Crush's Crash

In 1896, William G. Crush came up with an idea for a technology-based performance in which he drove two 35-ton Pittsburgh 404 steam locomotives together at full throttle. The audience got to see what happened when they met.

At that time, these were the most powerful machines available and the performance constituted the largest theatrical production ever seen in America. It drew an estimated 40,000 people making it for a time the second largest city in Texas.

What happened was of course carnage. Both boilers exploded and people spoke of running through a "sea of blood" as they rushed the crash site to collect souvenirs.  Although the event's sponsor, the Katy Railroad Company, faced numerous lawsuits afterwards, and summarily fired Mr. Crush over the fiasco, it soon became clear that the event had been a tremendous success. Train ticket sales went through the roof and Mr. Crush was quietly put back on the payroll.  Performance art had its first corporate sponsor. 

Now its 2009, and I'm watching Cirque du Soleil and wondering what technology has to do with art. The question is actually more basic than this. It concerns sensation and expression. It concerns what is expected and what is perceived -- what is new and what has value.

Cirque's show (the one I saw) incorporated enormous projections and powerful loud speakers as well as live dancers and circus acrobats. The music, while mostly recorded, was also live.

Like Crush, they rely heavily on high technology. Like Crush, they are looking at ticket sales numbers.  Boom:  Yey!

Now here's me last night, meeting with ____, a lighting design company in Nashville and listening to how they want large-screen projections where the performer can change what is on the screen with their gestures. Of course... spectacle. I should have known. It made me sad afterwards.  Am I in the wrong profession, or the right one?  I could get them what they want, secretly though, I hate that stuff.  (read my essay: project this!)

The question, of course, is not _if_ we want to use technology, but _how_. Is it our goal as performers to make the biggest bang?  This will always sell tickets. And, after all, if something works on a small scale, _why not_ blow it up? Send it out to a larger crowd?

The answer is not as obvious as it sounds. It is easy to say, "art, be true to art".  But, for example, yes, I actually would like to blow up many of the things I've made. The idea to touch or physically shake an audience appeals to me. The people who saw Crush's Crash, that is those who saw it and survived, _felt_ the impact. I read a quote in the newspapers where someone said it had changed his life forever.

And yet, there is an obvious dichotomy here. For to make the large effect you pretty much negate the individual. I would venture to say that the wonderful dancers and singers in Cirque's shows are not what people remember most. I may be wrong, but I don't this is what people take home with them.  I was in the sixth row, and could hardly connect to the artists (some of who I had met the day before).

Although they use close-up photographs of performers' faces in their publicity material, in the real event they are pretty much lost.

So, is it merely a question of balance?  I.e. I should use steam locomotives, but just not such big ones?

Palindrome has moved away from those big effects.  We are looking instead at some of the more basic aspects of live performance and interaction, for example, what happens when you synchronize movement, sound and lighting.

But when I look at what kind of jobs the people I used to work with are getting now.  I mean paying jobs...   

Ouch.  I am so poor these days.  OK, Nashville, let's do it. What is the digital equivalent of a Pittsburgh 404?

If I sound cynical, its because I am.  No funding -- and there is so much truly interesting exploration to be done! Synesthesia, it is called, how the eye affects the ear.  How we percieve sound, in relation to movement.  It can be so rich, so evocative!

OK, two things:

One is to dance -- regularly and with Leib und Seele -- body and soul.   (If you are a musician, then make music, and so on). This may sound obvious, but it isn't, especially for those of us working with technology.  

Moving changes the way you think, the way you create.   Ideas come up in motion, that you cannot have sitting in a chair looking at a screen.

The second important thing we need ... is collaboration.  The subject of my next essay.

Till then, happy dancing!!!


Hohenstadt, 8.November 2009

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