Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Playwright Ain Gordon
Playwright/actor/director Ain Gordon is here in residency this week in preparation for the performance of his work-in-progress play Not What Happened, which centers on historical reenacment in 1800s New England. Marketing Intern Cora sat down with him to chat about the piece.
Ain Gordon in rehearsal with actress Betsy Aidman.
Could you explain the plot in a little more detail?
Well, Iâm not a story-driven guy. I tend to be more interested in characters in a situation and what happens to them rather than a plot unfolding. So, itâs pretty simple. There is a rural, solitary woman alone in her summer kitchen in 1804, baking bread, surrounded pretty much only with the mental remnants of other days, and talking to herself. And it’s about what happens to her, in her head that day. And then a historical re-enactor two centuries later on the same piece of ground, which is now a deficit-ridden historic site, leads the tourist through her ability to re-enact that same day.
How has it developed since the shows that you did at the Vermont Performance Lab and Marlboro College?
At VPL, we only did half of it. That was the very first time working with actors on it. Itâs brand new. So we spent five days there, and we did some rudimentary staging and just showed the first half. Then we were at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for another five days, and we pushed through to the end and showed all of it. Then we had a week off, and now weâre here. And weâre going to show all of it again. Each space is one step biggerâat VPL it was in an 1800s meeting house, very small, very intimate, beautiful space. At BAC it was in a larger studio with raked seating. And here itâs in a theater! So weâve been kind of getting used to leaving behind the intimacy of table work, studio work, theater work etcetera, and building up to being bigger. And here is the first time that we will have basic lighting, and basic use of projections, which we havenât done at all before.
Right, I read that this is the first time that you were introducing the element of photography to the piece, with photographer/historian Forrest Hozapfelâs projections. Has that influenced the play at all?
We kind of researched togetherâhe lives in Marlboroâand we took walks in the forest together, and looked at cellar holes and that kind of thing. Definitely his thinking and his body of knowledge influenced the writing. And early on, I had his images in mind for what I wanted to see as the set. Here, youâre kind of seeing a sketch of that because we donât have a giant screen. So this is very much just another stage of showing the piece with some tech.
Can you talk about the local history aspect of the play and how New England ties into it?
With almost all of my work, Iâm interested in the idea of marginalized or neglected history as source material for theater. Particularly because in most places, but certainly in America, the writing of mainstream history is kind of a ruthless editing machine, and thereâs a lot of stuff that hits the cutting room floor. Iâm pretty interested in what hits the floor. And I had been thinking that with this piece, I wanted to reach further back in time to an era that yields even less evidenceâsort of the pre-industrial era when things are handmade; things are used until theyâre broken and then theyâre gone. So there arenât 80,000 artifacts. And I was interested in looking at a rural landscape, which I had never done, which would be a landscape in which there would be even less manmade evidence manufactured, ever. And the natural distances between manmade outpost and manmade outpost is so huge, that stuff just disappears back into the landscape. So I was interested in that, and then the relationship with VPL started to happen at the same time, and so it just made sense to put it in New England. So we used the Brattleboro-Guilford-Marlboro area as a research launch pad. The play is not situated directly in any place, it sort of uses the ethos of unsettled New England at that time, as opposed to Boston or somewhere like that.
How does the audience or the setting for each performance change your ideas for the play?
Well the good thing about the way this has played outâwhich I canât claim credit forâis that three showings in three very different locations for three very different audiences is a great way for me to accrue notes for going to a next draft. With One showing in one place, itâs pretty hard not to just be incredibly reactive. Iâm either like âIt went wellâ or â it didnât go wellââyou either are good or youâre bad. Three showings really gives you a chance to hear it in front of very different communities and get an idea of what to do next. The play doesnât premiere until the fall of 2013, so Iâm going into a whole other rewrite time.
And just in general, what inspires you as a playwright?
As I say, history is certainly my âthing,â but I think that Iâm pretty interested in the interstitial, particularly. Iâm interested in the moment between the moments that seem to matter, and that evidently matter, and how we can theatricalize insignificance for a new significance. So, the idea of this woman in 1804âshe is essentially, by most standards, a woman of no importance, engaged in an action of no consequence, on a day of no significance (laughs). And what does that look like if we actually frame it and pay attention to it?
