Thursday, December 19, 2013

Meet the R&D: Jeanine Oleson

Jeanine Oleson, an artist in this year's R&D group, shares the process of her most recent investigative performance project. 

It’s been so great to be an R&D fellow in the past few months. I’ve learned a lot and admired my current fellows processes and work. I’ve felt like a bit of an outlier as a visual artist who also makes performance work, but I think I’m soaking up some of the craft that is so important to theater. I’m working on an experimental opera that will be performed in May at the New Museum.

A poster I made while looking for interview subjects

At first, the performance seemed like it would be partially constructed from interviews with cultural connoisseurs who have particular interest in their motivations, and then move this through a story about care for the external world and conditions of life. I spent time finding, interviewing and thinking about people who have no professionalized motivation and gain for their enthusiasm, but hold vast amounts of knowledge and love. (I’m still looking for people, so email if you know of anyone or ARE one of these people:

While I love this idea, I have come to realize (yet again) that this isn’t exactly how I work. I love the idea of enthusiasm for external objects as a queer lineage and quasi-Marxist discourse against the subject’s role on Capitalist imperatives, but this is not the actual way I can tell this story.  Instead, I have a huge pre-occupation with staging, objects used in performance to mimic or change the body, and found text. So I will write this blog post with videos, images, and references to my performance in an excited attempt to communicate what I’m excited about.


I began thinking about this idea after seeing a documentary about Fran Lebowitz a few years ago. She was talking about AIDS and the effect it had on cultural projects like the opera, dance, and music in New York. I don’t remember exactly what she said but the general sense was about how the amount of erudite gay men who died in the 1980s gouged the engaged audience that existed to remember and in some sense, hold the works of culture in an unofficial archive of their memory. I love that this was said by Lebowitz–it codifies the lives of people lost, and reminds me that culture is nothing without an audience that creates and archives with their attention and care.

            Lebowitz on our current audiences and the blind art collector. 

From these initial ideas about the interviews folding neatly into a script, my actual process has left me to examine how to move from paper to staging in ways that can engage the audiences I am considering.

One of the people I interviewed, Joe, an avid opera fan, explained how he first came to love singing. It was Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso – he said he went into the theater a child and came out a lover of the human voice. When I asked how it really affected him, he made a zone over his body from neck to mid-thigh and said, “here.”

I’m left to consider how to create a sonic space that can re-activate this zone for Joe!

Werner Schroeter was a queer, underground German filmmaker who was driven to make work based at least partially on his love and care for opera. His films are dense, visually amazing, and packed with so much detail and research, but become elegiac and absurd. I think of him as being somewhere between Jack Smith, Luis Buñuel, Antonin Artaud and Werner Herzog. In The Death of Maria Malibran, a performance-driven, over the top dramatic meditation on the tragic life of the 19th century opera diva opens into many more visual and aural spaces. Schroeter’s later film, Love’s Debris, brings together a group of well-known opera singers and actresses in a French villa for a documentary under the premise of what love means to each of them. Ultimately the film is about Schroeter’s love for each of them. It’s really touching to see him literally meeting and directing these objects of great love and obsession. There’s a scene where Anita Cerquetti arrives to the villa and he literally falls at her feet with joy and gratitude. Talk about a connoisseur.

Der Tod der Maria Malibran by Werner Schroeter (sorry, I could only find w/o subtitles)


Vocal chords

I’m interested in ‘voice’ as conveyor of meaning, subjective agency and musicality; and narratives like apocalypse, ethics, and a kind of epic intersectionality between these parts. I’m also interested in what forms sound and light emit from to create the staging and meanings, but am returned to the previous section’s idea of how what’s heard can alter someone. How can it alter them? Through the ecstasy of music and the human voice like in the case of Joe and Werner Schroeter? Also through hearing a truth that alters someone’s sense of the world and their place and role in it?

I’ve been trying to critically connect some of these ideas to Photo Requests from Solitary, a project I’ve been working on where we invite people, many who have been incarcerated in isolation for years, to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined. We are working to match responses to the requests, asking artists/photographers to provide images for the written prompts. Through making images from someone’s voice and desire, an audience is willing and able to understand the ethical dimensions of individuals affected by this administrative violence of the State. It hopefully leads to an organic advocacy against this all too common practice. This is a project with Parsons The New School for Design (where I teach), Solitary Watch and Tamms Year Ten that is currently spreading to New York and California after it’s inception in Illinois’ notorious Tamms supermax that was closed at the beginning of this year. These requests and images are meant to provide advocacy and outreach for the organizations working to end solitary confinement by informing and creating an audience of dissent against this issue as well as all of the contingent issues of mass incarceration, ethical relations of citizens to the State, racial inequity, poverty, policy, etc.

Democracy Now interview with Anthony Graves on solitary confinement

This extension beyond genre and traditional discipline is something that everyone in the Civilian’s R & D group is grappling with. Also in the art world where I’m usually situated, there is much discussion of engagement with social issues, but how is that actually happening? Who are we engaging and what do we want from these audiences?  It doesn’t always match up, and while I’m not saying my project will, I am at least interested to try.


