Six-Hour, Multimedia Experience Challenges Conventions of Performance Art at the Watermill Center

Posted on 18 February 2014

Kenneth Collins, Alaina Ferris and John Sully of the New York City-based performance group Temporary Distortion. Photo by Scott Fetterman.

Kenneth Collins, Alaina Ferris and John Sully of the New York City-based performance group Temporary Distortion. Photo by Scott Fetterman.

By Tessa Raebeck

The same performance could be enjoyed for 15 minutes or six hours—the only necessity is that the audience member has an autonomous, unique experience.

In “My Voice Has An Echo In It,” a new durational performance by the New York City based group Temporary Distortion, the traditional boundaries of performance and art are challenged in a six-hour, installation-based performance with live music, text and video. Temporary Distortion will present its latest work at The Watermill Center on Saturday from 2 to 8 p.m.

The performance comes at the end of the group’s two-week residency at the center, where its members have been developing the project, creating a site-specific installation and adjusting the ever-evolving final product.

Founded in 2002 by Kenneth Collins, Temporary Distortion has shown in venues across the world, including in Australia, the Czech Republic and Japan. According to the group, its  multimedia art “explores the potential tensions found between practices in visual art, theater, cinema and music.” Most recently, its focus has been on long, durational, installation-based performance with live music. Saturday will mark the first time the ensemble will consecutively perform all six hours of the material for “My Voice Has An Echo In It.”

Although the piece will run six hours in its entirety—and performers Alaina Ferris, Scott Fetterman, John Sully and Mr. Collins will perform throughout it—audience members are encouraged to come and go as they please.

“The audience can interface with it for however long they want to,” TJ Witham of The Watermill Center explained. “The audience is 100 percent in control, you can come and sit for the entire six hours if you want or you can experience it, go away and come back.”

The center is hosting a tour at 2 p.m., so that visitors can see the piece has started, take a tour of the building, grounds and art collection, and then reengage with the piece after their tour.

During its residency in Water Mill, the group has installed a corridor on-site in the center’s dining room space, alongside pieces from the art collection. While the performers are inside the enclosed box playing music and reciting text, accompanied by screens flashing text, images and video, the audience will use headphones to hear the material.

At the group’s New York City studio, it has installed a 24-by-6-foot hallway, which completely encloses the performers in a freestanding, soundproof box. Spectators watch the performance through two-way mirrors, so the audience can see inside the box, but the performer can only see his or her reflection. Following this weekend’s premiere, Temporary Distortion is bringing the show on tour through the United States and to France, using similar installations that interact with each building it visits.

“So what they’re presenting on Saturday is almost, in essence, like a dress rehearsal for them,” said Mr. Witham, adding the content of Saturday’s performance is yet undetermined, as the group is “creating it as they go along.”

Unlike traditional performances, the audience at “My Voice Has an Echo in It” is discouraged from trying to follow a progressive storyline or piece together some sort of plot; the intent is for people to engage, disengage and reengage, to create their own experience from what the group provides.

“The fact that an audience member could come at 2 p.m. and stay all the way to 8 p.m. and just listen to the music and hear the performance in the entirety and then someone else could come at 7:30 and be there until 8 and still have their own experience; that is a completely unique performative experience,” said Mr. Witham.

“It has the feeling,” he continued, “it’s connected with both performance and gallery installation, performance art installation—it’s extending the boundaries of what we consider performance and that’s obviously 100 percent at the core of what we do at Watermill and the kind of art what we want to support.”

The Watermill Center is committed to showcasing artists who are “doing what no one else is doing,” in the words of the center’s, Robert Wilson, and Mr. Witham said Temporary Distortion was an obvious choice for the residency program’s selection committee.

Dedicated to pushing the boundaries of theater and performance art, Watermill founder Mr. Wilson is known for his durational work. One of his earliest pieces, “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin,” was 12 hours long.

“My Voice Has an Echo in It” will premiere Saturday, February 22, at the Watermill Center, 39 Water Mill Towd Road in Water Mill. The performance will run from 2 to 8 p.m. Reservations are free but required and can be made online here. For the 2 p.m. tour of the Watermill Center, reservations can be made here. For more information, visit The Watermill Center.

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