I am meeting everyone in the courtyard and I am thinking, “Where are the tea and scones?” The pleasantness of the day and the formality of the space make me feel like having a half-doll-half-Alice tea party. It is sunny and a number of my friends are gathering for the preview. I see more people waiting in the cool white interior of the lobby.
I am given a mustache and I think, “This is a particularly Sally-ish touch.” To introduce an earnest silliness, an easy interaction. We are all part of the game now.
I am lead into a massive formal foyer. It is atmospheric of olden days and too clean to be anything other than a museum. The woman who has led us in tells us to follow the others in white. She is trying too hard. She has the challenge of being dramatic after our mustachioed silliness.
We are left alone, and inevitably begin poking around. I see eyes peering from behind sliding doors and I think, “Oh are these the ghostly folk we are meant to follow?” I consider pulling open the sliding doors. Someone else does and a nervous-looking docent tells them not to. So we wait.
Then the people in white appear. Descending the stairs, circling the balcony level. I notice the range of ages. An 8-year-old, a 14-year-old, a handful of 20- and 30-somethings, a 40-year-old, a 50-year-old, and a gray-haired woman whose age I cannot guess. They flit through the space, but now we are shy to follow, wary of more admonishments from the nervous docent.
A young woman takes me by the hand, giddily pulls me to the center of the room and lies down. I lie down next to her and see a white bird flying overhead along the balcony rails. I see the small girl manipulating it, but my horizontal perspective makes it feel real, unexpected and special, just-for-me. I think, “This is magic!” The small things.
She leaves me and I think briefly about the subtleness of body language, the tiny cues that tell us everything. How did I know that I was no longer meant to follow her? How did I know that I should in the first place? These are the concerns that plague a semi-interactive show that moves through a house, and it strikes me that it is so easy. So obvious. We practice making and reading these signals every day. But everyone fears fucking up. Would it feel so easy if I had not been practicing this kind of performance?
I wander through the rooms, witness a woman dancing in a window, a tableaux of men and women in what I recall being a dining room, a bearded man and a teen making music in a vestibule, sound muffled through the closed door, electric guitar unplugged and incongruous. The dining room tableaux feels gender-y, in that way that says “This is about Men and Women”; the vestibule feels anachronistic, strange, out of a different realm.
We are led upstairs. I notice the group diverging now, breaking into smaller groups, following different people. I follow myself, out into a space where no one is performing. My friend comes with me (but this is a silly thing to say-I am at a preview, full of my friends) and we talk for a moment about our desire to break the contract, tempered with our desire not to break the piece. We want to explore, to wander off, to feel permission to go wherever we want and do whatever we please. Find magic by happening on it. But we also want to play along, to be good guests. I wonder again if these are the desires of a normal person, or of a person who has been making interactive site-specific work.
I join the group again for a dramatic monologue in front of a mirror. The woman who brought us into the foyer is playing the part of the Wife, the emotional Woman. I am reminded of Victorian melodrama.
We go up another floor. Once again I am singled out, brought to watch a man in a tiny room, framed by a large window, dancing a repetitive, tense, contained dance. I feel the discomfort of being the only person watching, the one-to-one ratio. I am relieved of my responsibility when another person arrives, and I move on to the open center room.
Here a large frame faces a stage. I am drawn to the frame, and once I am within, I am coached in forming my portrait. One of the white-suited men appears behind me, sharing my portrait, touching my head. It is a moment that is both magical and disturbing. The bright flash of a simulated old-style camera, and I move on. I read a little about August Strindberg, his obsession with self-portraits. This whole exhibition is dedicated to him, and I know nothing beyond what I have read here and in the promotional material. I have heard he is perhaps a misogynist, perhaps a narcissist, perhaps a genius.
In a small alcove, I am invited into a tiny room, beyond the imposingly tall figure of Noah Bremer to sit with the youngest cast-member, Ea Eckwall. She draws my portrait with a studious concentration and an elegant un-self-consciousness. This is magic again, watching myself emerge in colored pencil by the hand of a perfectly composed 8-year-old.
When I re-enter the large ballroom-like photograph room, I see people holding flowers. I know I have missed something. The default of this show is to miss parts of it. We gather around the center and a choreographed dance ensues, more man-and-woman binary dancing, more balletic tableaux. Pointe shoes, even. The characters gather onstage; the photograph flashes, again, again, again. I think of death, of ghosts, of feelings. Nostalgia and loss and preservation and futility and humanity and photographs. Again, again, again.
I don’t remember when this happened. I think it was earlier. We wandered through some darker exhibition rooms. Arwen Wilder and another woman (was it Sally Rousse? my memories are slipping from me already) dueted against a low-lit display that makes me think now of a jewelry case.
In the next room, Arwen and Noah duet. (I suddenly doubt my memory of Arwen in the jewelry room.) The tiny woman juxtaposed against the tall man, a duet of limbs and stuckness and books. Ending in a book, an exit through a darkened drapery door.
We are released downstairs, channeled back into an open room (sunny reception room, furniture-less and white-draped) only to be bid adieu. The cast stretches out, from the bright airy room we are in, across the foyer, up the stairway, singing us goodbye. They beckon us and dismiss us simultaneously, singing for us to stay and go in an almost lullaby that feels like it should have foreshadowed the show.
I leave, riding down the elevator with another friend, catching a last glimpse of the cast hugging the massive doorway, singing and waving. They have ushered us out, flanking the pathway, clearly sending us on our way. I feel premature, pre-nostalgic. I have not had enough time to peruse the whole place. But also full, filled with images of photographs and fleeting sensibilities, brief dances and momentary experiences.
Weeks have passed and I am sitting down to write this. I write a little bit. Weeks more pass. I write a little bit more. More weeks pass. I think about my own experience of making an interactive house show. What did I want to know? I think about how each audience member sees a different show depending on which trajectory they follow. What a mystery the piece is, when it is a million pieces. I wanted very simply to know what each person’s experience was. How the show worked for each individual. What each person saw and felt in the myriad possibilities. An impossible task, but here is one view.
Sally Rousse – KOM HIT
American Swedish Institute
June 24, 26, July 1, 3, 8, 10