As fortunes usually unfold, Morgan O’Hara’s path took a new course in a Chinese restaurant in the early ’80s. At Brandy Ho’s Hunan Restaurant, cooking was a martial art. Watching the chefs from across the counter, O’Hara became transfixed by the speed and precision of their execution. She had been studying movement in terms of carefully considered mapping for some time, but this scene threw her in the moment, and she soon began her first two-handed drawings…what were to become her LIVE TRANSMISSION drawings. Part performance art, these works involve her assuming the movement of a subject with a number of pencils in both hands thus recording another’s movement on paper. In effect, she has developed a practice where life drawing becomes live drawing.
…So it was only natural that she undergo her latest performative drawings at The LAB gallery on the northeast corner of 47th and Lexington Avenue. The gallery, a repurposed storefront, becomes a center for public art and truly opens by displaying art in full view of the traffic and many a passer-by. Morgan O’Hara used the storefront as a stage, with a black-and-white backdrop of a blown-up 2001 drawing, collaborating with six musicians over a week’s time.
Peter Gregson was her first scheduled collaborator. He is a musician who works with the electric cello and at the forefront of what he has termed alt_classical music. His latest album, Terminal, was commissioned by Bowers & Wilkins and Peter Gabriel for their Society of Sound Label.
Following are correspondences with Morgan O’Hara and Peter Gregson.
Richard J. Goldstein When did you start the LIVE TRANSMISSION drawings?
Morgan O’Hara The process had its earliest beginnings in 1981 North Beach, San Francisco at Brandy Ho’s Hunan Restaurant on Columbus Avenue. There was a long counter where customers could eat with the chefs in plain view. Cedric Ho, the head chef, was ambidextrous and very quick. I tracked his movement onto paper. It was exciting to follow his precise quick actions so closely. I used both hands because he did. They were my first two-handed drawings.
It wasn’t until June 1989 in Italy when the process became what it is today. I was a guest of the late Italian art collector Carlo Cattelani and living in Baggiovara with his family while producing artwork for his collection. It was summer and the four-meter-long dinner table was an important locus for people from all over the world. The conversations went on for hours, sometimes lasted all night, and I would often find myself slipping.
I began wondering what I could do to stay present in mind and body to enjoy the situation. The gestures of the Italians became my starting point. One day, I took a small drawing pad with me and began drawing, tracking and mimicking the wild gesticulation. It was a process strong enough to withstand the eventual queries of Cattelani and his challenge to do it on top of the table.
Early in 1989, I had begun practicing Aikido. In the martial arts, one trains using both sides of the body. Slowly, asymmetries and imbalances sort themselves out. Gradually over time, I have become almost ambidextrous and often draw with up to 20 pencils.
RJG How do you approach the large-scale murals?
MO Cautiously: not all images work large, not all spaces can handle images, etc.; conceptually: why put an image in this space and what sort of image should it be? How does an image relate to the daily activity of the place, etc.; then physically: it takes a lot of physical stamina and organization to do one of these drawings.
RJG Are the wall drawings projections from drawings or are they done free hand?
MO I work with projections, usually an overhead projector, because it is easy to walk around with, to find where a drawing works in a given space and to test out scale. The line drawing is projected and the spaces between the lines are painted. This makes it possible to have many people work on it. If everyone were painting the lines, there would be too much change in the quality of line to work as an overall drawing. Painting the spaces between the lines with black allows the lines to emerge on their own, coming up between the cracks, so to speak. Any number of people can work on a drawing and none need be an artist to follow.
RJG You have mentioned overcoming dualistic thinking. Can you define what that means?
MO In the West, we are continually trained to think that I am different from you, things are yours and mine, we do this, they do that, etc. I grew up in Japan and perhaps picked up a less individualistic or egocentric view. That helps me connect and as a result of connection, the work evolves in ways which I don’t think it would if I were concerned about my own sense of self. I find this process both expanding and liberating.
RJG So your process transports you, but how does this happen for the audience?…through an empathy with your performance?
MO Some of what I do “transports” me. But for the most part, I am there physically and mentally concentrating very fully on what I am trying to draw. It is the opposite of “channeling” or being “transported.” I am totally present, trying my best to be in harmonic synch with what I am drawing.
RJG Does empathy have any significance in your practice?
MO I try to develop a sense of harmony with life and so it would necessarily be a part of my practice. This does not mean I am in some sort of cocoon or bleeding heart. To get through the performance, I concentrate on doing a drawing as authentically as I can, in a particular time and space, with these pencils and this paper.
RJG Without a degree of empathy and harmony, is an art experience possible?
MO That is a question each person has to answer for him or herself. An experience can be violent or sensational and also identified as an art experience. We have plenty of this around. I have done drawings which have had violent movement in them, for example, a butcher’s action beheading a sheep, but this doesn’t mean that the drawing is violent, nor that my experience of doing the drawing was violent. I try to stay with the quality of energy of a movement, wherever it goes. I have drawn the roving eye movement of Saddam Hussein during an interview on British television. It looks like a strange shape-shifting flower form.
RJG Are you more honed into the movement or the space grounding the movement?
MO Both. I am condensing four dimensions into two. I put the time-space coordinates across the bottom of the drawing. When the viewer sees the drawing and puts the image and process together with the time-space coordinates, the whole thing springloads back into the four dimensions in the person’s mind. The positioning of the image on the page comes from the specific physical positioning of the person or activity being drawn. i.e. center stage = center of the page.
RJG A major reality of performance art is the distance between the performance and the document. How do you reconcile the two?
