Talking to Lauren Petty and Shaun Irons

Madeline Best in "Keep Your Electric Eye On Me"
Madeline Best in “Keep Your Electric Eye On Me”

Artist duo Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s new work Keep Your Electric Eye on Me is being presented at HERE Arts Center from April 3 – May 10, 2014. Petty and Irons first met while working at a fine art shipping company and their mutual interest in media and performance brought them together in a longstanding creative collaboration that has included media-based projects, installations, sound pieces, and documentary films.

For Keep Your Electric Eye On Me they are working with performers Madeline Best (of Brian Rogers’ Selective Memory) and Carlton Ward (Then She Fell) and choreographer Tara O’Con to create an ephemeral object that is at once a live performance, video installation, sculptural environment and interactive media lab. Last week I talked to them about the new piece, their process and their practice.

Andy Horwitz: So that seems like a good place to start: Keep Your Electric Eye On Me is being presented in a theater, as theater, but “theater” feels kind of confining as a category. How do you think about this work?

Lauren Petty: We’ve always said that we’ve been making an art piece that uses live performance rather than a theater piece or dance piece. Sometimes that frustrates people because they want backstories, they want characters; they want to understand that some kind of narrative is involved.

Shaun Irons:  Sometimes people will ask – particularly marketing people – “And the narrative component of this piece will be…?” But if there is a narrative component to this, it’s the technology itself. It’s a live, organic thing – in this space, in this room – that is part of the live performance and part of the live dance. We are actively controlling and mixing everything in real time. We’re playing a score. It’s ambient. The live dancers and us are all on stage, and it’s like we’re some kind of ambient rock band creating a vibrant energy in the space.

AH: Tell me about how you work.

SI: For us it’s so much about the process—almost less about the performance than just being in the space making this happen. We rehearse and change things right up until the last minute, and even after the show opens we continue to play with structure. Every component of the piece is in play.

LP: We have a long history of working together. For us, the genre is immaterial. Whether it’s a documentary, or video installation, or performance piece, we’re working from the same methods and same impulses and ideas. But Shaun was a performer with The Wooster Group for many years…

SI: Working with The Wooster Group is theater, but it’s also not. It’s being in a room with other people for a long time, trying to conjure up that kind of energy I was talking about earlier. The Hairy Ape was a year of rehearsal, and then we showed maybe 20 minutes of it. It was made over such a long period of time.

People just don’t have the luxury of keeping the technology locked down in a space for that long. I certainly learned a lot. Working for them gelled a lot for me, in terms of how I already understood that I wanted to work. They make a piece for a long period of time, and they show pieces of it in New York, and then it goes out on tour for years, every summer, which is great, it’s fantastic. You live with it for a long time. You stick with it for a long time.

LP: I think there’s something about the model of having all the video and sound in rehearsal from the beginning of the creative process that makes sense to us. We’re not going to have a dance rehearsal and pretend there’s no camera or video onstage.

SI: [This show] started out very simple: one camera. That’s the way we work—we start with an idea, “Let’s start with this camera, we want to film this person’s face, because the minute you put a camera on it, it turns into something else.”

But then of course it begins to build out from that, “What if we have multiple angles at the same time? And what if some are live and some are not live?”

We begin to generate this world, and after awhile you have a lot of stuff in a room. Sometimes it’s just that what you do is so complex; you need more hands and bodies in the room to make it happen. And then it’s like, where do you keep it? Where do you rehearse?

So just to have a place we can work all day and experiment and play with things and lock the door at the end of the day is what we really need, and we can’t always have that. We’ve been fortunate to have had that a bit in the last few months. Many things are about optics and camera angles, and the minute you break it down or change something, that perfect, dream shot you had that was working in a way that you didn’t even know how it was working—it’s gone. That’s part of the fun, I guess, too.

AH: So I’m guessing that Keep Your Electric Eye on Me is a quote from the David Bowie song “Moon Age Daydream” on Ziggy Stardust. Is there a dramaturgical reason or is it just a fun starting place?

SI: Yes, right. That’s kind of a riff; pieces of that song appear for seconds at a time throughout the piece.

