Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The spirit is willing (but the tech is weak)

The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James
57 Olive St. (at Chapel St.), New Haven, (203) 562-2143
Joseph Higgins: Still Small Voice

In the twilight hour leading up to Joseph Higgins' installation/performance Still Small Voice at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James, the church was dark. The fading outdoor light still filtered through the stained glass windows lining the balcony area. The audience's anticipation was heightened through the sensory combination of churchy smells—the cushions, the wood of the pews—and New Age piano arpeggios filling the nave as Higgins tested his keyboard. In the 15 minutes leading up to the performance, he set a mood by noodling at the synth, producing string tones (airy violins, guttural cellos), piano notes, pads, drones that took flight on wings of digital delay.

Introducing the piece, Higgins described it as "abstract art."

"What you bring to the work in terms of imagination and feeling and emotions, how you interact with the art is where the experience is," he said.

In front of the altar, Higgins had set up a screen for video and slide projections. To either side of the screen stood tall light sculptures. Inside the glass of the rectangular columns were twists of ultra bright yellow nylon fabric. The outside was wrapped in clear cyan proofing sheets. In the foreground on either side were black stands about three feet tall on top of which Higgins had placed long light boxes. On the glass on top of the boxes were set dozens of clear small glasses partially filled with emerald-green liquid. Truncated wedge-like panels, painted white, were set as backdrops above the light boxes. Similar set-ups, minus the three-foot stands, were situated slightly behind and to either side of the screen.

A combination of auditory and visual stimuli, Still Small Voice lasted a little over half an hour. It began in darkness with a recorded piano reverie, playing through the P.A. In this first movement, the predominant visual element was the dusky white rectangle of the screen. It was fitting to start with the audience contemplating the emptiness of the blank slate.

In the second movement, light started to glow in the two front light boxes. Refracted through the liquid, the light cast soft green-tinted shadows and shapes on the panels. In short order, the two light boxes to the rear were activated, subtly raising the illumination. The column to the right of the screen was gradually lit, and then that to the left.

A video performance, "She Draws the Light," dominated the fourth movement. The footage was shot through clear plastic sheeting that swayed and flickered with bursts of reflected light. A robed figure moved around a set, using a pitcher to pour green liquid into the small glasses. The scenario had the feel of an obscure religious ritual.

Manipulated slides were the focus of the fifth movement, "Transition." Many of the images were shot at trainyards or industrial locations (in Providence, Rhode Island, Higgins told me after the performance). The scenes, devoid of a physical human presence, were ruptured by fiery orbs and ovals of light. My reaction was that the imagery was akin to the effect of film burning up while a movie is being shown. And, in fact, the slides were burned with a lighter. There was the suggestion of transition, of the expunging of the existing world to clear the way for something new to be born.

That new world flowered in front of us with "Ascendance," the final movement. Details from Higgins' paintings were projected. Painted on ceramic tiles in a process of Higgins' own creation, they were characterized by swirling abstract imagery. Each image remained onscreen for an extended period of time, long enough for the viewer to be almost forced to invest imaginative energy in contemplating them. I saw strange animal-like figures, flesh and bone, clouds of darkness being dispersed by explosions of red, yellow and white light. The universe-creating Big Bang came to mind.

And then it was over. (Or had it just begun?)

Still Small Voice was an ambitious undertaking. Higgins' score was effective in setting a mood without being disruptive or intrusive. The physical set-up was creative, although it might have benefited had it been less symmetrical. The imagery and video were evocative.

It wasn't, however, an unqualified success. There were two sets of problems, the first technical and the second aesthetic.

On the technical front, it became obvious, when Higgins was playing prior to the performance's start, that the P.A. could not handle a reasonable volume from the keyboard. It would crackle and clip at the peaks. This necessitated turning down the volume to a level that allowed sounds from the street to intrude on the performance. More distracting were computer glitches that occurred at the beginning of "Transition." It was not a smooth transition when an onscreen cursor and then the Windows desktop interrupted the flow of the imagery. Fortunately, the computer issues were straightened out and didn't recur.

From an aesthetic standpoint, I felt that the disparate elements never cohered into a unified experience. The music and projections dovetailed nicely. But once the projections began, the other element of the installation—the light sculptures—seemed orphaned, un-integrated into the overall gestalt. And the conclusion was unsatisfying. The audience only knew it was over because Higgins got up from his keyboard.

Yet, even if Higgins' ambition somewhat exceeded his grasp, Still Small Voice was a rewarding event. As Higgins said to intro it, abstract art asks the viewer to invest creative effort of their own. And in this mixed media installation, there was plenty of material worthy of that effort.


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