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Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Christine Ohlman
From singing on Saturday Night Live to working with some of the greatest artists of our generation, the Beehive Queen Christine Ohlman tells all.
Performing arts intern Melissa interviews Christine Ohlman before herÂ rock nâ roll-soul concert on Saturday, April 21,Â at 8 PM inÂ the Club B-10.
You started in the music business young – age 16 if Iâm not mistaken – but why did you decide music was the right path for you?
The reason I knew that music was right for me was because it was the most comfortable I had ever felt in my life. Since I was really a small child, I saw other people communicating in that way. So I started to and it wasnât in my bedroom, not alone, but communicating back and forth with other people. I do consider music to be a very high form of communication, so it was just the place that I always felt the most comfortable, and as I grew up, there became a chance for me to sing with a band, and thatâs really how I got into it, as the âchick singer.” As time went on, I began playing guitar and I began writing, and once I began writing there was a lot of empowerment that came with that, and I became a band leader myself. So it was kind of a progression from âchick singer in the bandâ to the leader of the band, and as B.B King so elegantly put it, I was âpaying the cost to be the boss.â
Â Did you try other things? Did you go to school?
I was a national merit scholar. I went to Boston University to the school of journalism and I have a degree in journalism. I never used it really until about ten years ago, when I was asked to come onto the staff of the All Music Guide. Also, Boston had this great magazine called the Record Round Up, and I started reviewing for them and then I started writing. Actually it was more like 15 years ago, for the original version of the All Music Guide,Â which was a big fat print book, not the website like it is now -Â it was a print, enormous thick book. From then on, I became known as a historian of music and Iâve done a fair amount of writing since then for magazines. Thatâs how I use my degree, but for years I didnât use it.
So your nickname, the Beehive Queen… When did it start?
I think when I started teasing my hair. It was probably early 90s. I did it for a photo shoot and I liked it so much and everybody else liked it, and I thought, well maybe Iâm on to something. I was really in love with vintage clothes, cocktail dresses, and things like that, so it kind of went along with my style. In later years I dropped so much vintage, like dresses and things, but you know I kept the hair. Itâs kind of a lot of vintage but itâs not so retro-retro anymore.
Did someone say, “Well, youâre the Beehive Queen,” or did you kind of make up that nickname yourself?
Ummm… Iâm not quite sure. You know a lot of people ask me that. I think someone else suggested that (but I canât remember who to tell you the truth) and then I liked it so I started using it, and then at some point someone said, âYou know if you Google ‘Beehive Queen’ you are by far the number one hit,” andÂ I laughed so much when I heard that, but then I was like, “Okay, well letâs go with it.” Itâs kind of cute.
So how did you get started with Saturday Night Live?
Oh, thatâs a great story, really a great story. Ummm, G. E. Smith was a friend of mine and we had been in a band together in Connecticut called The Scratch Band, and then the next thing you know, he hooked up with the people on Saturday Night Live as the musical director, and we still stayed in touch. I used to make mix tapes for everyone, and G.E was one of the people that I sent tapes too. Then one day the phone rang and he said, âHey Chris, its G. E., I have this gig out on Long Island, do you want to do it? It would be two nights,âand I was free so I said yes. So we picked 12 or 14 really pretty obscure songs from those tapes and the next thing I know, he tells me that the gig is with the Saturday Night Live Band, with me as the vocalist! And itâs for the wedding celebration of Lorne Michaels at his estate in the Hamptons. SoÂ we did the wedding ([at] which every celebrity in the world at the time was there), and I thought, Well thatâs it, that was a great gig, but thatâs it.” Well, theÂ next week the show was starting up for the season, and Lorne Michaels kept walking across the studio (which I now know so well) and walked up to the band stage and beckoned G. E. down to the front and said, âWhereâs the girl?â And G.E. was like, “What do you mean whereâs the girl?”, and Lorne said, “The girl at the wedding,” and G. E. said, âWell sheâs not here, it was a one-time thing,” and Lorne goes, âNo no, she was great, call her up and tell her to come next week!â So I got on SNL from a wedding gig. So there I am til this day.Â G.E.âs not there anymoreÂ but the band changed very little, and um itâs a wonderful gig, and Lorne has been a prince, you know, forever.
