Bryon Carr and Natalia de Campos: Creators of A Pretty Good Future
(This interview took place via live chat, 1/18/13, in response to emailed questions from signals.)
A Pretty Good Future was a collaborative installation-performance presented at chashama 461 gallery, Harlem, New York City, May 2012. It incorporated the works of four main collaborators: theater artist Natalia de Campos, dancer and choreographer Bryon Carr, visual artist Thiago Szmrecsányi, and musician Ellery Royston, including performers Liza Wade Green, Meghan Schardt, Lígia Teixeira, and Erik Zambrano. The event began with audience members being checked in, as if entering a security area, then followed three zones, “black,” “gray,” and “white.” The “black” zone was in total darkness, surrounded by Royston’s intense aural design, while audience members received tender embraces from two performers. The next “gray” zone was introduced by a mythical figure speaking in an undecipherable language followed by a section where the audience navigated a maze of corridors created by Szmrecsányi’s design in which they encountered short “anxious” performances, disjointed video, and object installations, as they were guided by a hostess to an enclosed area for a dance piece performed behind a plastic barrier. They were then directed to turn around and enter a “white” are: a reconfiguration of the previously traveled space but now with an open loft floor plan and references to a tropical environment. This space included a hammock and toys and videos of birds, colored fish, and a mechanical swimmer. An electric harpist dressed all in red sat above––a phoenix perhaps––while an urban-indian inhabited the hammock. Seven performative “actions” took place intertwined by short texts , while the participants wandered about, sometimes joining the action until drinks were served, and conversations instigated.
The following is the introduction by Natalia Campos in her paper on A Pretty Good Future (May 2012)
“The essential function of Utopia,” says Ernst Bloch to Adorno, “is a critique of what is present.”1
“The pursuit of happiness” became an individualistic quest in the nineteenth century and early 20th, as Hannah Arendt2 reminds us, writing in 1963. This return of individualism in the late 20th century and early 21st and prevailing thus, signals a cyclical history. Could it be a “cyclical regression”3 as Jameson puts it, a further “affinity with the dystopia”, common in the American science fiction? Or did it ever even leave us? These questions came to mind as Bryon Carr and I came together to collaborate. Bryon brought to the collaboration a strong interest in science fiction and I a strong political consciousness about the world’s current state of affairs. Through the course of a year, our ideas slowly blended, and also synchronized in certain aspects with those of our peers, a small group composed of 6 other artists from different backgrounds attending the Performance & interactive Media Arts MFA at Brooklyn College. Although we were not directly analyzing it that way during the process, in a larger perspective there was a birth of protests happening around us. Would our thesis projects include “the outlines of some deeper and vaster narrative movement in which the groups of a given collectivity at a certain historical conjecture anxiously interrogate their fate, and explore it with hope or dread”? (Jameson, 240).
On August 23rd 2011, there was a quick though mild but marking earthquake that both Bryon and I felt in New York City. That brought into discussion in our following meeting, we talked about how much of the consumerist society seems to be unfretted, or in denial of the above startling and tragic facts of our contemporary society. Would it take an earthquake to rattle their notions of security and comfortableness? And what would that mean to one’s sense of identity?
What are your backgrounds as artists?
Bryon Carr: I have a background in dance, more specifically ballet and Graham technique. I have trained, taught and performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. I have worked with The Graham Ensemble, Chen and Dancers, and The Erick Hawkins Dance Company. I have shown my work throughout New York City, Seattle, Boston, and Berlin.
Natalia de Campos: My training in theater was mainly as a director and performer. In Brazil I studied under Celia Helena and a great master director, Antunes Filho, both of whom introduced me to techniques and readings by Grotowski, Brecht, Peter Brook, and Eastern philosophies, plus workshops in Suzuki, with Kazuo Ohno himself, and in Strasberg’s technique, among many others. I continued studying different directing and acting styles when I moved to New York in 1998 and also assisted Richard Foreman in “Paradise Hotel.” In New York, I’ve shown work in venues such as HERE, Connelly Theater, Bowery Poetry Club, SCOPE Art, CSV Center; performed with The Living Theatre, Baryshnikov’s White Oak Group, and many others and recently started designing video for my own work and for other artists in New York. I have also worked in many producing roles, such as stage manager, managing director, and producer and also as translator for international festivals. All of these experiences deeply contribute to my background as well as my long experience with foreign languages and a degree in History, with a passion for Oral history.
