Great Work Today – Megan Mayer’s Soft Fences

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Commander Chris Hadfield’s cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, performed and recorded while orbiting Earth in the International Space Station, has been viewed over 24 million times on YouTube, and another couple of times this past weekend at the Red Eye Theater when it played, in its entirety, at the top of Megan Mayer’s Soft Fences. I remember seeing links to the video when it first came out—something in the internet shorthand about him recording it for his son conjured up all sorts of emotions and wonderings about a lonely astronaut making this heartfelt but doom-referencing gesture to the child he’d left back on Earth. Did the son even know the song? Was he a Bowie fan? A snarky teenager? An oblivious baby? Didn’t either of them really listen to the terrifying lyrics? Why would an astronaut dad want his son to imagine him forever lost in space? I had no patience to watch the video, only flitted over these questions and moved on to shorter videos of puppies. The son, as it turned out, was no towheaded soccer kid or bleary-eyed newborn, but a grown-up 27-year-old. Back on earth, he actually helped arrange for the rights to the song so that his dad could record it, negotiating with not just Bowie’s team, but with the space agencies of the US, Russia and Canada (Hadfield is Canadian, don’t you know). The complexities of the space station itself (different modules and areas are under the governances of different countries and their respective laws) raised all sorts of fascinating questions about copyright issues in space. Who owns what, where, at what altitude, through what satellite transmissions? The Internet and Space are equal tangles of ownership issues. Is there no space that’s free? Not even Space itself?

Megan’s show isn’t about any of this, at least not directly. I could draw connections between all that and having the necessary-but-sometimes-fraught resources for a dance you no longer want or know how to make, as Megan, in interviews and her program notes, said she started to question. These days, you can’t just record your humble version of Space Oddity for the person you love most in the world and send it off to them. Not from a set of coordinates and through a system that has so many stakeholders. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, you don’t want to finish making the dance you started. When it takes years to make, as it often does, you do have doubts, and your life does change, and you do lose steam and resources, and yes, you might wish, with the kind of fervor you once felt for making the dance, that you could abandon it. Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Chris Hadfield, despite all the behind-the-scenes, international negotiations that went into his simple little cover song aboard the ISS, manages to shield us from the bureaucracy he endured. (Of course, being a military man he surely has a resilience, if not an appetite, for bureaucracy.) His video is haunting, lovely, lonely, gorgeous. The footage, shot in what look to be very cramped quarters, feels expansive. You get the sense of, well, being out in orbit, adrift, a spinning, timeless, untethered loss. Suspended and wheeling.

When it became apparent during Soft Fences that the video was going to play in its entirety, I grew instantly weary (being part of the MTV generation killed my stamina for music videos). But I stuck with it in a way I never do watching videos of anything except puppies on my computer and it slowly worked its magic; which worked against Megan, I think, because Hadfield captures so fully the ideas the show wants to get at, and setting the bar so high at the top of the piece, especially with someone else’s material, means either adding a lot of variation and complexity or having to compete with it. The segmented use of the space was a smart move and beautifully achieved by Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design. Wisely, Heidi never lights the whole room at once, which is hard to do well at the Red Eye anyway, and instead pares everything down to the most minimal, isolated stations. You got the sense of the sun peeking around a planet. Audience members were selectively blinded, covering their eyes as concentrated shards of light knifed through the green room doors. The ceiling truss, which can be the bane of a lighting designer’s focus in that room, was blasted with light so that it inked its precise, architectural shadow on the stage right wall and this immediately called to mind the exterior shots of the ISS from Hadfield’s video, suggesting structure and mechanics, interior and exterior.

I liked the quietness and simplicity of the piece but at times it felt lifeless, the performances muted. The sections with Angharad Davies wearing Kevin Obsatz’s video camera backpack as she cautiously set off into the stratospheric wilderness of the Red Eye’s back hallways were the most effective for me, aided by the closeness of her face over the live video feed, the background swallowed into darkness, and the audio quality of Elliott Durko Lynch’s friendly, unruffled attempts at contact. This last part especially, along with Angharad’s emotionally generous yet beautifully understated performance in this section, suggested the fear of the unknown and the security of connection. This was the heart of the piece. Those NASA men, trained to keep the needles of their emotional meters at vertical, betraying no sense of failure or fear no matter what disaster is befalling you…who wouldn’t feel secure in their hands? It’s like some kind of cult. Which is what the military relies on on some level, I suppose. Where kind meets ominous.

Hadfield’s military bearing, his exceedingly composed and tidy presence, is the foil to his emotional performance in his video: it is what makes it so. Greg Waletski has that same countenance. He is a man of exquisite physical control and presence, and so held together at all the edges you imagine he might even iron his socks. His presence in later videos is simmering with the kind of contained emotion Hadfield projects. It is hard to know how the show might have capitalized more on this idea. But the strain of a tightly wound center needing to fall apart was missing for me over the duration. I liked how time seemed to stretch but the stretch felt slack. I wanted more gravitational pull, more internal tension. Megan has talked eloquently about the passivity of orbit. Onstage, some opposing force is needed to make passivity a state in which we as viewers can actively participate (the backpack sections succeeded at this by filling the hollows in the action with another dynamic). Maybe this is even why Hadfield made his video; framing and crafting the passivity of his daily life activated it, made it engaging to live.

Megan’s work can be funny and charming, which is often welcome, but I appreciated all the ways this work refrained from that (only some of the music choices felt like comedic non sequiturs, seeming to mock what was happening onstage and depressurizing the moment). I haven’t seen anything this serious (dare I say grave) from Megan before and I always perk up when that happens with someone. Larger systems—national space programs, artist fellowships, obsessive interest, creative collaborators, international accords—can send us out on what feels like a research mission we were long ago done-in by. We don’t always want to go where we first set out to go and so our mission, as it’s been said elsewhere, is to seek out new life, to boldly go where we haven’t before, to break our orbit.

by Karen Sherman

Megan Mayer
Soft Fences
Red Eye Theater
December 6, 2014

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