Do you have a favorite moment of being on the show?
Yeah, my favorite moment to this day is the first time we had Paul McCartney on. He had never been on the show and everyone was really excited about having him there and he played a little set at his sound check, he played extra songs, and the late Chris Farley and I were standing there watching him and he started to play Hey Jude, and Chris Farley grabbed me and we waltzed all around the studio and it was just a wonderful moment. We were dancing, everybody was there,it was great. You know itâs very like a family there, so Iâm just really grateful to be a part of that family for so many years.
Do you have a favorite artist that youâve ever worked with?
Honestly Iâve worked with so many. I was lucky enough to sing with Al Green, which was a thrill, and the Bob Dylan thing at Madison Square Garden, because it was the first of its kind ever, where multiple, multiple, multiple artists were gathering to pay tribute to one artist. Also I must say, I am so saddened about this news about Levon Helm. Levon Helm appears On The Deep End with me, and I had not realized his cancer had come back. Iâm very, very sorry to hear… One of the great voices of American popular music across the board and one of the deepest. Also an amazing, amazing drummer. I can testify, having been in the studio with him. He recovered and heÂ was singing, and that voice just cannot be denied. I think the blessing in this whole thing was that he was able to sing again.
So your band is called Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez; how did you come up with the Rebel Montez part of it?
We were just trying to think of a name that maybe I could use as sort of a nom de plume or whatever, and first we had Cortez from Cortez the Killer, the Neil Young song,Â and then it kind of morphed into Montez. We were looking for another word… Maybe I was reading it and I was like, âOh, how about Rebel?â Anybody who has ever thought of a band name can tell you thereâs almost nothing harder to do than think of a band name, itâs ridiculously It was probably a serendipity kind of thing, the day when we put those two words togeher.
I just have one last question for you. You’re playing here Saturday. What should people expect when seeing you live?
One of the things that has always been said about our shows is that we rock really hard but thereâs also a sense of continuity to it and a sense of history. Iâm a pretty good storyteller, so Iâll tell some stories in-between the songs. The music will rule the day, you know, but we really include a few surprises. The cover tunes that we do are pretty well chosen, and they’re historic, all of them. People have always said that itâs very soulful. [The audience] should expect to see a very deep performance. Iâm out there to connect on a deep and visual level.Â Iâm really excited to meet all of you, and to meet some new friends from the area, and to see some old friends from the area, ’cause we definitely have some. Itâs a great area for music,Â and Â have nothing but respect for MASS MoCA and everything that you guys do up there. Iâm really honored.
Watch ChristineÂ perform on SNL.
Interview by Melissa Page
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Artist Spotlight: Getting to Know Miha Ć trukelj
Miha Ć trukelj, who represented Slovenia at the 53rd Venice Biennale, created a two-story site-specific charcoal wall drawing for the exhibition Invisible Cities. Entitled “Melting Pot,” Strukelj’s piece combines several images of urban landscapes into one work. His ghostly, fleeting impressions leave viewers to fill in the rest, exploring both how the image and the city are constructed and perceived. We sat down to chat with him about his work for the show and his sources of inspiration.
How has it been working at MASS MoCA?
So far so good! I like it a lot actually. When I came to North Adams for the first time, I was really impressed by the museum. I really liked it and I thought âwow,â because I like these old abandoned infrastructures and old factories, and I think this museum works perfectly. I said to myself, âOh I would really love to work in such a museumâ but I thought âIâm so far from that, Iâll never come here.â And then just one year later, I got an email from Susan [curator at MASS MoCA] asking if I would want to do a project and I said, âof course!â You never know. Iâll just keep saying that to myself from now on.
And you got your start in painting and drawing, is that right?