How did you come to work together?
NC: After a long hiatus from school, we found ourselves pursuing the same Master’s degree program in New York, an MFA in Performance & Interactive Media Arts at Brooklyn College, and there we had collaborated on a number of pieces during our first year. Through this experience we discovered that our joint creative process was fruitful and fun.
BC: In this program we also observed how intense the collaborating experience was for some of the thesis students and how at times there was difficulty in communicating and/or finding a common ground for developing work. In our experience together we had not encountered those obstacles, and that helped to solidify our decision to work together.
NC: We also had some similar aesthetic interests while at the same time shared sharing a curiosity about our different approaches (and different disciplines), and thought that we could bring interesting contributions to each other’s process. Not many graduate degree programs require a collaborative thesis (laughs). Thus, “A Pretty Good Future” was attempted.
What inspired A Pretty Good Future?
NC: We began by discussing concepts of identity within the digital age, and how they related to current events: how much our consumerist society seemed unfretted by real world problems. Wouldn’t a catastrophic event such as an earthquake or tsunami instantly eliminate one’s sense of security? Then a mild but marking earthquake was indeed felt in New York City in September 2011 and the city rushed to overprepare for Hurricane Irene expected in the following weekend: probably in part to settle the sense of vulnerability and unpreparedness that those tremors left behind. That had an immediate impact on our discussions. On the aesthetic side, we both wanted to try working in new settings, away from what we were mostly accustomed to working in, which was a more traditional venue with a passive seated audience. We wanted the audience to be right in the middle of the action, inside the concept of the art making process. We came to realize that this approach could work really well in dealing with and questioning these notions of identity, security, and comfortableness.
What are your influences?
NC: Some direct influences to this piece were the fiery energy of Diamanda Galás, and other artists with groundbreaking work, particularly from the seventies and eighties. Of course we both also brought our individual influences to the process. To me, experimental languages and multidisciplinarity are my main influences. Repurposing of images, media, and symbols and the syncretism of cultures are part of my language in performance. The examples are very vast ranging from Richard Foreman, Wooster Group and The Builders Association to The Living Theater, Tadeusz Kantor and very much Reza Abdoh in theater; to Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica’s new proposals of dialogue with the spectators of Art; plus so many others and an enormous range of music styles and musicians, from Bjork to popular groups in the Northeast of Brazil to DJ Culture in urban centers like New York and São Paulo. Perhaps I have dialogued with musicians and DJs the most, often collaborating with them on and off-stage. But, above all aesthetic concerns, I am directly influenced by global social changes.
BC: Most of my influences were based on my love of science fiction, dance and visual art. For example, books by sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke (A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama). Or movies such as Blade Runner and THX1138. There are also numerous choreographers that have influenced my work such as Merce Cunninghan, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Konic Thtr and Chunky Move. Also, visual artists such as Nam June Paik and Robert Irwin.
What was your process in creating the work?
BC: During the first couple of months of the Fall 2011 we met once or twice a week to discuss and develop new material. We then presented excerpts for critique by our peers and advisors. We received feedback and applied it to further exploration of our main concept. Then we intensified our rehearsal process to up to four times a week. This ritual of meeting, discussing, and presenting works remained constant up until the last week before our performance. It was a rigorous experience but really helped to flesh out our multi-faceted installation-performance.
NC: Yes, and in bringing in readings, images, and media we were always generating new work with a multidisciplinary piece in mind. So for instance, we read on imagined realities, and on Trisha Brown’s process of creating her 1971’s “Walking on the Wall,” and explored ways of “walking on the wall” in our digital time, thus a projected “walk on wall” ensued. From there we played with how media could affect the results, with chromakeying, repositioning cameras, playing with three-dimensional projection concepts, integrating the live performer. For each idea we kept, we refined the solutions––narrative, digital and of human presence––so they would become part of an imaginary trajectory for the participants. We hoped that this would help them (and us) to see this ‘construct’ that we were building. An important component of the process was to start experimenting with the configuration of our performance space from the very beginning within the rehearsal space.
