I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The process of performance.
Boru O’Brien O’Connell speaks in open-ended sentences which frequently splinter into several different thoughts, reflecting the multimedia artist’s ambivalence toward didactic methods of relaying information and problems with pedagogy more generally.
His performance and film works feel like the artist’s internal dialogues. Since 2010, O’Brien O’Connell has been accumulating a body of looped films, projections made in collaboration with other performance artists, and monologues performed in public places. The performers, who range from the choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, who was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, to children in the nebulous age range between nine and thirteen, spout chains of thought that often seem grounded only by the surety of the performers themselves. A 2013 piece titled I can only tell you what it does for me, performed by twelve-year-old Izzy Sherman, deftly sums the experience of watching these performances, in which oblique narratives leave the audience members wondering if others in the room understood what just transpired better than they did. Each performance is singularly moving, but you’re left not entirely sure you caught O’Brien O’Connell’s drift.
The artist debuted You Are Traffic, a collaboration with Luke Stettner, at the Kitchen last May. We spoke in July over gimlets and the hum of multiple fans. The months that passed since this latest project hadn’t clarified the piece in my mind, but rather, generated more questions.
Cat Kron How did you and Luke put the project together?
Boru O’Brien O’Connell We both had solo shows up at the Kitchen last January, and in the process of working in close proximity, the overlap between our work became more and more clear. I think Lumi Tan [Kitchen associate curator] had a stronger insight regarding those similarities than we did going into the show. We started to coalesce our mutual interests in the modality of photography, and in language and pedagogic methods of relaying information, into a joint project that explored the process of collaborative communication.
Independently we’d both considered making a work for the theater. But I think we were both a little terrified of the idea of actually doing it. I’d worked with both actors and non-actors in a number of video projects prior to You Are Traffic. I wrote the script for the video projection screened during Miguel Gutierrez’s And lose the name of action (2012), as well as the dialogue for the dancers who performed the piece. I also wrote a series of monologues that were realized in I can only tell you what it does for me. So by this point I had done a lot of script writing for audiences. But working within a proscenium situation was new to me.
Luke and I started sending written prompts back and forth by email, just these very elementary homework assignments, to see where they would go.
CK The performance is structured as a dialogue between an onstage male character, called “Actor” in the script, and a female “Narrator,” whose voice is piped in from above. Did one of you take on each role in the process of writing?
BOO No, we wrote the roles interchangeably. And we didn’t end up using most of those initial prompts. But it’s funny how dialogue can unblock you when you’re writing. Because when you start a conversation it immediately forces you into a structured exchange, and away from the real possibility of developing a monologue that runs out of steam.
CK That’s why I love to do interviews. Less work for everyone.
BOO (Laughter) Right. I went out to Colorado to work on the project with Luke, who was living out there at the time. There are a number of places in the script that were developed out of us chatting back and forth from different locations in his house.
CK Did you write the script without ever working on it in the same room, after you’d gone all the way out to Colorado?
BOO No, we would have moments where we would say, “Ok we need to get the ball rolling a little bit faster and speed up the bounce from once character to the other,” and we would edit the text together.
CK Was the Narrator’s voice prerecorded?
BOO Yeah. We ended up recording it a number of times with Christina Campanella [who plays the Narrator] to get the pacing down. It took a while to hit the right balance of expression and lack of affect in her voice. We wanted it to be somewhat flat. But then it was mostly a matter of running through cues over and over with Jim Fletcher [who plays the Actor]. That was a very tedious process.
CK The final piece has the cadence of something like a gchat. There’s a feeling of remove, whether due to the process of writing the piece collaboratively, or the work’s formal structure, in which one of the players is physically absent from the stage. That decision definitely contributes to the stilted feeling. I also couldn’t help seeing these two diametrically opposed personae—one onstage, the other absent—as a presentation of two opposite philosophical views. Like the characters kept switching between an observational, phenomenological perspective that’s caught up with the experience of being a perceiving body, and someone with a bigger-picture view, or a more logical, abstract one. Their roles are subtly muddled as the piece progresses, just as the viewer is trying to nail them down. The whole thing is very disorienting. In the beginning the Actor is asking the Narrator to analyze her experience the way a therapist would, e.g. “Let’s go back to the experience you were describing earlier,” and “What sorts of things did you think about?” And then at the end of the piece, it’s the Actor who gives a deeply felt, wonderful and sad account of his relationship with his daughter.