Yeah, Iâm actually primarily a painter. I finished my studies specializing in painting. In Slovenia, our academy has more traditional training, so the drawing is very much part of it. After school, when I was very much into painting after the academy, drawing became more and more an important part of my painting. For example I did a painting in a few layers, and the first part of the process was just a grid on the canvas and the outline of the imageâpretty much the same process as it is in the site-specific works with the wall drawings. I use the grid as a base and then the outline of the image for basically every work.
How has your style evolved and how did you become interested in urban planning and architecture?
Immediately when I finished academy I started working with self-portraits, and they were made from CT scans. So I took the CT scans and used them as a reference for paintings, and I titled them as self-portraits. And then when I was more involved in this high-tech digital imaging, I combined images from computer games simulating wars, and actual photographs of smart bombs bombarding places like Iraq or Belgrade. But the reason Iâm saying this is because itâs always about this grid system, and the outline of the imageâitâs always the same process. And then I came to cityscapes, so I was using my own photographs I had taken in different cities, and I would discard the colors and put them in low resolution, and then make a simple black and white print, draw a grid on it, and use them as references for paintings. So this is how I came to the cityscapes. These first steps of paintings became more and more structuredâmuch more information, much more detail. When I was drawing the first layer, when I finished it I always thought âthis looks nice,â and I would leave it in its first stage.Â Thatâs how I came to drawing, and then did drawing separately from painting. So it started with pencil and paper, then the next stage was drawing on tracing paperâseveral layers to get this illusion of perspective and 3-D space, and then in the last stage I came to wall drawings. I was a bit fed up with just installing paintings on the wall, I thought, âI have to do something with the space as well,â and this was one option. So I usually do exhibitions with everything together, because thereâs so much connectedâpaintings, drawings and wall drawings; it works as a whole, as one complete work.
I noticed you included the physical cables from the room in this drawing, and I was wondering, has the architecture of the museum or the room changed your initial ideas for the piece?
It did to some extent, for sure. When Susan showed me this space for the firs time, I immediately noticed the ceiling structure and thought this would be great to work with. I use a lot of masking tape in the wall drawing, and the wooden structures usually work very well with the masking tape and kind of continues into the ceiling. And I was pretty sure I would use string, and attach some strings to the ceiling structure. But I didnât know that I would actually try to simulate cables coming out from the wall and attach them to the ceiling structure as I did here. This came about during the process, with kind of me improvising. And I really like it, because I think that this structure is even more involved in the artwork. And the shadows [from the cables], they also came into the actual work afterwardsâtheyâre so much present and luckily they work so well. So for now, everything is kind of in the right place.
What new ideas or projects are you excited about going forward?
Well, I always get new ideas with each site-specific work. Thereâs not another upcoming project as big as this one for now, but Iâm sure it will come. Iâm a city person; Iâm interested in this human position within the cities, within the architecture, which is always there even though itâs changing.Â The people are constantly moving; moving in and out.
Kind of like a museum.
Exactly. Â This is also why on the wall drawing, it’s strictly architectural and there are some empty areas within it, which are written as dislocated humans. So the idea is to create some possible spaces where humans could be, where they could actually existâor where they actually were in the original photograph. I didnât include them so I just leave the empty spaces. And I usually put the humans on some smaller objects and put them outside the wall drawing.
Did you base this cityscape on any particular city, or is it largely from your imagination?
The final cityscape is imaginary, but itâs imaginary because itâs from different cities and different locations throughout the world. So I kind of created my own cityscape. And it varies from New York, to my hometown in Slovenia, to Dublin and Vienna and Manama in Bahrain. But when putting the photographs together on the computer, sometimes it works so well you couldnât believe it. Itâs a lot of fun.
By Cora Sugarman
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Artist Spotlight: Hugo Hopping
Curator Susan Cross writes about one of the artists featured in our current show The Workers.
