A psychedelic re-enactment of pre-industrial village

An essay on performance by Sean McElroy, A '14 and Tei Blow, A '14

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Skowhegan is a psychedelic re-enactment of a remoteness pre-industrial village. You work and eat and socialize around the same 90 people daily.  Everybody knows everybody’s business: what people are up to in their studios, who people are sleeping with or trying to sleep with, what people did when they were in an elevated state at the common house. Sometimes because of the context and the general air of intimacy you might find yourself drawn into a deeply personal or cosmic conversation with somebody you didn’t know that well. You might find yourself in a chart-reading in a very hot sauna talking about your relationship with your father. You might feel your mind and your family mood syncing with those of the other participants. This environment creates conditions for performance that might resemble those at the dawn of human society, when people first started performing: unticketed, unmonetized, a ritual / gift / civic act.

We had driven to Skowhegan in a rented minivan bottoming out with tools, speakers, microphones, samplers, musical instruments, a high-quality VHS camera, tripods, photo lights, several green screens, many rolls of scavenged fabric, gold spray paint, two hammocks, and a hard drive containing videos transferred from VHS and downloaded from the Internet.

We were interested in videos where a person looks into the lens of the camera and shares something - information, knowledge, a personal story - with the world. We were thinking about the phenomenon of cheap video, how the low production costs and high potential audience of cheap video created a situation where you could post something to the internet and it could be viewed by eight million or zero people. The contents of our hard drive included:

  • A meditation on loving-kindness by Sharon Salzburg

  • Dr. Sabongui’s What Women Want

  • All three discs of The Authentic Man Program

  • Several haul videos taken from YouTube (a haul video is a genre of YouTube video in which a person shares recent purchases sometimes going into detail about their experiences during the purchase and the cost of the items they bought.)

  • Every YouTube testimonial of Elliot Rodger, who on May 21st had killed 7 people and himself in Santa Barbara because he was unsuccessful with women, and who left behind a YouTube channel chronicling his frustrations.

We spent that summer in the studio named for Mildred Brinn, a small building on the upper field. During the days we worked separately, in the media lab or in the shop, and then met after dinner to work together: we played music, lay in hammocks, listened to guided meditations and re-performed the videos we had brought while in a trance looking into the lens of the VHS camera, allowing the words of these speakers to inhabit our minds and bodies. In the glow of the meditations we were doing, these VHS re-performances became exercises in compassion. Reperforming the videos of Elliot Rodger, the mass murderer, was especially disorienting. It occurred to us that at the time the videos were made, Elliot Rodger hadn’t killed anyone yet, and while his final video was chilling and explicit, his earlier ones felt awkward and sad. In re-performing them we felt like we gained a small perspective on the isolation and despair that drove him to kill innocent people and himself.  

This daily research became the basis for a performance we did on our last night at Skowhegan. We hadn’t used any of the fabric we brought so we hung it all in our studio so that it felt like a tent. People generously accepted our offer to jam themselves into this tent. We served Franzia out of these long vases we had made which, it turned out, made the wine taste like mud. We hosted a work-in-progress screening of Claudia Bitran’s Titanic - which more or less everyone there was in - and then hosted a group meditation. The meditation later evolved into our show Art of Luv (Part 1): Elliot, which premiered at the Public Theater in New York, where we had tickets, ushers, reserved seating, theatrical lights, a dressing room and somebody that would do our laundry between shows.

In the context of Skowhegan our “show” was just part of what was going on that summer, of people doing stuff together because they were interested in each other. There were movement classes, a morning workout group, a philosophy reading group, listening parties, karaoke nights, soccer games, formal studio visits, informal studio visits. There was Psych Night, Trap Night, talking by the lake, talking on the way to your studio, talking on the way to the Laundromat, tarot readings, an arm wrestling contest, a rap battle, and a Carnival. Maybe all these things were performances, or maybe none of them were.