Nightmare of a futurist past

14
Nov
2009

My friend Paul had an extra ticket to a performance art piece at The High Line park last night, and graciously invited me along.  The piece, entitled “City Symphonies Out of Doors” was part of the Performa 09 series, performed by “Acclaimed avant-garde ensemble Text of Light“. Basically, the ensemble played music to accompany a silent film from 1927 that had many scenes of life in Berlin. Their premise is to “improvise”, not “illustrate” in the presence of film. The film itself is seen as part of the Futurist movement, with its representations of dynamism in modern life. I studied the Futurists in college and was quite a fan of them, especially their work in sculpture (Boccioni, for example) and architecture (Sant’Elia). The antics of Marinetti and other founders of the movement were sometimes inspirational (trying as they were to shake off the chains of history) and sometimes merely petulant. It didn’t help that many of them aligned themselves with Mussolini and Italian Fascism later on. Be that as it may, the movement was one which tried to fuse art with the chaos and industrialization of modern life, to find a meaning and direction that was truly modern (and appropriate to the age). One hundred years later, it is still interesting (and sometimes comical) to look back on these preoccupations for what they tell us about the great upheavals and dislocations brought about by technology.

The film itself was mostly interesting for its historical content. There were some excellent compositions, but the only “avant-garde” thing about the film was its tenuous relation to “story”. I did find the scenes of early 20th century life to be fascinating in and of themselves. And although to modern eyes there wasn’t much particularly shocking, I can imagine a hundred years ago the sense of newness and chaos in the imagery and editing would have been more palpable and disorienting. The ensemble played “music” to accompany the film, and I struggled to find any structure, pattern or meaning in their noise. I played a game of trying to imagine their motivations for the screeching and at times physically painful sounds they were inflicting on the audience. Here are the possibilities:

1. They were trying to induce in the crowd the panic and disorientation of modern life, as close to the horror and dislocation as might have been felt by a farmer in the city 100 years ago. If they had played for merely 10 minutes, I would have gotten the point and enough already. But they continued on with this noisy one liner for over an hour.

2. They were trying to induce bleeding from the ears in the crowd. The level was so loud that at many points many of us had to put our fingers in our ears. I am not exaggerating to tell you that my teeth actually hurt.

3. They had a bet among them to see how many people they could make leave before the end of the hourlong performance. (They achieved about 20 percent attrition by my estimate)

My friend Paul professed to having loved the performance. Although I tried to elicit from him a clear explanation of what it was he found so wonderful in the “music”, I came away unconvinced. I can only imagine that a birthday gift of root canal would be most pleasing to him, if performed by an “artist” in drag with rusty implements. Ultimately, I was glad to be a part of this and get a look into another of the many worlds that layer over each other in this diverse and amazing city. That said, I think it will be close to the first of never before I would subject myself to anything associated with Text of Light again.

For your amusement (if not enjoyment) I am embedding a small clip from the event. To get the full effect, please turn the volume on your computer to maximum.