BOO The therapy reference occurred to me too. It’s two people asking each other personal questions. I don’t think either of us was actively pursuing that read though.
CK Maybe it’s more the interrogational structure than the actual topics of discussion, which veer toward the experience of seeing. At the play’s beginning the Actor is asking the Narrator to visualize and describe a landscape:
NARRATOR: I can’t really make out all those details…I see something like an outline. And around that, a hundred more outlines.
ACTOR: So, you see [the tree’s] silhouette? The entire thing?
NARRATOR: I see a series of successive changes. I see a lot of gray and a lot of white…
ACTOR: Let’s pull back for a second. Let’s see the entire thing. All of it. The trees the leaves the grass. The whole thing.
NARRATOR: Are you saying let’s see the forest for the trees?
BOO In the beginning the idea was to have one character who was not physically present, but who expressed a more subjective bodily experience. And the physically present person would express a more pedagogical, objective point of view. As the piece progressed they would drift toward the middle and ultimately change places. But in the course of writing the script that initial, linear plan kept being interrupted by the process of collaborating with another person. The result isn’t such a linear progression, it’s more of a weaving in and out.
CK It made sense to me when you mentioned that you took turns writing the conversation. It seems like both characters are testing out theories of perception, and that’s a common thread in your work and Luke’s work: what it means to see, and how the photograph affects, mimics, or manipulates that experience. How is photography addressed in their discussion?
BOO The script diverges from personal account to the lecture format, which delves into mediated experience and relates it to photography, optics, and the eye. I guess the first explicit reference to photography is where the Actor is describing, in a very elementary way, how a telephoto lens functions and images simultaneously appear on the projection screen that somewhat correlate with what’s being said in his monologue. In one particular instance he’s describing the lens, and the image of a man who doesn’t look entirely different from Jim appears onscreen. The illustration is taken from this seminal instructional book called Black and White Photography by Henry Horenstein (1974). It’s a classic textbook for beginning photographers. In one illustration two comparative versions of the same picture of a sitting man are presented side by side, one taken with a telephoto lens and the other taken with a wide-angle lens, and you can very clearly see the distortion from one image to the other. The telephoto comparative image appears onscreen just as Jim says, “This is a picture taken with a telephoto lens.” It’s scanned straight from Horenstein’s book. But then the projection becomes abstracted into a series of colored shapes. You see a circle, which represents the flatter idea of perception and then it morphs into an oval, which is supposed to represent how a wide-angle lens would alter this perception.
CK I have to admit, as someone with a pretty rudimentary understanding of photography, some of that went over my head. In this confused state I kept coming back to the connection between what it is to see and to photograph images with the intent of sharing them, and what it is to compose and attempt to communicate with words. A lot of times it felt like both players were attempting to bridge the gaps.
It’s like that definition of a fully realized language as one in which one speaker is able to communicate to another speaker an idea or experience that neither speaker has directly witnessed. Because when you share an experience words aren’t necessary, but when something becomes disconnected from direct experience it requires a more precise tool to work through it. As if they were developing a new language that was still in beta phase, to cop a programming term.
BOO That constant struggle to demonstrate and relay very elementary concepts is part and parcel of the collaborative experience. It’s incredibly difficult to explain things to other people without a shared foundation. It was also fun to try to unpack that experience of struggle, and it ultimately contributed to the dry humor of the piece. We’re both professionally trained photographers who happen to also work in a number of other media. So I think that there was this recurring theme of approaching photography from a sideways angle, that didn’t necessarily involve the self-reflexive, discrete “photograph” on the wall. We used the lecture structure to maybe talk about photography, or perhaps to joke about it. But the format is also ribs at an academic paradigm that I think can be a little silly. In the piece the Actor, who represents the idea of the author, the authority, keeps being forestalled or softly undercut. We both liked the scenario of a lecturer who is constantly derailed by personal experience or someone interjecting and forcing him to deal with personal experiences, either theirs or his.
