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LONDON — I thought I was going to see Jonathan Safran Foer live and in person Monday night. Sure, it seemed odd that he would randomly be in London with no very recently published book to tour, but who am I to know the details of an acclaimed author’s personal schedule? Here was the chance to see him live, possibly get to hear him read some new material, right in my neighborhood — at a price of my own choosing!
I enjoyed his novels and short stories enough to ignore the accusations of stereotypically Park Slope-ian self-righteousness clouding his non-fiction Eating Animals. Plus, it was somehow affiliated with an on-going art installation! I couldn’t quite make all the pieces make sense together, but who cared? Literary fun plus art means I’m in.
What I ended up attending was something I couldn’t have predicted, but maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. The event was held at the Roundhouse in Camden, a performing arts venue that began as an industrial space in 1846. The rotund architecture gives the edifice a large part of its character, and its directors seem invested in utilizing this unusual space. A prime example of these efforts is the 2009 London iteration of David Byrne’s large-scale musical installation “Playing the Building.” Byrne’s installation ultimately served as an inspiration for the current program series, Curtain Call, which was developed by designer-architect-artist Ron Arad.
Curtain Call programming is centered around the installation of a few thousand silicon tubes hanging from a steel circle rigged from the ceiling. The effect creates a more intimate circular space within the larger performance area, nearly solid when still, but easily entered or exited. The tube-walls double as a 360º projection screen, with images visible from within and outside the structure’s boundaries. The series, which runs until August 29, features filmic and musical performances from both well-established artists and local students and emerging practioners. Most events are pay-what-you-wish.
I think before Monday evening, I had a sense that there would be projections and some sort of massive special curtain, but I didn’t quite understand how Foer, presented as “a very rude oracle,” fit into that arrangement.
When I stepped into the curtained area a few minutes late and thus missing any initial introductions or explanations, I saw the text spanning the tubes, the floor littered with people sitting or laying while looking up. Foer himself was absent.
There was a man (who was likely Marcus Davey, the chief executive and artistic director of the Roundhouse) with a microphone walking around, encouraging attendees to ask a question to send to the Oracle, i.e., Foer. Once sent — how was not made apparent, but there were a few minutes delay between collection and submission — the responses would magically appear on the curtain, white serif font on MS-DOS blue background, typed in real time. The pieces began clicking together.
The keywords “live” and “Jonathan Safran Foer” were legit after all, although I suppose “in person” was something I’d conjured up on my own. People asked questions like “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” or “Why does Tom never catch Jerry?” much to the humorous ire or bemusement of Foer-as-Oracle. (You can read a transcript of the performance here.)
The whole situation was a simple gag, playing as a remote version of the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. It struck me as almost corny, the pretense of Foer pretending to be all-knowing for our amusement, but the novelty of the execution overcame the cheesiness of the conceit. We sat surrounded by Foer’s “revelations” – he was, in this way, omnipresent, if not actually omniscient. And the wavering quality of the curtain added an extra wink-wink to the situation – people walked in and out throughout the hour-long session, Foer’s words splitting, shuddering and reconvening, the instability of his wisdom made physical. There was the added humor in following the words as they appeared via cursor in real time: we were caught in the suspense of his thought process, watching for typos and backtracking. It was like watching that 1990s children’s show, Ghostwriter, but for adults, one capable of snark and disgust, insisting futilely on his infallibility.
The overall experience was quite laid-back, literally and figuratively. I enjoyed what ended up as something of an uncomfortable inside joke with the Oracle, having asked, “What makes someone sexy or not sexy?” The response of “Rufies. Also spelt ‘roofies’” was utterly lost on the British crowd, who are apparently unfamiliar with the date-rape drug Rohypnol.
It was also nice to see that Ron Arad himself was present, sitting close enough to the wall of the curtain to be covered in the text. After our session with the Oracle was over, three short animated videos created for the space were screened, and each used the circularity of the space in a different way.
Greenaway & Greenaway’s piece “ROUNDHOUSEº” amped up the feeling of immersion, replicating the Roundhouse’s architecture with dark parallel lines and arches spinning in seemingly infinite patterns. Mat Collishaw’s “Sordid Earth” presented a thunderstorm within a decaying tropical forest, planting the audience in the center of an oddly grotesque environment.
The final work, “Walker,” immediately recognizable as David Shrigley’s particular brand of humor, depicted a lone, gruff naked man in boots sighing at the audience as he circled around us, his tiny penis bouncing back and forth the whole way.
Ron Arad’s Curtain Call at the Roundhouse (Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London) continues through August 29th.