When we were working on the horror the horror (i have plenty of energy to drive over there) we were really taken with Madeline Best’s face and how it transforms when she’s in front of a camera. I’d put a camera on her, and I’d think, I don’t know, I’m not seeing anything. Then I’d look through the camera lens, and it was like she was a different person! I’d go back and forth, and that piece really was about that.

We wanted to take that idea and expand that even more, about that connection, too, that someone could have a second life. There’s another person existing when the electric camera is placed on them. It’s kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde thing almost. That camera is the drug that alters this person from the inside out. But the Bowie thing: there is a little bit of a rock thing. That was an early impulse relating to childhood interests of mine—the Stooges, David Bowie.

LP: There’s also this idea of transformation: David Jones becomes David Bowie becomes Ziggy Stardust, or how the backstage Mick Jagger becomes the Mick Jagger he is onstage, the rock persona. That transformative experience has played into certain things in the show; the desire to be somebody else is a running thread. There are two characters, and there’s a little bit of an interchange between them. They watch each other, they set up a world that they both exist in, but sometimes they embody each other’s actions.

Because we were interested in this transformation idea we watched a lot of the old Jekyll and Hyde movies for a certain kind of visual influence, and then we started watching movies where there were doppelgangers or a melding of personalities.

One of the films was Robert Altman’s Three Women, where Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall kind of switch personalities halfway through the movie. Sissy Spacek takes on Shelley Duvall’s life. We’re interested in that kind of interplay between characters.

There’s a speech where Shelley Duvall is explaining how to make tuna melts. That’s something we’ve lifted. They repeat it like a mantra sometimes, to each other, this speech about how to make tuna melts.

SI: It kind of became just about us, too. What it is to go to a rehearsal room and set things up and make something. We thought if we can keep making these tuna melts, we will get through this. It’s a simple recipe. You just follow these things. But there is room for things to go really wrong, somehow. That excited us.

AH: It seems like rock mythology and imagery is pervasive in this piece. I like that idea of “an ambient rock band creating a vibrant energy in the space”! But it’s not really “rock” per se, obviously. So if we call your computers your instruments, how have you created this environment, technologically, and how does this inform the structure of the piece?

LP: Well, we’re running everything through the media software Isadora, which gives us a lot of room for playing. In the horror the horror the score was much looser because we did a lot of the staging, but while we were running the video, Brian [Rogers] was doing all the sound.

For this piece the staging is much more ambitious: there is a lot more happening, many more elements to coordinate, so things have ended up being a little more fixed.

Sometimes I feel a certain frustration that we’re not able to be quite as flexible as we would like. We are flexible, we are making decisions in the moment, and things change from show to show and day to day, but sometimes because there are so many balls in the air, things have ended up being a little more fixed. But every time we rehearse we’re putting more freedom into it.

SI: We’re always trying to find ways to crack open whatever is fixed so we can have it be conjured live, in real time, in the space. That being said, it’s not crazy.

LP: It’s not an hour-long improv!

SI: No, it’s not an improv! We’re playing a score. We could make it easier on ourselves, but I really like it when there’s that panic of “There’s too much to do to make this happen!”

Sometimes we get to a place where it starts to get ahead of us, and we can’t quite catch up, and we don’t even know how what’s happening in the room is happening!! And that’s when it gets very exciting for me.

LP: It’s like, “Whose camera is that? Who’s playing that image? Where did that image come from?”

SI: And then the feedback starts over an image and that feedback goes to another projector and the camera starts picking that up and starts a loop. Then it becomes a matter of, “Well, how do you reproduce that thing you liked that happened by accident?” So then we start playing with that.

Like, just the other day we were having a timing issue. It was really a matter of analyzing the problem to find out what wasn’t working. Is it the image? Is it the placement of cameras? Is it what the performers are doing? Is it the timing of the sound file? Or is it everything?

And there’s no solid place you can pinpoint it. We keep trying new approaches, coming at it a different way from every aspect. That’s really an interesting thing when you change one thing and everything wants to change.

AH: Wants to? Or does?

SI: Both. It feels like it needs to, you know?

LP: Since we’re running everything through Isadora, everything is in individual scenes, and Shaun and I each have our own show.

We each have a computer and mixers. We actually don’t like to network the computers. We could do a lot more things where I hit a button and it causes something to happen in Shaun’s world, but we don’t do that much because we like things to be more human, you know?

