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theater : interview

Object Collection

by Aaron Schimberg

“If there is a despairing quality to our work, it is despairing of the fact that once upon a time there used to be an earnest revolutionary spirit in this country.”

Kara Feely and Travis Just of Object Collection. Photos by Brendan Dougherty.

Since their founding in 2004, Object Collection’s multimedia operas—chaotic hybrids of experimental music, theater, and video—have become increasingly audacious, each new work one-upping its predecessor in structural ambition. One can expect to see finely honed variations on signature elements across the body of work: layered action unfolding on multiple planes simultaneously, a noisy spectacle frustrating narrative clarity, Marxist rhetoric set against fart jokes, exasperated performers exchanging colorful wigs and preposterous hats while singing, stuttering, and hissing cryptic proverbs as they repeatedly murder each other. Although segments of these operas may pass in relative quietude, with actors maniacally whispering May ’68 slogans or muttering film quotes (Oliveira, Fassbinder, Seagal) accompanied by the soft screeching of an amplified violin and radio static, the volume will soon escalate. Perhaps a sanguine-faced man in boxing gloves will bolt around the stage falsetto-screaming architectural theory; maybe a hyperventilating woman wearing ten layers of shirts, sweaters, and jackets, though not necessarily in that order, will bark technical details about air vents; or a shirtless man will paint his chest while shouting non-sequiturs in a sing-song-shriek—“I’m gonna TURN THIS PLACE into a CAR WASH! Hey humanity, FUCK you, MAN!”—amidst guitar feedback and the bashing of drums. Maybe all of this will happen at the same time. It is a meticulously composed cacophony, a micromanaged chaos.

As they enter their second decade, the group has firmly established itself as one of the most unique and essential voices in New York’s contemporary theater scene, perhaps the truest heirs to Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater. I spoke to Object Collection’s founders and core members, writer/director Kara Feely and composer Travis Just, in between rehearsals for “cheap&easy OCTOBER,” a commemoration of commemorations of the October Revolution, opening at La MaMa this month.

Aaron Schimberg Even within the relatively fluid bounds of contemporary experimental theater, your work is difficult to classify. Although it has clear precedent within the context of avant-garde performance and is also quite playful, some have found it inaccessible—even hostile. What do you think accounts for this?

Kara Feely I think people use the term “experimental theater” very broadly. Maybe it has sort of been combined with the idea of independent theater; they are synonymous now. But obviously there are a lot of different gradations of experimentation, and there’s always a question of the extent to which people are really actually trying to experiment with things, or instead falling back on cues that people can identify and understand. We definitely have our influences, but we’re trying to make pieces that obscure those cues. You don’t sit down as a viewer and think, “Oh, I understand what’s happening here. I know what’s coming next,” because I’ve always just found that to be boring as an audience member.

Travis Just The people we feel affinities with aren’t necessarily working in the same venues or even the same disciplines. For us, it’s not so much about having a community of theatre companies or composers, but rather artists who have interests outside of their own disciplines. We have plenty of musician friends who say we are a theater company, and theater friends who say we are a music ensemble. Neither group wants to own us.

AS Is that a problem, or do you embrace that kind of ambiguity?

TJ I think it comes with the territory, but you find enough fellow travelers. As long as you can keep making the work year after year, at a certain point you are just a fact and they have to deal with you whether they like it or not. (laughter)

AS You call many of your pieces “operas,” which at first glance might not seem like the most obvious label. Are you using the term literally? Are you interested in redefining what an opera can be?

KF We initially started using the term “opera” to help people identify what they were looking at, to give them a sort of frame.

TJ Not all of our pieces have been operas, but yes, a few of them since 2008 have been. Back then, it wasn’t really common to use that term, but it has since become a lot more common to see it thrown around—as in, “Here’s my McDonald’s opera,” or whatever. We wanted to use it legitimately and not flippantly. There are only so many terms that combine theater and music. But I have no problem stacking our stuff up against Stockhausen and Mozart and that old shit. That’s fine. Not that our work is a continuation necessarily, but we don’t mind the contrast or comparison. Opera is opera—it’s theater and music, and this is a contemporary version where contemporary performative and theatrical methods meet contemporary musical methods. Opera can look and sound like this.

