I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon entering the fourth-floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art for a collaborative performance, “illlummminnnatttionnnsssss!!!!!!!“ (2014), by old-guard experimentalists Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine. The pair had not performed together in over four decades, and a recording of the billed piece (a revised version of 1971’s “Illuminations”) was only publicly released in 2010. The imperceptibly long passage of time between the inaugural performance and its current interpretation can be read as a sort of lived fermata, compounding the mythic, otherworldly characters often bestowed on artists. And both Forti and Palestine incorporate themes of slowness, embodiment, duration, and meditation into their respective practices, shared interests that delicately colored this most recent event.
The evening began unassumingly: a moderately sized open space demarcated by an outer row of folding chairs (fashioned as a bureaucratic peristyle) sanctioned a makeshift performance area. (During the day, the gallery is occupied by a colorful, late-career sculpture by Donald Judd.) The room was glowing a soft orange-red, giving the museum an unusual theatrical feeling and invoking a strange mixture of institutional formality and detached coolness. The performance space was clearly delineated, but because the chairs were lined along the perimeter, people looking for their seats had to walk through its center, putting them on display to those already seated, the machinations of spectatorship immediately thrown off.
Palestine himself was already sitting at a Steinway grand piano (not his eponymous Bösendorfer, as usual) that MoMA provided for the event, positioned along the edge of the northern wall of the gallery. He sat silently, patiently waiting for the audience to finish their awkward procession, and carefully pumped soft electronic tones into the air. The high-pitched tone clusters were produced by placing small wedges between keys on several electronic keyboards behind the piano, allowing the dissonant sounds to generate continuously without external manipulation (a technique also used at the Plymouth Church organ performance). The resulting texture was omnipresent, almost haunting, and lasted for at least 20 minutes; however, the sounds were barely audible over the pre-show banter, laughter, and conversation. The audience was waiting for the show to begin, but did not realize that it had started long before any of us arrived.
As Palestine continued to wait, artfully sipping cognac from a large, bulbous snifter, legendary dancer Simone Forti entered the room. Like Palestine, Forti seemed comfortable in the space, enjoying the brief moment when it was the audience that was on view. She sat on the floor across from Palestine, on the other side of the piano and adjacent to the latter’s kitschy but alluring stuffed-animal altar. The continual tones, serving as a sort of meditative overture, slowly faded out, and were then brought back for a brief reprisal before disappearing completely. Recalling the dimming of house lights before an opera or film, the aural flicker announced the official beginning of the performance.
Palestine topped off his glass of cognac and made his way toward the center of the floor, where he took another dramatic sip. He then dipped one finger into the alcohol and slowly began to rub the edge of the glass in a circular formation producing a sympathetic vibration: a single, high-pitched tone that mimicked the opening electronics.
Like a shaman wielding a chalice, Palestine offered a taste to Forti, who obliged with careful reverence (the musician rarely shares his cognac). Transforming the snifter into a Buddhist singing bowl, Palestine carefully teased out its warbling, ethereal ring. He then set off around the perimeter to demonstrate the action, as if to proselytize and recruit believers into his tonal cult — an intimate display that sometimes resulted in slight confusion from the audience, as when one potential convert attempted to take a sip.
“Brandy?” she asked, as Palestine pulled the glass away, whispering “cognac” and making his way back toward the Bösendorfer.
Halfway through this process, Forti made her own way to the stage. Gently laying herself down, she rolled her body back and forth across the wooden floor. Like Palestine’s subtle tone, the movements of her body were exaggerated in their slowness and simplicity, as she moved from one end of the room to the other. Palestine began singing, almost chanting, around the vibrating pitch, using it as a tonal base for his emphatic vocalizations, and eventually standing directly over Forti as if to purify her in a tonal wash. The whole process lasted about 20 minutes.
From this point, Palestine walked to the Bösendorfer once again, dipped his fingers into the cognac, and began dowsing his workspace with the liquid, blessing the piano, stuffed animals, and keyboards with the spiritual tonic. After rubbing a bit on his forehead, as well as in his face — an anointment that filled the air with the scent of liquor — he sat down and began playing a repetition of soft, vibrant major intervals, which quickly evolved into dense swaths of arpeggiated harmony.
Meanwhile, Forti rose up from the floor and first began circling the space slowly, pacing around the perimeter, and then more quickly, closing in on a central point. The movement had a gravitational sensation, a pulling inward or downward as she revolved around the center of the floor. The astronomical relation was made explicit when Forti stopped at two different points in order to ask us to glance at the moon, which was brightly shining through the large glass panels that make up the eastern wall. Like the movements that informed her improvisation, Forti wanted the audience to position themselves within the Earth, somewhere between the ground and the sky.
After some time, Palestine’s rigorous piano strumming stopped, but Forti continued, moving frenetically between two large pads of illustration paper pulled onto the floor. Her eyes darted up and down as she scribbled two fragmented portraits of Palestine, who was preparing his next move: a series of field recordings of frogs, children, drones, conversation, and vocal abstractions played from a laptop computer.
Once again, Forti stopped to exclaim, “Turn and see the moon!”
The abstractness of much of the performance softened near the end, as Forti began singing an airy melody in Italian. The song was rather moving and pointedly emotional — even if it was interrupted by the drawl of a cork as Palestine refilled his glass. Indeed, the corking was an inadvertent gesture that marked Palestine’s return to the floor, as he began singing atop Forti’s melody, adding his own guttural intonations and establishing a thicker harmonic structure. The duo paused after a few minutes of soft, dirge-like vocal harmony and quickly burst into a fast-paced jaunt around the room while belting a celebratory, incoherent tune with the gusto of an Irish pub song.
Four decades may have passed since their initial collaboration, but the evening displayed the endurance of the artists’ strong personal connection and mutual understanding. Forti and Palestine offered a serious, highly conceptualized performance that reveled in playfulness and simplicity — not entirely surprising considering the location of the event and what was at stake in that for both artists, who have been largely ignored by the museum industry.
The fields of sound and dance have histories of being pigeonholed or ignored in art museums, and MoMA was an admittedly strange context in which to see figures like Forti and Palestine. This peculiarity is especially evident when considering that the original performance of “Illuminations” took place in an empty building near CalArts. It seemed possible that Forti and Palestine did not quite feel at home in the museum; the acknowledgement of such likely informed the intimate structure of the space — a gesture of empathy in exchange for being forced to sit in a cramped, whitewashed cube.
Yet the success of the performance signaled the capacity of large museums like MoMA to incorporate the fields of sound and dance into their programming schedules. It also reaffirmed the need for museums to support (materially, financially, institutionally) those disciplines in more permanent ways.
If “illlummminnnatttionnnsssss!!!!!!!” had a kind of “every trick in the bag” diversity — perhaps a result of the artists and their mediums existing in conflict with the museum — Forti and Palestine managed to sweep away any misgivings by openly drinking, yelling, interrupting themselves, and generally bucking the rituals of the white cube. Perhaps the artists were reverently irreverent in order to address their welcome into an institutional context that has historically given them little interest.
Simon Forti and Charlemagne Palestine’s “illlummminnnatttionnnsssss!!!!!!!” took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on April 13 and 14, 7pm.