We like to do a manual fade over an envelope generated canned fade, because we like that you can make a choice about it, or maybe it’s wrong, or maybe it doesn’t fire exactly the same way.  We like that fluidity.

One of the strongest things about Isadora is that it has a scene structure. Once you go inside a scene, it’s a discrete experience. You can, say, put three movies into that scene, and when you go to the next scene, there are three new movies in that scene, and they’re totally separate. You can have one scene where you’re mixing and changing colors and doing all kinds of things, bringing in live cameras, and it’s not going to affect what goes on down the line.

SI: The other thing that Isadora affords us is the ability to be free enough to totally fail.

AH: That’ really interesting. I’ve found that people who work with software or who are programmers are much more comfortable with the idea of failure, and have a very different understanding about what failure is and does, and why it’s valuable. I also think that there’s a certain understanding of the relationship between structure, inspiration, improvisation and what system design has to do with creativity, how it actually liberates you. It’s like what you just said, it’s not an hour of people improvising, but you built the structure so there’s room within it to do stuff. You need to build the freedom into it.

LP: It’s very true. I learned how to edit video back when it was deck-to-deck, about a year before non-linear editing became standard and was available to people. When the digital non-linear editing came in, it very quickly allowed us to be very painterly in away that could never have happened in the deck-to-deck system.

SI: We did a residency at the Experimental Television Center years ago, before we started working with Isadora. It was this room full of crazy machines, and you could run your signal through all these vintage technologies. It was so freeing, because it was real-time. We left there thinking we wouldn’t be able to do that again unles we had a loft full of equipment, then a couple of years later we started working with Isadora. With a laptop and a USB MIDI mixer, you can recreate most everything we had at ETC. Having the ability to live mix and live process stuff…

SI: And live edit!

LP: And we’ll even live mix something, and then edit that, and then feed that back into a video installation. It’s really a whole other step in our visual language that would not be possible without these technologies.

SI: It is very much like making paintings live or making music live. Just the fact that we can create it in this completely loose way and then put that piece back into Final Cut has opened up new worlds for us, absolutely.

LP: I worked as an editor for many years, but I always feel like even with performers, I’m actually editing. I think about pacing the way I would put together a film or documentary or short film. I feel I’m aware of that as timing. And there are so many things that happen onstage that aren’t about the way they look live, it’s about the way they look on camera. So maybe onstage their physicality is awkward, but it looks beautiful through the camera lens.

SI: So the piece is very much about that, too – the awkwardness of how a human body appears live in a given space, but looked at across the space, framed a certain way, it’s this totally different world. The lighting is totally different, and suddenly it’s this ineffable, ephemeral thing.

AH: So let me ask you, then, how did you end up in a traditional theater model if that isn’t your first instinct?

LP: This is something we’ve been wanting to do for awhile.

SI: We’ve been working with dancers and actors for years.

LP: We’ve done video design for other people’s operas, dances and plays, so we’ve definitely been working in theater for many, many years. We wanted to make a piece that was more fully realized in a traditional theatrical setting, but I think it’s just something that, as we’ve been making it, we keep coming back to the strangeness of this one-off experience and thinking about how to poke holes in that, now that we’re in it. How can we move away from it? We did start with saying, “Yes, we’re making a ‘theater piece’.” [Laughter]

SI: That’s what we said we were going to do. [Laughter] That’s what we got ourselves into!

LP: From doing so much installation work in the past, people come in and out, and so the idea of beginning, middle, and end is thrown on its head when someone can walk in in the middle and stay through till the beginning, three times through. You know? I think that there’s something in a more traditional theatrical model that’s a little bit frustrating for us. I don’t think, “we are taking them on this exact journey that I want them to see once. And I want them to sit down when I tell them to sit down and leave when I tell them to leave.”

SI: But also, you make an installation in a gallery, in a museum, and I’m always so bored by it! By the opening night, I already see things I want to change. That tension is gone for me. I’ve always loved—

LP: The audience coming in!

SI: The audience coming in, you’re sitting there, and you just don’t know whether or not you can do it. I welcome that and love that.

LP: It’s more fun than just watching your film screen at a film festival.

SI: Yeah! That’s it’s own kind of torture.

