By Michael Workman
Your set design for this production of The Seldoms’ “RockCitizen” is part sculptural installation, part wearable art and part stage setting. How did you get involved with the production and how did the idea for it come about?
A year ago, Carrie Hanson asked me to collaborate on a performance that happened at the Museum of Contemporary Art called “Power Goes,” and that was the first time we ever worked together. Essentially, she was looking to me as a visual artist to create video primarily. The way she described it was that she needed, with these historic works, to have some context for the work she was delivering through the dance. So, in a similar way that she works with her sound designer, she was looking for someone else to give the audience some context. That project was a really lovely process, we all gelled really well and I totally enjoyed making the video for it and, because I was involved on the project from the beginning, that led to set design. That was our first work together and so for “RockCitizen” we know how each other works, so we’re really going at it in a very organic way. I’ve now figured out how to translate my design into moving images and it was easier for me to focus on the subject matter she was working this time.
Is that how the idea for using this material as a kind of sculptural form came about, working through the concepts for the performance?
Yeah, basically I was discussing the project with her before it was rooted much visually. “Power Goes” was about the power of authority or politics or top-down; “RockCitizen” is about power delivered from the ground up. What that meant for me visually was tapping into the protests of the sixties and how people did everything on their own to get attention—protest marches, sit-ins—and that led me to the idea of bra-burnings and how a bra was actually a symbol. Then my head started to spin off into, “well, wouldn’t that be an interesting object to use as a projection surface?” Which led further into, “Maybe it’s not a projection surface at all, maybe it’s this object that can be a shape-shifter,” which is what counterculture is all about, putting yourself in the way to make new things happen. So this whole idea of the bra as a symbol became fertile ground to play with. With just a little exploration on my own and looking into Buckminster Fuller, and how his geometry came together to create a performance, I thought, “well, a bra has a certain geometry to it, and if you sew it together in this certain way, it becomes very sculptural and not quite a bra anymore.” It could evoke netting, like military camo netting. If we used bright colors it evoked the rainbow gay flag of pride. If we used fluorescent colors, it alluded to the psychedelia of rock posters. And, of course, it is still a bra and symbol of the women’s lib movement. It’s kind of awesome material: stretchy, this fertile ground to become anything. I described the brascape as constantly in flux, a backdrop. It’s a prop that the dancers work in and around. It also becomes costume at some point. So, it initially started off as set design for video but became something more. We worked with an awesome tech person who helped us come up with a system of pulleys and ropes—there’s eleven pick-points in the ceiling and the dancers can manipulate this thing manually. So again, really transparently, really ground up—almost gritty. No tricks, no smoke and mirrors, the same way that counter-culture would have done it and it’s super cool. It goes from being upstage to downstage to being a ceiling element that makes the whole dancing space much lower, then [it goes to] to an alternative floor surface that they wear up near their waists at one point, so it actually divides the space horizontally. Carrie was given a residency at the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron last year and we used that week to explore what the brascape could do; we actually built this over a year ago and then used a week of residency to play with it—the dancers and Carrie and the lighting designer. It was all exploration.
That element of interactivity is what I found unusual about it as a set piece, because it’s so completely integrated into the performance. It’s almost its own presence in the performance.
Oh, it’s absolutely integrated. The dancers are touching it and working with it constantly. But yeah, I hope so. Like I’d mentioned to you before, this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m a graphic designer by training for twenty-five plus years, so this area is just a natural extension, but I don’t have all my systems or rules in place so it’s quite fluid. I love it, and because there’s not rules or expectations attached to it, it can be anything, and her group is just very warm to that idea.
At the Storefront Theater, 66 East Randolph. May 5-15, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. $15 general admission, $12 students. Tickets at theseldoms.org/rockcitizen.