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Performing Success

3/30/09 12:00 pm - Performing Success

It’s this party island off the coast of Spain, or one of them. Lots of tourists, a lot of them young, pale, English and German, go down there for extended weekends of light shows, “world famous DJs,” and to replace sleep with things snorted over public toilets.

The Flicker.
An experimental film by Tony Conrad. The title pretty much tells you what will happen, and if it doesn’t, then there’s the text at the beginning that warns that the film may induce epileptic seizures, vomiting, or both. Yep, the whole thing is solid white and black frames spliced at various intervals to produce a strobe effect. The soundtrack (if that was the soundtrack) is the noise a super eight projector makes, amplified. It was made in the mid-Sixties, on super-eight.

Ibiza: A Reading For The Flicker.
This was the opening work in a weekend program curated by Ian White of films screened with various interaction and interventions. This particular intervention was by Ian White himself. He let us know the content of his text at the start, the meat of which is from an email about a weekend in Ibiza written by him to a friend.

The work as stayed with me since I saw it on Friday (it’s Monday now), though largely for what I perceive as its failures. Were they actually failures? Other people there were completely blown away by the work, so maybe I was being too conservative in my expectations. I approached the performer/curator in a bar where he and some of the audience went afterwards and described my experience:

Ian sits down and read. He starts a story about an invitation he accepted to go to Ibiza from a man he met once in a sex club and then “bumped into” again online. Promises were made: a swank villa with a pool overhanging the sea, good drugs, and all expenses paid (besides the flight). Then the narrator tells us “the adventure was an utter disaster,” and starts to illuminate the various details of what all went wrong. He really has the audience: people leaning in, laughing, wincing. We are there.

At this point a storm starts up. It’s the film. The soundtrack is quite loud and the light is aggressive. It’s louder than Ian’s reading, which, though into a microphone, is spoken in a very calm and even tone. He is drowned out, almost completely. That is, you can still sort of hear him talking, and sometimes a word or two gets through, but it’s obvious early on that we’ll never find out exactly what happened in Ibiza unless the film ends before the story does.

That was the part I wasn’t sure had gone as planned. Clearly the film was meant to obscure the text, but to what degree? Was it the point that we not hear anything? (If so, the point didn’t interest me, since of course I could have stayed home and not heard him even better.)

“Well you must have heard something,” said Ian.

“I got a few words: sandwich, masturbate, forty-four, and maid.”

He grinned widely. He liked my metaphor of the film moving “like a storm” over the text and said it was perfect, that I had come away with the perfect set of words.

“But,” I went on, “Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if we had to fight to hear the story? If it was obscured a bit, but not so completely?”

“Well, of course the closer you were, the more you would hear.”

“I was in the second row.”

“Well maybe you should get your hearing checked,” he laughed and added, “I didn’t want to interrupt the integrity of the film; it isn’t about providing a new soundtrack. At the Tate I did a reading with a wind machine, so that was even more obscured!”

Well, there it was: a history of doing readings designed to not be heard: evidence that the sound levels were exactly where he wanted them. But later in the evening I heard from other people who talked to Ian. One was a woman who had heard him talk about this disastrous adventure long ago when it first happen. Because she knew the story, simply hearing a key word now and then brought it back to her.

“That’s exactly what I hoped for,” said Ian, “for the audience to be drawn in and out of the story.”

Another person had been in the back, BEHIND the projector and he said people there were pacing in frustration because of course they couldn’t even hear the occasional word. Again Ian smiled and called that experience “perfect.” He said he wanted the story blocked by the film.

He was performing the success of the work. As an extension of the work, I actually liked that a lot. I would say I liked it better than the work itself, but it’s like saying you like sandwiches, just not the bread. Also, I don’t want to sound like I didn’t enjoy the reading. I didn’t—I felt frustrated when it was clear that there would be nothing to do but wait because neither the film nor the reading were going to develop in anyway (the place was so packed, leaving would have met stepping on people)—BUT, I did like what I thought were his intensions and the parts I could hear before and after the film were great too.

Still, his reluctance to say that the evening was anything less than “perfect” made for a performance that required much more of him as a performer (more than the dry reading) and for that reason seemed (to me) more interesting.

I heard recently (from the director of MoMA no less) that art is defined by intensions. It’s a legal defense (a legal case was being discussed) that holds that if made as art, then art it is. Perhaps. Though that definition writes out a lot of good shit. In the unintended (the unplanned on, the accidental, the naïve, the failed works or works that were done without the pretense of “art”) there’s some wonderful wonderful stuff.

Interview conducted 28 February, 2002 with Tony Conrad, by telephone from New York State University at Buffalo.

The following is NOT by Tony Conrad and in fact was made before ever seeing Conrad's The Flicker.
The artist is Huckberry Lain who says his inspiration was Paul Sharits.
It does however warrant the same warning as Conrad's film:

This contains a flickering effect
which has been known to induce
epileptic seizures!


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