lists. We have the actors reading lists of individual sets of materials that go into different pieces, that all have one thing in common – for example “human hair” – as one of their materials. They become lyrical constructions whose only vocabulary is the titles. The code they wrote can analyze the syllables and the stresses in the syllables, so that the materials can fit perfectly into the pattern of a familiar song. Like someone will start reading a list to the tune of “My Favorite Things”, from The Sound of Music, or we do a version all with artists names, and again all the syllables line up perfectly as if the music was written for those lyrics.
And we’re still in the midst of planning this out so we will see, but the effect that we’re hoping for is that you’ll hear the museum itself murmuring all its information to you.

AM: Is there any kind of physical staging, or directions for the actors?

JC: The physical presence of the actors is going to be almost a subtle detail of the whole thing. You may not even know which ones are the actors at first. It’s only in one set of galleries on the second floor. We have six performers and they’ll be spreading out in different ways around this set of galleries, which are open to the general public. So they’ll be blending in, wearing little microphones, muttering to themselves. And on the earphones you’ll be able to hear the ambient noise of the galleries through their microphones with their voices. Some of the fun I think will be to figure out who is speaking of all the people who are standing around looking at the art. At other times, the actors will be more physically engaged and it will become more of a visual performance and then they will recede again into the museum-goers.

AM: So does the work contained in the those three galleries play a part in your planning for the performance?

JC: We have experimented with having the performance referring directly to pieces in the show. I think what we’re going for is more a sensation. Like you’re hearing this from a space in between the pieces, and it is meant to complement the presence of that work, not so much refer directly to it. We’re not trying to teach you something about the art in that show. We are allowing these kind of connections to happen between the art in the galleries, and all this information of the other hidden art. And that can create something that is beautiful, that doesn’t follow some kind of pedagogical logic. It lets you witness associations in real time, and lets it be a very personal experience.

AM: What’s your personal experience with the MoMA as a visitor?

JC: Where they show different works together those works inevitably speak to each other. That’s part of the curator’s job, but there will always be unintended associations. It’s a place where the people themselves become part of your experience. I think doing a piece like this is, in a way, completing that organic creation that is occurring between the pieces hanging together, the architecture of galleries and the presence of the people – who sometimes talk about the things that they’re seeing, or sometimes talk about things that have nothing to do with what they’re seeing. And we can’t pretend that there isn’t a whole other layer of meaning by pushing all these things together into one room.

AM: Is there a museum that you have visited that you thought allowed that type of free association to occur over others?

JC: I’m no expert in this. I expect there are various curatorial strategies that run the gamut. Some show you the progression of an artist through time, versus pairing things that have influenced each other together, or a particular period. We had a great experience when we were on tour in Australia, in Tasmania. There’s a great museum there called The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) which really does seem to be taking into account the whole experience of being in the museum. They give you the opportunity to track your path through the museum, on your mobile device… I think more and more museums are starting to think more creatively about the experience of being in the museum as a thing into itself, separate from the art. In a way saying, the experience of the museum is better than the sum of its parts.

AM: Does the fact that the public didn’t necessarily come to see the performance in the gallery play a card in the way you address it?

JC: One of the things that is interesting about this to me is testing, and really trying to find our way, into the margins of what performance actually is. Focusing on this grey area, where the performers are blending into the environment. Something that I’ve been interested in, with the work that I do, is this sense of connection between the performers and the environment. Sometimes that’s a theater, and in the performances that we do I like little reminders that we are in a theatre, that the theatre itself is a real place, not just a place where you’re supposed to imagine that you’re somewhere else. And the actors are drawing something from that fact that there is an audience there. So this is kind of an extreme version of that. It’s kind of an inversion of immersive theatre where there is a big artificial performance going on and the audience is supposed to immerse themselves in that. As one of my OCR collaborators Mark Hansen said, this isn’t immersive theater, this is immersed theatre. We’re immersing theatre into your gallery experience.

AM: ERS is known for creating performances from text not originally intended to be performed. Does the idea of working on a purely visual level, like curating a show in a museum or a gallery, for instance, appeal to you? O just starting from a visual set of material.

JC: The element that I always really start and finish with is the performer. That, I feel, is my medium. What people are doing. So when we take material that is not meant to be performed and perform it, my interest is in the fact that the actor humanizes it, or psychologizes it. So I’m mostly interested in working with whatever I can pass though that filter. It’s an interesting proposition, starting with the idea of something just visual, but I don’t know how that would work. In a way when we have choreography in our pieces that’s what we’re doing. We take movement from visual material that may not necessarily make a lot of sense on a human body, and let the human body do it anyway, so we’re creating a kind of synthesis, something new, by letting it pass through the filter of the performers.

AM: You started out as a sound designer, didn’t you?

JC: I was directing all along, but in the beginning of ERS I was also working as a sound designer for others. That was my money job (not that it paid very well). It was also an opportunity for me to work alongside some directors whom I admired like Elizabeth LeCompte, David Herskovits and Richard Foreman.

AM: Did your approach start more from a sound perspective in the beginning?

JC: Performing live you’re always contending with physical limitations of one kind or another. You’re in a theatre, inside a building, you can’t seamlessly cut back and forth, to the beach for one scene, and to a mountain for another scene, like in film. Sound is a kind of secret escape hatch from all those limitations, because there is nothing limiting what you can hear. It’s a secret doorway into whatever other reality you want. That always had a place in my work – whether suggesting there’s something else happening in the next room, that may or may not be actually happening there, or re-associating sounds and actions. Sound can tell you exciting lies about where you are and what’s happening in a way no other media can.

AM: I get the impression with your work that the most exciting moments have come out of the most challenging aspects of the material that you are working with. What was that in this case?

JC: In this case I think the big revelation that I had about it – that I think we all did – was that there’s something revelatory about hearing a great volume of information coming at you at the same time. Rather than simply inventing some kind of singular meaning by manipulating the algorithms, we discovered that what was the most challenging, and also counter-intuitive, was to hear a lot of things all at the same time. That’s when it started speaking. And that’s when it really sounded like the voice of the whole museum, not of one artist or another, or even of a curator. Something about finding the voice of the whole museum started to feel like the best thing we could do. The more consciously contrived arrangements represented a kind of gravity toward singular meanings that could best be described as absurdist commentary. At some point we decided to turn the gravity off and let everything just float up together, without burdening it with meanings that we imposed.

A Sort of Joy (Thousands of Exhausted Things) – Saturday April 4th 12:00-2:00pm and Tuesday 7th 1pm MoMA Second Floor, Contemporary Galleries.
ERS’s The Sound and the Fury will be at The Public Theater May 13th – June 14th.