In thinking through my process for the piece I’m developing, I realize part of it started with a trip and set of questions for a landscape. In June 2010, I was in Longyearbyen, Svalbard which is an Arctic archipelago north of Norway. It was a long trip to an island where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is situated. I had originally thought of this as a symbol of institutional response to the perceived threat of an "end time" but through further research before my trip and interviews while I was there, I came to realize that it’s a completely flawed plan to actually provide seeds in a catastrophic situation, and paradoxically, the collection of seeds by an NGO funded largely by seed engineering companies is fraught with ethical issues. Also, while I was there, Norway and Russia signed treaties that basically allow the first large-scale off-shore oil drilling to begin, which is another important strategic part of this site. So, this new knowledge largely became my interest. Alongside the larger ethical issues of science, I began to see the landscape as not really yielding knowledge about the complexities of site. I found that my original ideas for working in this location weren’t that effective, so I adapted. I spent a lot of time meeting and talking with people on the island, who worked in the tourist industry, also scientists, and students at UNIS, the small research university. I also walked for miles every day (but was careful to avoid polar bears). I ended up also thinking about light and energy a lot with the sun perpetually overhead which ended up in later, related photographic work and even in the eye/light object for the project I’m currently developing (see below). I wrote a great deal and took a lot of photographs, none quite like what I thought I’d take in preparation, but that is what happens in experiencing something. It was only through actually going to Svalbard that I was able to have the complex thoughts and reactions as a means of sorting out ideas about apocalyptic thought, and connected neoliberal policies of assistance. What does it mean that seed companies are replacing heritage seeds with GMO crops is now sponsoring and storing those displaced seeds in a sealed vault?

In this image, you see the mountain that the Global Seed Vault is in, and on top is a series of satellites in an international security project.
 Image of Svalbard
For this piece, I’m building a set that is a mountain and cave, reversible, for use in the two-act experimental opera. I’m thinking of this as an internal and external space and working with a lot of paradoxical meanings like exploration/vulnerability, masculine/feminine, fiction/reality, epic/mundane, progress/prehistory, far/near sight. The mountain is based on the image above, and the cave is a re-imagining of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Image representing Plato’s Republic
In Alain Badiou’s writing about Plato’s cave, it is called “the situation,” or maybe another way of saying a world formed by all representation as shadows on a wall. Within it, opinions are formed as lower case truths that are packaged into neat boxes of knowledge. It’s only when an ‘event’ or rupture occurs that a Truth or momentary glimpse at the form in light. This is a notion of the Real. What can create this type of fissure? What highly questionable notion of T/truth? I’m proposing the human voice is the wedge into this fissure, the objects in this piece represent the paradoxical nature of knowledge and that there are possibilities for World-making that extend beyond hierarchical traditions of narrative. (Wish me luck on this)

Paradoxes of Neoliberalism


Language doesn’t come first in shaping this work–space and objects become far more important in dictating the outcomes. It feels off to say objects form space, but they make the only sense of how and why I would occupy any time. Not to dismiss what I just said, I am much more interested in language that’s spoken and sung than in written words. I feel like a fraud when I write my “thoughts.” (Oh, irony!)

Other objects I’m building are an inversion of bodily function: an ear that is a brass instrument and an eye that projects light. I’m currently working with Chuck at The Brass Lab in what is turning out to be a can of exciting worms.

Maynard Ferguson on the horn

Eye As a Screen


In this image, I wanted to enact how banal it is to recognize terrible things happening and keep living, so I used my body in an obvious way to “black out” a portion of the landscape on Svalbard. I had no words for what I felt, only that creeping revelation of everything terrible being revealed by what’s been sitting in front of me for a while. I am now trying to find those words and reactions, and hope this piece can in some way work to bring some light to specific stories and the affect it can have on an audience.

Michelle Alexander on her experience of writing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Diamanda Galas asks if you were a witness in Plague Mass

Thanks for sharing your process, Jeanine. For other posts about our R&D Group artists, please click HERE

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holy Matrimony! Part I

We’re starting up a new series here at Let Me Ascertain You called “Holy Matrimony!" With DOMA getting taken down by the Supreme Court this past summer and with marriage equality spreading state by state, we thought it was a good time to look in our own Civiliansy way at that very special occasion – the wedding. For the past few months, our intrepid team of interviewers gathered stories from all over America for glimpses into weddings in a Vegas Wedding Chapel, a Courthouse in Louisiana, and even a Taco Bell in Normal, Illinois. Everything was recorded live at Joe’s Pub here in New York City.

We start this first podcast episode with a couple from own home turf, Brooklyn: Becca and Jon, portrayed by Jess Watkins and Trey Lyford. Then, Nedra McClyde plays Ashley, a bride in Michigan who gets into all the details about her wedding night (you might want to send the kids outside to play during that one). To close things out, we’ve got a song by Michael Friedman. This is “Little Match Girl,” a song that has nothing to do with Hans Christian Andersen. This one’s taken from an interview we did with supposedly the number one matchmaker to the rich and powerful here in New York.

Interviews for this podcast were conducted by Amina Henry, Talya Klein, and Jess Watkins. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe on iTunes to hear upcoming episodes in this “Holy Matrimony!” series.