Many recent performance pieces involve talking or discussing, often with audience interaction. One might have expected an idiom like this to come from poets, playwrights, and other verbal people, but curiously, it has been developed largely by composers and visual artists. I would not claim that this is music, but then it doesn’t have much to do with any other traditional discipline either, and since I have been interested in this area for some time, I decided to investigate some of the work currently going on. It was particularly convenient to do so last month, since a number of mature, relatively well-known artists presented works at NYU on a series described as ‘discussion as an art form.’ I attended at least part of all six of the live performances included on the series, and two of them were quite provocative.
Lucio Pozzi’s evening was especially stimulating for me. He held forth in Lassmann Hall from 6:30 until 10 one night, and visitors were permitted to come and go as they pleased. Most stayed for at least an hour or two. A pistol, a bunch of blank cartridges, and four pairs of little plastic dinosaurs were carefully placed on a well-lit table in the center of the room. Pozzi sat at one corner of the table, facing a clock which he set to ring after 30 minutes. Whenever the bell went off, Pozzi moved to another corner, reset the clock for another half hour, and placed it in front of him at his new position. Meanwhile he talked casually with people in the audience.
Naturally people wanted to know why the gun was there, and what the dinosaurs and the clock were all about, and Pozzi talked about such things in a friendly, unrehearsed way. Not that he attempted to provide authoritative answers. Basically the props were just images he liked, but he offered some of his own interpretations and associations, and listened with interest as other people suggested theirs. Frequently the discussion drifted on to completely unrelated topics. One rather long segment, for example, was mostly about dogs. But Pozzi and his props remained the focal point, and before long the discussion always returned to the basic situation. Someone would want to know if Pozzi was happy with the way his ‘performance’ was going, or whether he had made any special plans for the 1977/what-is-minimalism-really-about half hour. Occasionally someone might offer an explanation as to why a particular person had gone home, or suggest that we return to the subject of chocolate.
The discussion was largely chit-chat of one sort or another, and the content seldom reached any profound levels, yet I sensed something quite profound about what was happening. We were not just having a discussion, we were enticed into becoming aware of the whole experience of having a discussion. This was not enough for one woman, who apparently expected a lecture on aesthetics and seemed to feel cheated, since Pozzi had not prepared any intellectual verbiage. Pozzi tried to explain that he thought discussion was interesting for its own sake, but she was not convinced and eventually made a dramatic exit. Of course other people reflected other attitudes, and by the end of the evening I began to see 15 or 20 participants as distinct characters in a rather complex scenario.
The same space was set up quite differently for Robert Ashley’s event a few nights later. Spanish-language newspapers were spread neatly around the floor, leaving only a narrow aisle down to the center, where there was a telephone with the receiver off. Ashley was nowhere to be seen. Through loudspeakers we heard a low-fidelity blend of Spanish talking and music, probably emanating from local AM stations. Once in a while Ashley’s voice could be heard coming through the mix, but he was either reading numbers or else unintelligible.
The situation remained unchanged, but quite a few people stayed on anyway, milling around, talking to one another, theorizing about where Ashley was, and figuring that eventually something would happen. After 45 minutes we were still stuck with the lo-fi sounds we couldn’t understand and the newspapers we couldn’t read. But then one of the bolder visitors decided to have a closer look at the telephone, which looked quite foreboding on its sharply lit island in the middle of the room. He happened to say something into it, and much to everyone’s surprise, his voice was heard through the loudspeakers. Ah-hah. Now we’re getting somewhere. Can Ashley hear what someone says into the telephone? Will he respond? But just as I was contemplating these questions, the man decided to find out what would happen if he hung up the receiver, and presto, he disconnected everything. Now there wasn’t even any lo-fi music to listen to. Several people tried dialing the number that Ashley was allegedly transmitting from, but they only received a busy signal. The piece was over.
For a while I wondered if the performance had backfired. Obviously it might have gone on much longer and much differently if we had explored the telephone/microphone more before hanging up, and perhaps that would have been more interesting. On the other hand, I suspect that Ashley anticipated this outcome, along with umpteen other possible outcomes, and had decided we could have whichever one we stumbled onto. I like that.