MO I have chosen to do life-based art, in real time. I enter a living field, select a subject and draw the trajectory of the movement of that subject engaged in a human activity as it takes place. It is my intention to eliminate the “distance” between the performance and the subject being observed. The document is the bridge between the two. I am interested in working the fine line between life and art. My performative process can be described as responsive witnessing. When I choose to make a drawing I see the opportunity as the beginning of a circle. I observe, witness, and respond simultaneously, completing the circle by drawing. The final product, the completed drawing, is an artifact.
Documentation is usually done for the purpose of recalling an activity or an image at another time and/or in another place. My drawings exist in real time, wherever they are. They are artifacts which reflect an activity which took place in the past but which have their own physical and aesthetic existence apart from the observed activity.
RJG Do you see the performance of the work to be as essential as the document of the work?
MO For me they have equal value, however an audience is not a required part of the performance. In this way the practice differs from most performance art.
RJG Have you ever worked with a visual artist before?
Peter Gregson Yes, I have worked with Flash animation artists in London, from the digital agency Outside Line on live information visualizers, but never with a painter, and certainly never while I’ve been performing, which is weird because I have a lot of artist friends who are really terrific…
RJG What was your initial reaction to the project?
PG I was really curious—I was sent images and brief outlines, but nothing quite prepares you for the actual experience! I was concerned my program wouldn’t represent enough physical diversity and variety, but actually, we ended up with these deep graphite textures which are deliciously representative of what I was playing!
RJG What was the collaborative conversation like leading up to the performance with Morgan? Did she have any role in what you would play?
PG No, I went to her with an hour of music that I was already on tour with! This felt like the most natural way to progress and to keep the collaboration “live”—I’m not sure if any advance collaborative preparation would have really added to the experience for the audience, as the spontaneity was a key part of the work.
RJG Were they improvised pieces? What determined the length and the order you played them?
PG Only two of the pieces were fully improvised that night, others had free elements. It’s interesting what you say about the starting/stopping of the pieces—it occurred to me during the sound check that it is the space for pause and introduction of the next work that makes the concert platform unique—otherwise it’s not too different from a CD playback! In The LAB, there wasn’t an opportunity to bow, talk, and introduce each piece verbally, so I tried to program the concert order in a way that flowed logically to my ears; this resulted in a slower transition of mood and style than I would normally present, but I felt like it worked! The pieces were a mixture of pieces commissioned of me by Max Richter, Milton Mermikides, and John Metcalfe alongside pieces from my new album Terminal.
RJG After the show, I heard you mention to Morgan that, while playing, you were able to hear the sound of her pencil on the paper. Your comment brought to mind that seeing you two perform together put a contrast between the hand’s touch with Morgan’s drawing and the synthesized touch with your electric cello. How does the electric cello change your sense of touch?
PG I wish there was a profound answer for this! In all honesty it’s a little duller than that—my electric cello is dimensionally identical to my acoustic cello and it has the exact same strings. The main difference is psychological—all the sounds are created by me through the computer, so I’m really only limited by my imagination. Playing the instrument really makes you focus on tone production and control.
RJG Can you elaborate on the state of touch now by all the iPhones and iPads?
PG I’m fascinated by multi-touch controllers and am about to start experimenting with iPads and iPhones as live musical controllers with a twist…I’ve worked on gestural projects before with the MIT Media Lab, but only ever from a performers perspective. I’m excited to see what an audience would do and how they hear…
RJG You mean how the audience would respond to these projects or you’ve actually considered opening the performance up to the audience with this technology? That would be quite a Fluxus coup.
PG Absolutely—I want to actually get the audience involved…I think it would be amazing to challenge the concept of a concert being a dictatorial process; what if every member’s opinion counted? I mean, really counted? Also, what if a concert isn’t actually a social experience? You may go in a group of three to four people, but really, you’re listening as yourself and nobody can influence what or how you hear. It is also potentially a really interesting way to link physical and virtual audiences…
So, why not play with that? I’m hoping to get something rolled out quite soon—all the technology exists, and I know exactly what I’d do and how I’d do it. I just need more time in the day to get everything done!
RJG Does a music visualizer change the status of a composition…like if you’re playing the music to make the image, the music becomes more of a cause for an image than an effect in itself
PG That’s really interesting. If I put music to a pre-made piece of film, it becomes its soundtrack. But what about when both elements are live and interacting? I think that’s an exciting crossover, and it can be hard to say which comes first—in the case of the LIVE TRANSMISSIONS project, it was clearly music/musician inspiring the picture as I was unable to see her work as it happened, but I was influenced in the timing of performance; breaks between pieces, what I did with my hands, and so on.
RJG Music takes us someplace. Would you say we are hardwired to picture sound while listening?
PG I don’t know about being hardwired, but I am a very visual person for sure. I like the concept of the iPod being the soundtrack to our lives, and that is certainly something I work with—hearing a piece of music in New York or Cape Cod…it makes a difference. Your influences are different, the experience changes due to context, I believe.
RJG What kind of experiences (visual, tactile, etc.) does your music grow out of?
PG My music is really heavily inspired by my recent travels; I have spent a lot of the last eight months in the US, split nicely between all of the major cities. I always make a point of listening to local composers and, better yet, hearing their music in a live concert. Terminal was written whilst traveling between London, LA, New York, and San Francisco between September and November.
I also make a point of going to contemporary art galleries—that said, I think the real sense of place and inspiration comes from actually being in a city for a few days, living there and getting a feel of the pace and lifestyle. It’s amazing how much you can learn from just sitting in a Starbucks, watching the world go by!
RJG Posture is key to playing, so did the project bring any new awareness to the way you visualize yourself through playing?
PG I find the hardest thing on the concert platform is looking up—it’s either so big you’re blinded by the lights or so small that you can see the eyeballs of the audience! At The LAB, it was very different. I could see people, I could hear cars and I could feel the subway rumble, but I couldn’t look away! It was just so inspiring to sit playing to the street corner at rush hour! It was oddly relaxing!