AS Kara, you write and direct. And Travis, you compose the music for each of your shows. What is the nature of that collaboration? Are you working in tandem, or does one of you drive the process while the other responds? Or, are you basically working independently and seeing what happens when you combine the material? Any of those things seem like a possibility in regards to your work.

KF Actually a lot of our pieces have started with titles, because Travis is an obsessive titler. We will say the next one will be called “cheap&easy OCTOBER,” for example.

TJ With that one, we were really exhausted after “Innova” (2011) and said, “The next piece should be cheap and easy—Wait! That’s so perfect.”

KF Usually, we have a structural idea about how to put it together. I never just start writing freely. A structure has to come first.

TJ We work together to figure out a skeleton we can hang stuff off of.

KF At that point, we go off and do our own thing a bit. We know each other’s work well enough now to leave each other alone. I’ve always enjoyed working separately, then seeing what happens when we put it together. Then I’m able to see my contribution in a completely different way.

TJ Everything intensifies everything else. As a musician, that’s something I love about working in the theater—there is a collaborative core. But with music it’s often not that way. Most composers insist on doing everything themselves. That doesn’t interest me at all. Sometimes it can work, but they often aren’t necessarily the best, or most informed, directors, writers, filmmakers, or performance artists. I prefer leaving space for these incredible tensions to happen. Cage and Cunningham are obviously a prime example. Can you imagine Cage, the choreographer?

AS Speaking of leaving space for tensions to develop, this practice extends to the relationships between everyone who appears onstage in your shows. The work tends to favor ensembles and groups, yet those onstage, both the actors and musicians, seem isolated from each other—often doing their own thing. Sometimes this isolation spills over into hostility or mock-violence. And sometimes these disparate elements spontaneously coalesce into collective action, if only for a brief moment.

TJ I try to make it so anything can coalesce at any time. There’s always this buzz of potential, a kind of hovering.

KF I think there is a tendency in theater to expect uniformity among the performers—that they should all seem to be in the same world. Maybe that world involves them walking on their hands and speaking with balloons tied to their fingers, but there is a consistency to it, and audiences are conditioned not to question that consistency. But I’ve always been interested in disrupting that because so much of my experience of the actual world involves inconsistencies and ruptures. Theater can be very manipulative with audience attention. I like to have people branch off and do things in different modes… conflicting modes, and put more activity on stage than the eye can handle. Then you have to choose what you are going to watch.

TJ I think it’s good to give the audience agency. This can come off as hostile, but I think it’s just the opposite. We want to encourage the audience to be more active viewers and to be woken up. We are assuming they don’t want to be led around and told what to do. It is much better to make them bored, then make them not bored (laughter) or have them make themselves not bored.

AS I never find your work boring! For one thing, there is a kind of high-wire act going on. You create these fixed structures, then put them at the mercy of highly unpredictable elements. For instance, in “NO HOTEL” (2013), you created a film that ran alongside and was intricately tied to the live performance, which demanded a rigorous precision from the performers each night. In “Problem Radical(s)” (2009) the entire piece was modular and presented in a different form every night.

"NO HOTEL," 2013. Photo by Hunter Canning.

KF You have to disrupt your structural ideas or else they become very dry. So you have to throw in things that depart from it. “Problem Radical(s)” was very fixed, but the order of each fixed segment was different every night. It created a lot of anxiety for the performers.

TJ It was much easier for the musicians, even though the musicians played a different score every single night, including dress rehearsals. We never played the same score twice.

KF Actors like to memorize what they are doing and really have it set so they can get into the rhythm of it. That piece was tricky because they were constantly problem solving. A new running order meant nonstop, quick decision making on the fly.

TJ “Last night I did this aria wearing a huge bathrobe, and tonight I’m doing it with a helmet on and a tutu over my shoulder, and I’ve got to get over there to paint that wall.” But that energy was what we were going for.

KF In “NO HOTEL,” the fixed film and the live performance featured the same actors doing the same actions, running in parallel but reverse order to each other. I had transcribed the film backward with all the actions. We started to rehearse, and it was a bizarre challenge for the actors, because it was like Déjà vu in reverse. When we finally put the film and the live performance together the performance had its own mind and would depart from the film in interesting ways.