LP: Yeah, because you can’t do anything about it.

AH: There is something really interesting about the nature of the event, you know? How the setting or context really determines the relationship between the artist and the work. Even though you may want to tweak it after it’s in the gallery, the rules are, well, it’s done, it’s an object, and you can’t touch it anymore. There’s also this idea of traditional theater of, “Well, we’re going to tweak it a little bit, but there’s a point where it’s going to be the best it can be.” What I hear you saying is, “I don’t want to compromise either of those.”

SI: Exactly. I don’t. It will never be the best it can be. There’s always room for it to be something different.

LP:  We change something every time – installations, films, even this documentary we’ve shown. Nobody ever does – but we do that, too!

We’ll probably do a stand-alone media installation version of this piece. We actually wanted to—it’s not going to happen at HERE – but we always wanted people to be able to enter the space and sort of hang out before the show. Or, we’d perform the show six times in a day and people could come in and out.

SI: It just keeps going.

LP: The piece has some cyclical stuff that happens one time through, but we’d love to go to a place where the show is open and people come and stay as long as they want, and there’s more of that installation experience, and there happen to be some live performers. People have done shows like that, so it’s a model that exists.

SI: I would love to do that, because this project already has that feeling to it. The audience is watching one loop through this, but it’s something that feels like it starts again and it keeps happening.  I would love to do an entire weekend of this.

AH: Well that would definitely resist the whole narrative thing! But even within that kind of open, looping structure, are there places where you’re hoping for specific responses or are going for a more generalized experience?

LP: For me I never hope or plan to evoke certain responses. I hope there’s enough room in the piece for people to think what they want to think. I hate didactic work: “Now is a moment that someone is dying and the music is swelling and we’re supposed to be crying” —that doesn’t work for me, in movies or in plays or whatever.

That being said, we don’t shy away from emotion: there are some emotional markers in this piece and a bit of a roadmap, and there is a trajectory. Even though there’s no narrative, and even though the trajectory is abstract, I think there is still a trajectory. But within that, I hope that people will respond to emotional markers with more freedom. Even if this moment to us feels creepy, maybe somebody thinks it’s funny, or thinks it’s sad.

SI: And we’ve certainly experienced that in the past, too. The thing is, we work in technology, but that’s not the reason we make our work. We just use these as tools to make the worlds that we want to inhabit.

AH: And what is supposed to happen in these worlds? Are you aiming to create a certain, specific experience?

LP: Well, I hope that people will – and you know, this might sound lofty – but I hope that they will feel slightly changed or shaken-up. Again, it’s that thing of when you listen to a great album and you just feel different when you leave the space than before you came in.

SI: Waking up the thoughts in your head, the dreams.

LP: Dreams you might have, you know? It’s how you feel the whole day.

SI: It’s very much a dreamscape world. We’re always tapping into that place or energy.

LP: It’s not something you can put your finger on, but you’ve experienced something. Richard Foreman once said he tried to make a world he’d rather live in for an hour. I was very influenced by that idea.

It’s like, “This is a place that excites us, and let’s just hang out here for awhile and see what this world is like, living in this space.” It’s an alternative to what daily life is like.  It’s a beautiful strange little dream world. I think when you pass through it something changes. It colors your perceptions.

SI: Which has to do with how we make things. So much of the time is spent just sitting in that space, so we wanted to make a work that disturbs us and that we think is beautiful and strange, all of those things.

LP: This is the kind of piece – and I think this is a good thing – that’s not blank. Sometimes there are pieces where everyone comes out afterwards saying “Yeah, that was kind of cool…” and that’s about it because the creators aren’t taking a real strong stance.

Other iterations of this piece have evoked really strong reactions both good and bad. The people who really get into what we’re doing and are open to experiencing it find it really powerful. But somebody who comes in wanting to see a narrative theater thing sometimes just shuts down and gets upset. Of course, sometimes people might think it’s not their cup of tea, but they end up finding it really interesting.

But if something only evoked bland reactions, though, I don’t think you did your job as an artist. I’d rather have something that some people love and some people hate, rather than something that everyone thought was okay.

SI: Yeah. Like, “What the fuck was that?”

LP: But, I mean, we would like all kinds of people to come to this.

SI: We want everybody, of course!

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