CK It’s an incredibly vulnerable position, when you’re supposed to be the authority and you slip up. That vulnerability becomes so apparent in the Actor’s final monologue about his daughter at the end of the piece. It’s that idea that your dad is usually your first authority figure.
CK And the first time you see your dad as vulnerable it’s extremely unsettling and troubling.
BOO The surrogate-authority character is a recurring trope in my work. In I can only tell you what it does for me the “authority” is twelve-year-old Izzy, but the monologue engages with similar ideas of pedagogy. All the performances grapple with the mythology of mentorship, of the father figure, of the professor, or whomever it is that shapes someone’s identity. I’ve attempted to create a figure whose authority has no discernible root. So that, instead of this shaping force coming at the characters I create from outside, they’re shaping the character from within. It’s an almost nonsensical, farce-like device. And Jim Fletcher was an ideal vessel for that role.
CK How did you find Jim?
BOO He’s a founding member of the New York City Players. He had worked with the Bernadette Corporation on the collectively authored novel Reena Spaulings. It was different working with him than from other actors I’ve worked with because of his experience with collaborative writing and his understanding of performance art as distinct from other theater works.
CK He has a very formalist approach to words. It’s not totally neutral, and it’s not conversational in any natural way in which a non-actor might converse.
BOO His delivery is sensitive to the words themselves and their visual presence on the page, things that I hadn’t considered so closely before this project. In the beginning I imagined the two characters as having a more natural banter. I was afraid too dry a tone would highlight every decision, and thereby potentially every problem, in the script. A more natural delivery can gloss over those fault lines. But Jim was very clear that he was trying to honor the words as they’re written on the page, in an almost concrete way.
CK The voice-over could also be construed as a pedagogical tactic, right? It’s the classic movie technique to get information across without having to actually show the development or the context that the story needs to move forward.
BOO There’s an implicit sense of trust that a convincing lecturer and a convincing voiced-over narrator instill in an audience, that I like to play with and destabilize.
CK You talked a little bit about your sideways relationship to photography. It seems like you’re really interested in what a photograph does from an optical perspective, and in the structures that support it as a thing that relays the truth.
BOO Right, particularly the cultural structures that support and determine it. I work as a commercial photographer for hire, and those experiences continue to inform my artistic practice.
CK So how does the distinction between fine art and commercial production play out, from your perspective working within both contexts? Is it easier to slip between the two because of the relative recentness of photography’s induction into the realm of fine art? Or does that make it trickier for a photographer to retain cultural currency as a fine artist?
BOO It depends. When someone’s working as an artist, but also doing commercial work to support their practice, they can, of course, come up against a stigma within the art world, unless it somehow tastefully reflects their practice. Works are designed to function in specific contexts for specific contingencies, and I don’t think it’s necessarily somehow easier for photographers to move between audiences. I think the public has this sense of artworks as independent, freestanding entities, via which an artist somehow makes a living behind the scenes. It can be a little confusing when you get a certain amount of exposure in the commercial photo field. I’ve become increasingly interested in the dialogue between the two worlds.
CK So for you, fine art necessitates a level of exploration, as opposed to work you do as a freelancer, where you have preset benchmarks.
BOO Right, that’s the obvious distinction. As a photographer for hire you’re asked to provide a specific product, or facilitate a specific outcome. In your own work you can do whatever you want. I also think that the styles that fine photography cycles through eventually bleed into the commercial context, and it can be uncomfortable when publications want you to translate the look of a certain photographic trend without its original content. A funny exercise to me is to imagine where a publication draws the line, what they would not be willing to run. Almost nothing. I like that as a starting point for creating a piece, even though it’s kind of a negative starting place. I have a busy life as a professional photographer, and I find myself, perhaps in reaction, trying to make artworks that discuss photography, rather than employ it.
I want to create a false sense of conceptual accountability in my own work, where I give myself restraints to work within, but from a motivation that’s somewhat apocryphal. You Are Traffic was an attempt to make a conversation that skirted boringness; that was about the attempt to communicate, but highlighted the isolation of its players, from each other and from the audience.
And if you’re making performance art, that almost necessitates having a day job.
Boru O’Brien O’Connell’s work is on view as part of the exhibition “Infinite Tuning” at Murray Guy Gallery in New York through November 1. See here.
Cat Kron is a writer who lives and works in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee