(reprint from WayBack Machine)
Peep show expands our notions of art.
by Lois Wadsworth (Eugene Weekly, November 2002) (scan of actual article—13 MB, .pdf)
Imagine yourself an ordinary traveler, heading for your room at a motel downtown, just across the street from the bus station. But when you arrive, you discover that eight avant-garde artists got there first, and they are taking up seven rooms in a row filled with strange but wonderful art installations and performance.
What an opportunity for the whole family to imagine a night at the Timbers Motel in downtown Eugene. For one night only, the show starts at 7 pm Saturday, Nov. 23 and runs as long as people are willing to look. Because this is an audience-participation art event, you have to walk into, wander through or stop at the door of each room and peek inside. The rooms are easily accessible. This show is free and open to the public. Join the crowd for “Motelhaus #3: If on a winter’s night a traveler …”
The artists who have created work for this show are interested in exploring ideas and issues such as liminal space, psychogeography, gender, dimensionality, permeability, transciency, security, surveillance, anonymity, sex, power, money, endurance, spectacle, technology and the sonic environment. Now if you’re thinking you can’t imagine how some of these concepts translate into art, don’t worry. You don’t have to literally understand the ideas. Just bring an open mind to experience and enjoy the art.
Leon Johnson initiated the project in his capacity as designer and producer of media events. He is joined by seven other artists: Mary Flanagan, Pipo Nguyen-duy, Joey Bargsten, Justin Novak, Colin Ives, Megan O’Connell and John Schmor. All of these people have done fascinating things, so if you can’t wait, just skip over to the accompanying “Meet the Artists” to read more about the adventurous spirits in the vanguard of this art enterprise.
Johnson spoke on June 7 of this year to the City Club about the future of art, and his remarks are relevant to appreciating this unusual performance art and installation project. He asked that we, the audience, “commit to participating in the rich unfolding of emerging creative processes.” He urged us to expand our notion of what art is, “to listen with greater care to a greater expanse of stories and experiences.” He also encouraged people to look for opportunities to make art in “the space between edges.” He called this between-the-edges space “an ecotone: the fluid, liminal space between, for example, city and wilderness or the tide pool found between ocean and shore.” What we can discover there, he said, “is tantalizing.”
Liminal space begins at the door (limen means threshold) of the motel room. A common experience of many travelers is that a motel room is a place between home and destination, neither exactly public nor precisely private, but some mysterious, not entirely comfortable place between. Johnson talked about the interim identity you assume when you check in that you keep until you check out as a kind of covert, anonymous identity.
The artists present at a planning session in early October spoke about their own motel experiences, and those who worked on earlier Motelhaus projects in Portland and Eugene described what they found in the rooms — needles, chicken bones — and the technical problems they encountered. Everyone talked about pop culture, shared images of motel rooms from movies, television and paperback novels. Johnson described an installation by Martin Caulley in the last Motelhaus: “The room was filled with red shoes, in all sizes, child to adult. There was a little stage with a video camera set up, where people could try on the shoes.” While not all the thoughts and ideas tossed around in October resulted in images and performances that you will see and hear on Saturday night, some did.
Leon Johnson and John Schmor’s work (shown on EW’s cover) will be installed in Room #104. The Fit/the fitting: Mr. Fact and Mr. Fiction is a conceit originated by Johnson and performed live by Schmor, with audio (multiple voices) by Johnson. Schmor’s character is like the 1950s creations of French movie actor Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). Presented in one long performance that begins at 7 pm and ends at 8:30 pm, The Fit is performed by one character accompanied by audio of several “patriarchal” voices that at first are amicable but gradually change to become threatening. The entire script is very simply this:
“A man arrives at a motel and checks into his room. He waits, he sits. He asks: “In a place that is not home, where am I?” A voice answers: “Is it tight? Back here? Is it tight?” The man asks: “In a body that is not mine who am I?” A voice answers: “Get into the dress.”
Mary Flanagan said she was interested in notions of transiency, security and permeability. She looks at drains, windows and doors as permeable spaces that she first thought she might “collect” through directing conduit and sending video through it. Or she might do a surveillance kind of a thing to show how many people a day enter the room. Or, she said, she might create a virtual presence you would see in the room to create a sense of displaced reality. And this last sense of displaced reality is what Flanagan has chosen to install in Room 101. Her installation is called [double] , and its aim is to create “a surreal double of yourself in the room.”
Joey Bargsten originally considered setting up an interactive tableaux, so that the audience coming into the room would activate different live actors by pressing different keys on some kind of screen-based mediator. Or maybe the room would look like an independent film company had set up cameras and lights, leaving them in place while everyone’s gone to lunch. The bed’s a mess. Objects around the room provide clues to the circumstance. Maybe you’d hear some kind of soundtrack of two people coming from the bathroom.
Bargsten incorporated some of these ideas into Anatomy of Melancholy™, which he describes as “a layering ofvisual, sonic and physical evidence of pleasure, pain and cinema.” (See Calendar Intro page.) A WWII 35mm camera observes the scene in the room, and Bargsten, wrapped in a cloak, accompanies on an “amplified violin with digital effects processing.” What’s observed includes a televised program of a masked figure, who “continually hurls himself toward a concrete wall.” Undefinable sounds that could indicate “love or violence in progress” come from the bathroom A masked figure lies on the bed and recalls a passage from Robert Burton’s 1632 work, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Pipo Nguyen-duy proposed setting up a ping-pong table in the room, where he would compete against a robot. As an athlete he said he thinks about performance, competition, endurance and spectacle. But he also thinks about gender issues, he wrote. He may have changed his ideas by Saturday night, and the only way to know for sure is to be present for the show.
Megan O’Connell referred to a room she created for a previous Motelhaus that generated “empty symbols associated with certain behaviors.” She said Surrealist Andre Breton’s notion of a room’s property of emptying itself inspired her. O’Connell has decided to use this text on the bed, with a vertical line dividing each pair of words: lay/lie; laying/lying; laid/lied. Additionally, a voice on the video will comment on “encounters, losses and admissions,” for example: “Hollowness. Pure madness. Although he knew he was responsible, he quickly realized that he had to keep quiet.” Although the voice and words will change, the video will run continually. O’Connell will have “take away” cards to give to viewers.
Colin Ives talked about motel rooms across the country created by chains as identical spaces, “a space you wouldn’t care to remember.” He originally thought he might let people come just to the threshold of the room, the better to define it as liminal, do-not-enter space. His thoughts about motel rooms include these:
“The motel room is a strange mixture of public and private. We enter a space shared by many, yet expect our privacy. We expect that the cleaning staff has cleaned for us, and there are new nicely wrapped soaps and little shampoos waiting, The soap and other courtesy items are both a boundary of what is appropriately shared and symbols of the cleansing that has taken place. These cleansing symbols are particularly important in the bathroom, the most private space in the public space.”
In Ives’s installation, Beholder, guests enter directly into “a compromising place: the bath.” An oversized bar of soap in the bathtub contains a small screen that invites guests “to bend down and look inside,” he said. “The screen plays a microscopic skin flick, some sort of visual cleaning, a search for corporeal detritus.” This installation breaches the boundary between public and private as each new guest “sees the residue left by seen (and unseen) others,” he wrote, asking ‘Who is the beholder? And who is beheld?”
Justin Novak’s installation will involve “ceramic objects that suggest a narrative of gamesmanship and power, with imagery that bridges the sacred and the profane. The motel room here is a context for transgression.”
The artists’ previewed the rooms assigned to them in early October, before they began planning, building or assembling their installation. But they are not allowed to start work in the room itself until noon Saturday, the day of the show. Johnson told the artists to “keep it fluid,” because “lots of things must be tweaked, lots re-thought that day.” No doubt about it, the whole experience will be challenging, but it will also be a lot of fun. By 7 pm the rooms will be ready, plastic runners will be in place to save the motel’s carpets, and artful signage will lead the audience on this eclectic, visual adventure.