TJ There was also this idea of contrasting the way you watch a film versus watching live theater, knowing that they function in different ways. People tend to gravitate toward watching a film, but they might just get disrupted by this actual guy over here who keeps shouting at them.

AS Kara, you work almost exclusively with found text. In your earlier pieces, much of this text was sourced from instruction manuals and textbooks. Later, you started incorporating more philosophical and political sources, though often set against or combined with these banal texts. This practice creates interesting collisions, giving the banal works a strange gravity, and sometimes rendering earnest political rhetoric ludicrous. I can’t always tell if your work is despairing or hopeful.

TJ It is definitely both despairing and hopeful. I mean, what else can you be?

KF I have a bit of a removed relationship to the text because the pieces themselves are not narrative. A lot of times it’s individuals just saying text or speaking in a rhetorical way, or the text is layered or obscured, and not in a way that is necessarily going in a particular direction. There’s a flood of text and ideas.

As an audience member, I have a very hard time watching plays because I don’t listen to what they’re saying. After fifteen minutes, I realize that I’ve just been watching the actors move around on the set or looking at the lights, and I have no idea what the people just said, no idea what the story is. I am not listening at all. And so that’s kind of the way I’ve treated text from the beginning. My ideas have always been primarily structural and formal, about how I’m putting the pieces together and the mode of performance. But I need to have text of some kind; I need to have them speaking. So what are they going to say? At first I would use this banal stuff like manuals and textbooks, because when I first started writing pieces, I was literally cutting up books and pasting segments of text together. Those were the books I had and didn’t mind destroying, so that’s what I used. It was helpful to take this neutral material and make it strange. But then, more and more, I started to use material I was personally interested in. Of course, you still need to find stupid things for people to say sometimes, because it can’t all be philosophy and theory or else it gets boring. If you put dialogue from a stupid action movie against Trotsky or Boris Groys or Badiou, it gets interesting.

There’s a real relationship between the topics I’m interested in—revolution, civic activism—and experimental work. If you’re making work that is experimental, it seems like appropriate subject matter.

AS And musically? Travis, do you feel that you incorporate a political sensibility into your music – and is experimental music political by nature?

TJ I do believe there’s something between the form and function of art that connects to—for lack of a better term—leftist politics. Good, old-fashioned leftist politics, and the new-New Left. This is also one of the reasons why I like working in theater, because if you don’t have any text, music is just music. There are disruptive ways of listening, but sound is sound; it can’t have the same impact as bodies and text.

KF There’s a Heiner Müller quote I’m now going to badly paraphrase—and he’s certainly not the first person to have said it: If you’re making a piece of political art or theater, it should be in the form, not in the content. That’s always been my way of approaching this stuff.

TJ Or the Dziga Vertov Group idea that “the idea is not to make political films, but to make films politically.” If there is a despairing quality to our work, it is despairing of the fact that once upon a time there used to be an earnest revolutionary spirit in this country. One can obviously point to the ’60s and ’70s, but well before that, pick your decade and it was there. The potential for hope has to be there, otherwise you might as well just blow your brains out, and that is not what I am going to do. (laughter) I mean, all leftists despair.

"Innova," 2011. Photo by Alexandra Roxo.

AS Do people like Richard Foreman and Robert Ashley, both of whom you’ve worked with, influence that particular aspect of your work?

TJ I have seen Cecil Taylor perform probably twenty times or so. And he is not up there talking about, you know, voting rights or anything. But there is something incredibly activating about it. Whether it is an oppositional or liberating thing, it hits you in a particular way, and that is always something I have wanted to get at. Having worked with Richard Foreman for a few years, you definitely see people in the audience who sit there and just make it into a comedy, or people who make it into a highly studied art piece, and they are both kind of missing the point. It needs to be both of those things and more. Richard’s work is the most devastating and the most ridiculous, and it will be those things completely at the same time.

KF Watching Richard work was very important to me as an artist, to be able to see his level of precision and dedication to it. Also his continued interest in and devotion to art is inspiring. Seeing him work was fundamental to me, I learned a lot about how to make pieces engaging and lively, not just good.

TJ Being able to encounter people like Foreman and Robert Ashley is one of the nice things about living here in New York. When these people said supportive things about our work, that definitely got us through some dark days when you just feel like you can’t keep making these things you are not sure anyone wants.