How did the piece evolve? What were the challenges? What were the surprises? How did the audience respond?
BC: At first we examined identity, which is such a vast concept, and how to channel it into a performance. That experience of the earthquake, which had us both a bit ‘shaken’ yet, also opened up a new layer of exploration of identity in relation to our environment. As we wanted the audience to be guided through the performance, we invited a third collaborator, the visual artist Thiago Szmrecsányi––Natalia’s long-term collaborator––to create the physical space with us. Later we also invited the musician Ellery Royston, a first year student in the MFA program, to compose and perform her music. We had many of the typical challenges that go along with producing a full-evening performance. However, the biggest challenges were, as usual, to self-produce and present a performance in a New York City venue with our incredibly small budget. The other was to cull our multitude of ideas while still making a cohesive show that expressed our concept of projecting a future. In the end, once everything was in place, the show ran smoothly every night. What was surprising was our ability to pull off such a multi-faceted tech-heavy show with such a time and money crunch. Since it required audience participation we were unsure how people were going to react. Yet, we found that people were more than willing and seemed to be enjoying the experience.
NC: From the beginning we wanted the audience’s experience to be at the center of the piece. To project a world, although mediatized, was not an easy task. Plus, we wanted to project a utopian world in a post-apocalyptic setting. It became clear that first we’d have to somehow try to strip the audience of some of their preconceived notions and belongings, so they could leave their New York life behind for an hour and immerse themselves in this imaginary world and see what mess we’re all in. We physically did that, making people go through a check-in, their belongings placed in numbered boxes that became part of the set. They became participants, tagged with numbers corresponding to their boxes. That was a great decision and also defined how the performers would relate to the viewers. In addition to the four main collaborators as performers too, we brought four other great performers to be part of the team: Liza Wade Green and Erik Zambrano as the hosts; and dancers Ligia Teixeira and Meghan Schardt as inhabitants of this world.
In our concept we all became service providers to the visitors of this installation-performance set in an industrial building in Harlem repurposed for artmaking called chashama 461 gallery. We were super lucky to find the space and partner with chashama, and that was one of the great surprises. The space was so interesting and hybrid that Thiago had the freedom to play with the existing features and our performance seemed somewhat suspended in time because the door was so discrete and narrow and the building so huge that it felt like entering a cave. The audience was actually surprisingly willing to comply––that was obviously the biggest unknown factor during rehearsals and preparation––and we got very interesting reactions, many surprising ones.
The show was divided in three parts for which I wrote a scenario and the last one was composed of seven actions. As there was no clear ending and the timed-piece blended into the typical ‘art opening’ setting of drinks and snacks served as the last ‘action,’ we got comments right there and then. It was very surprising that many participants said it felt really ‘dark’ because it seemed like living in a confined world in the future, like a bunker! The most surprising comment to me was of someone who really thought that the video of birds playing on a small TV––blue macaws in the wild eating a wealth of Brazil nuts from their shells––were cartoons of the real birds. As if they were a fantasy from the remote past, and not the ones still living in great numbers in the Amazon. Although we were working with several types of constructs it was amazing to see quite opposite interpretations of our intentions.
Where do you see contemporary performance at and where do you see it going? What do you think the next generation is looking for in a performance?
BC: Because performance-based computer applications are becoming less expensive and more user-friendly the world of contemporary performance is transitioning into a more mediatized genre. It is exciting and yet, a slippery-slope because I have seen media used in amazing ways yet unfortunately, the artist gets caught up in the ‘pretty factor’ of the media, which upstages even the greatest dancer or actor. What is going to help better cultivate the relationship between media and performance are fields of study such as the Performance and Interactive Media Arts MFA program at Brooklyn College. I also think the Internet is going to play a big part in the global performing arts community. As video chat becomes more common, artists will tap into the web for viewers. This will exponentially expand an artist’s exposure and, potentially, bring viewer numbers from a few hundred to a few hundred-thousand. I think the next generation is going to expect a more seamless relationship between the digital and live and have higher expectations for media to articulate creative concepts. I also don’t think people are going to assume that ‘live performance’ will be defined as real people in a performance setting but that it will become more common to experience a performance in the virtual world such as in webcasting.