Hugo Hoppingâs practice engages with the legacy of conceptual art while addressing social and political concerns. In his video for The Workers exhibition, A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss (2010), Hopping re-stages a 1924 chess match played between the influential artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously retired from his career in art to pursue his love of chess, and the Italian chess master Massimiliano Romi. Duchamp conceded the game in order to avoid an embarrassing checkmate, a move which became of particular interest to Hopping and prompted his subsequent ruminations on the multiple meanings of resignation and loss. In the video Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin of the Mexican Armed Forces offers his analysis of the chess match. Chess becomes a metaphor for society where the system of pieces on the board reflects class hierarchies, institutions, and positions of power. The pawns can be understood to represent the foot soldier but also the working class, who, like the pawns have the least power individually, are crucial â especially in their united movements â to the ultimate outcome of the game. Lt. Tapia sees a parallel in this metaphor to the position of the Mexican people in the hope of strengthening a collective national identity and a means to enact change.
Former curatorial assistant Rosalia Romero interviewed the artist about the video:
Rosalia Romero: You met Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin, whose letter is narrated in your piece, on an online chess forum.Â Did you approach the Lieutenant specifically with this piece in mind? Or did the work grow out of your communication?Â
Hugo Hopping: Between October 2009 and March 2010, I was organizing a solo show for Anne Barrault Gallery in Paris, France titled A Sugar Diet for Mystics. I had prepared some artworks that focused on the public life of Marcel Duchamp, specifically on his chess-related activities. I have come to understand that the game of chess is a public mental sport (often practiced in private) that results in public forms of exhibition, from the park to the tournament.
I was fascinated by the fact that Duchamp resigned from making art publicly to pursue the aesthetics of chess and its strategies. I, myself, had obsessively researched and played chess on a daily basis for over a year, so much that I was beginning to approach a fine line between chess and making art and had to decide which one had priority over the other. I could not believe how much I related to Duchampâs âearly retirementâ.
Resignation took on a theoretical aspect that I had not really understood up until the making of these art pieces. In many ways the resolution of having made these artworks reveals that I listened to Duchampâs imaginary advice to Bobby Fischer. (1)
“If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage himâas if anyone couldâbut I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted.”
Mastering chess is an all-consuming project and having made the world believe Duchamp had given up art for chess for nearly 25 years has to be understood, not as a gimmick but rather as a dynamic for managing public and private artistic activity/production as part of an artistic life strategy, like his final artwork Etant DonnĂ©s seems to disclose.
Meanwhile, I was feeding my own chess mania when I happened to meet Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin. We were randomly matched by the chess engineâs online program and had a very good game that resulted in a lesson. I found his comments about chess revealing and informative.Â I suppose what was more engrossing in receiving advice from him was his background as a career soldier of almost 30 years in the Mexican Armed Forces. I approached him exclusively with the intention of having him analyze Duchampâs tournament game and offer an analysis similar to what he had been offering in our online exchanges.Â This intention resulted from having made a series of art works over the years, which involved diverse individuals contributing content for my artworks through a collaborative exchange. This is how A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss came together.
RR:Â You have stated that in this piece you seek to examine the ambiguity of loss both real and theoretical. Is there a specific loss or theoretical loss you are referencing aside from Duchampâs?
HH: I have for some time been concerned by the breakdown of Mexican society through the rise of narcocrime.Â I spent my childhood living in a suburb of Mexico City, a relatively safe environment, and had been hoping to make a project that evidenced the contemporary social deterioration and that, of course, obviated its loss through the narratives of modern and contemporary art.Â Duchampâs game, in this sense, is a mise en abĂźme for staging âthe otherâ.
His resignation as a chess player possesses a historical narrative between public exhibition and private practice. Lieutenant Tapia is currently caught in a similar dynamic: his role as a soldier and voicing an inaccessible narrative and private perception of Mexican society, without referencing directly the narcowar.Â I found that in asking Lieutenant Tapia to be part of this piece, I was both allowing Duchampâs public chess practice to be examined through the game itself and as a comment on a contemporary conflict offered by an unexpected examiner in the Mexican army.
If the resignation means the sidestepping of making art publicly and favoring a production strategy for the making art privately, then the loss may be a word of warning (which Duchamp suggests clairvoyantly) of a coming transition from a private practice to market-driven practices, thereby transforming aesthetics in contemporary art production.
