Aiming words

Aiming words through a shotgun microphone (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Joe Diebes, a composer and creator of “performance environments” showcased his latest piece BOTCH, part of his three-year artist residency at Manhattan’s HERE Arts Center. BOTCH builds upon a history of avant-garde composition, theory, practice, and philosophy to incorporate the currently raging non-tangible extravaganza referred to as “machine learning.” Performers became units enacting sound functions, until that function was depleted and then switched to another sound function to mimic algorithms, or sets of instructions. They did this through gestures meant to mimic the use of Wii controllers and other electronic devices.

Speaking to speakers

Performer speaking into a microphone, cradling a speaker

Functions nested into the genre of process have infiltrated the creative world since the early 20th century. What is unique is how Diebes ties together overlapping threads outputting them in a vitally cracked form. This includes the entire genre of Fluxus event scores, the breakdown of language via repetition as highlighted in Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Knee Play 5” in “Einstein On the Beach,” mismatched network communications enacted by Lilly Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator, and the haunting scores of Pamela Z. He also throws in Meredith Monk’s exploration of guttural utterances as instinctive universal communication and music. Within this overarching context he posits questions — how does information come to us subliminally though a surfeit of information?  How do fragments of audio and visual detritus influence our reality? How does a composer make sense of it all?


A roll of the dice decides direction

The stage for BOTCH was spare: chairs, blackboards, dice, tape, portable speakers, microphones, headsets, and lights. The performers dressed in black, white, and grey. BOTCH delves into the origin of language by using guttural utterances and reconstructed vowels, and through throttling out hyper-punctuated consonants. The emphasis was on a primordial pre-cognition of speech. A metronome kept time as a tick took one phrase and a tock tossed it out like a viral meme. Scene changes were decided through the roll of oversized dice. Words on screens flash overhead punctuated by cacophonies of urbanized pre-recorded sounds.

Performers uttered into their microphones using diaphramic gusts of sound. They listed to each other’s responses for the resonance of an echo cradling speaker boxes. They were not searching for perfection, but its opposite — stutters, half words, exhales and wordy slurs. The difference was this was a collection of real time humans hanging on and stuttering in mid-sentence, not network server’s buffer overflows gagging the download transmission lines. The piece grew contemplative, philosophical, and extracted a treatise of pithy diary entries such as “yesterday’s news served up cold.”

For the finale Diebes had the performers take off their mikes, turns off the overhead monitors, and merge back into the audience. At that point an actor offered a soliloquy on how computer voices obscure meaning. Other actors addressed the audience quickly with a rehearsed vulnerability stating: “It’s a controlled casual — you know calculated.”

Two Fingers

Hands imitating gesture control

Finally, the house light dimmed and both actors and audience was left in the dark, with no technology, no electricity, their voices eerily silenced.

BOTCH by Joe Diebes in collaboration with/performed by Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, John Rose and Saori Tsukada played from November 12–23 at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, Soho, Manhattan).

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.