NC: The term performance itself is a funny one because it doesn’t define much. If you are a purist (which I am not), then performance is not theater, which is not performance, which is not dance and so on. Performance practitioners like us do not want to define it either. It is all and none at the same time, and Performance Art too. Oh no, wait! Many Performance Art purists we know would not allow for that definition, right? Well, it’s that too. But some insist on taking “sides”. The White Cube “versus” the Black Box sounds like an old discussion already, doesn’t it? Contemporary performance is at present, to me, in an undefined zone. Physically and conceptually It can happen anywhere. Now, more than ever, in our minds, really. And, far from new, on the internet too. As Bryon mentioned, even the concept of liveness is again in an undefined zone right now. And disciplines are blending into each other.
It is fun too see how we can collaborate in real time over the internet these days… This interview was answered collaboratively in a [brand name here] online doc. As I was typing my thoughts, I was also seeing Bryon typing his too, letter by letter, in real time. I don’t mean “live chat”. I mean simultaneous typing from different I.P. addresses! That still amazes me and is a pretty new thing so I think this may help me answer this question. We don’t yet know where performance is heading but can only hint at that total viewer participation is a goal of many artists now. Once Bryon and I started heading in this direction, I feel that at least for my work there’s no turning back to leaving the audience in their chairs anymore. It’s like getting your feet wet in some new substance and not wanting to dry them off. I mean, of course, I can still perform on a stage, and have done it after A Pretty Good Future, and will continue to be asked to do it. But, I now have a completely different relationship with this triad: the artists, the material we are working with, and the viewer. To me, the viewer no longer wants to feel “left out” of the action, much owing to effects of technology, be it in live performance or over the web. Now everyone can touch a tactile interface and immediately effect the results of what they see. And I don’t think that applies only to mediatized performance. I recently heard from my long-time partner and collaborator Thiago Szmrecsányi that when going to see live performances he is less interested if he needs to sit through some finished ideas thrown at him in the dark and expected to swallow them or be entertained. So I think that to the youngest generations, which are already born with fingers on screens, a freshly created performance may only seem fresh if the viewers can interact with it often and quickly.
What are your plans for the future?
BC: My plans are to continue addressing my relationship to media within my dance making process. Since finishing graduate school I have discovered that media and dance is a subject that is talked about from the perspective of either a media artist or a choreographer. Yet, I seldom meet a dance artist who is interested in developing both media and movement. Because of this I find myself at a crossroads with possibly pursuing a Ph.D program where I could research and construct a resource for dance artists who are interested in exploring media within their creative process. However, I am about to embark on a new show with fellow dance artist Jackie Moynahan. We are collaborating on a dance/media performance that will be presented at Triskelion Arts at the end of May 2013. So for the next five months I am going to be focusing on my own exploration with choreography and media.
NC: Both of us seem to want some type of future for this piece. It may not be a full reinstallation per se, but revisiting some of the concepts we started developing there are certainly in our minds as we have discussed recently. At the same time we are letting in some air for the collaboration so we can both further grow individually and work in pieces that we were invited to do. I am reuniting with two old time collaborators who are in the early stages of developing a project with composer and violinist Felipe de Souza and I just finished shooting a short film in New York (a Brazil/US production) directed by Patricia Faloppa that will be released later this year. Both artists had collaborated with me in “Waltz#6” presented in New York at HERE Arts Center in 2001. I am also in the reviewing stages of an article for publication in a new journal in the UK and awaiting responses for PhD applications, which hopefully will provide me with advisory support and resources to further develop my research on wireless interactivity in theater and performance. I recently presented a portion of this research at the International Federation of Theater Research Conference in Santiago (Chile), and there I joined the working group Performance as Research, with which I wish to continue collaborating. Of course I will continue searching for venues, financial support, and touring opportunities to present all of the collaborations.
1 Quoted by Becker, Carol in “Microutopias: Public Practice in a Public Sphere”. In: Thompson, Nato (ed.). Living as
Form, Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011. Creative Time and MIT Press, 2012.
2 Arendt, H. “The pursuit of Happiness”, pp. 111-137, In: On Revolution (see References).
3 Jameson, Fedric. “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”. pp. 239-252. In: Art after Modernism: r rethinking representation.