AS Let’s talk about your upcoming pieces: “It’s All True” and “cheap&easy OCTOBER.”

TJ We are writing them at the same time, which happened by accident, calendar-wise, because of opportunities that came up. There was a fear when we started that they would just be the same piece. And then I started to think, “Well, maybe that is not so bad.” There is the Morton Feldman thing of just moving furniture around the room. But as they have shaken out, they are fundamentally different.

“It’s All True” is basically a transcription piece and will premiere March 2016 in Bergen, Norway at Borealis, a festival for experimental music. Everything comes from the complete concert archives of one post-hardcore band. We are taking 900 concerts and transcribing everything except the songs, then collaging that incidental and accidental text and sound into an opera. So it is, in a way, completely non-generative. It is also very intuitive. There is something about the overwhelming amount of material, swimming in this ocean of feedback and drum thwacks and weird text.

KF And stage banter and non-sequiturs.

TJ And PAs breaking and police shutting things down.

KF We were always very interested in the energy of a live performance, and so to take these interludes or in-between moments where performers are coming down off of the high of some song, but they’re about to ramp up for the next one—what is that moment? It’s both things at once and has an energy of potentiality that’s sort of unchartered. So what is it to make a piece of just all of that stuff? It’s constantly shimmering.

AS Is that the first piece of yours in which the music came first?

TJ Definitely. We are reverse engineering it in a way. It is very weird for me because, usually, I am building this stuff up. This time I am paring it down.

KF Also, this is the first time we’ve used a single source. I am typically pulling from tons of sources, although “cheap&easy” doesn’t have that many either. But I think with the enormity and variation of the material we’re working with, it’s like its own universe.

TJ With the material I have collected, I could literally make twenty shows over the next year—easily.

AS Can you talk more about “cheap&easy OCTOBER”?

KF I was interested in the Russian revolution and the idea of commemoration, so the piece centers on three events. One is the Russian Revolution. The next is Eisenstein’s film October,which commemorates the Russian Revolution. And the third is the founding of the art journal October, which commemorates Eisenstein’s film and also, in a way, the Russian Revolution. Then there’s a fourth event, actually, which is now, or almost now, 100 years after the Russian Revolution.

I’m thinking about these events commemorating one another and how we get progressively farther and farther away from the actual initial action. It moves toward reenactment and reflection, then into theory and intellectual exercise. So that was the idea, to look at that dwindling down and what kind of action is possible now. I used text—Trotsky, basically, and some John Reed, and I was taking visual ideas from Eisenstein’s film and reenacting certain moments from it. But then I added another element based on the experiences of one of the actresses in the piece, Fulya Peker, who is Turkish and was involved with the recent Gezi protests across Turkey. She and I had a lot of conversations and we recorded a series of interviews several months apart—at one point when elections are coming up, and a few months later we’re talking about the political climate. So those are a big part of the text, which is unusual since I usually work with found text and this was all generated for the piece.

AS When and what do you hope the fifth commemoration event will be? Twenty or 100 years from now?

TJ I am interested to see what happens in two years. It’s going be a thing that is vilified in America, certainly—

KF Or ignored completely.

TJ Either ignored completely or vilified, if it is mentioned at all. Think about the fact that Sun Ra’s centenary just went by, or the centenary of his period on earth, and it was ignored or made fun of—the guy with the funny hat. Sun Ra’s completely transformative work is so vast, yet it is ignored. And it is not like the guy did something for five years, or did two things, stopped, and vanished. But people don’t want to remember. Even if you have Sun Ra at Lincoln Center, it is going to be all wrong. And you see that again and again. I mean, even Cage’s centenary was just defanging Cage, just the most polite Cage performances you can imagine, and it is sort of hard to remember what that stuff originally was. So “cheap&easy OCTOBER” is about how commemoration ripped the wings off all the butterflies. Like La Monte Young, right? I don’t know, I just hope for more butterflies. Just one fucking butterfly. That’s what I hope for in twenty years, just one butterfly, for the love of god!


cheap&easy OCTOBER” runs from October 9–18, 2015 at La MaMa’s The Club.

Aaron Schimberg is a filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn.

experimental theater
ensemble theater
political theater
experimental music