In terms of a self-reflexive search for an understanding of loss as a way of overcoming historical disappointment and societal changes, the Mexican soldier seems to be searching for a way to modernize the Mexican mind in spite of his station as a public servant directly involved in the current conflict. Material and political loss in this case is a way of life in Mexico.
In the end, the soldier wonders if there ever was a Mexican hegemony and how it can transcend both its historical and contemporary aberrations.
Â RR:Â The dilution of Latin American culture in the face of American influences is central to Lieutenant Hugo Alejandroâs text. He presents a parallel between the great power that a unified set of pawns possesses in the game and the potential inherent in uniting a countryâs people. Building a strong cultural identity is mentioned as a means of accomplishing this unity. Do you share Lieutenant Hugo Alejandroâs sentiment?
HH: Mexican national identity has been displaced by the economic practice in Mexico since the early 1980âs, and it has been fully entrenched into modern Mexican society since the economic circumstances of 1994. In other words, Mexican national identity has also been deregulated.Â In the preface to the 3rd edition of Lesley B. Simpsonâs book titled Many Mexicos published in 1941, he suggests that the âstudy of habit gives meaning to historyââŠfor âwe cannot know ourselves without knowing the pastâ.
Lieutenant Tapia is caught in a generational shift in Mexico, where the political scandals, continued disappointments, and failed promises have abandoned the institutionalization of the Mexican Revolution. He still remembers the difference between Mexican and American identities.
I think Lieutenant Tapia is suggesting an advancement of this identity; however, he does not provide nor suggest how to achieve this.Â I donât know where he stands with many of my comments above, although he seems to share similar concerns.
I differ in many ways with Lieutenant Tapia in that I am Mexican and also American, I have a heritage in both nations, and I see myself caught as a subject of an emerging North American subjectivity, one which is increasingly merging into the other, meaning the U.S. and Mexico. However, a cultural identity is indispensable, especially a strong one, ideally, where the virtues of this said culture can absorb difference and heterogeneity and not succumb to xenophobia and racism. I am impressed that Mr. Tapia and I are on different sides of the aisle; no soldier in Mexico is unaware of the brutal violence that is happening at the moment or has not dealt with it, and I can safely say that no Mexican artist is unaware of the same issues or has suffered losses from the violence.
RR:Â And you mention the increasing presence of military forces in open civil society in Mexico and the then current national crisis as a framework for viewing the piece.
It is important to understand that Lieutenant Hugoâs letter is written in light of a planned build-up in 2010 of more than 45,000 Mexican soldiers, who were being deployed into Mexican society to fight narcocartels. To some, this military intervention into Mexican civil society is regarded as the first major operation since the revolution.
It is important to note that the Mexican Armed Forces is one of the few armies in Latin America that has not staged a coup in the last 75 years and that a blossoming anti-militarization, anti-corruption movement in Mexico is on the rise, led by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who, after the horrific assassination of his son among six others by organized crime earlier this year, has begun to build national support with other fed-up citizens who can no longer bear the societal deterioration.Â This social movement, called Red Por La Paz y La Justicia, believes that society should seek new forms of coexistence and order without the imposition of an army and as such it is demanding a social revolution to gain back Mexican civil society. Here are Siciliaâs own words from a document written in the aftermath of his sonâs assassination.
âWe have had it up to here with you, politicians âand when I say politicians I am not referring to any one in particular, but to a whole lot of youâŠbecause in the midst of this corruption that shows the failure of the State, every citizen of this country has been reduced to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls, with using the Greek word, zoe: an unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being who can be raped, kidnapped, molested and murdered with impunity, we have had it up to here because you have only imagination for violence, weapons, for insult, and therefore, a deep contempt for education, culture and opportunities for good honest work, which is what makes nations prosperous.ââ An Open Letter to Politicians and Criminals, Javier Sicilia, April 3, 2011. (2)
Javier Sicilia has resigned from ever writing poetry again.
1. Brady, Frank: Bobby Fischer: profile of a prodigy, Courier Dover Publications, 1989; p. 207.
2. Carta abierta a polĂticos y criminals. Javier Sicilia
Posted March 1, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, The Workers
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