Darr Tah Lei and I sat on two chairs across from each other late last night. They were in another artist’s space and positioned deliberately, facing each other and very close, almost touching. In this position the chairs reminded me of Marina Abramović’s piece so we just started mirroring the artist is present—staring into each other’s eyes. We tried to sustain it and lasted about ten minutes. Some laughing and some conversation, mostly about Marina’s intentions, what the experience was like waiting there at MoMA to sit with her. We talked about whether it’s possible to stare into someone’s eyes and open up some kind of passageway to the soul. I’m skeptical, but I like the idea. I like the idea of a certain physical situation, two people looking or not looking, focused or not, as a way to meditate, to open up, to connect. An excuse to be present with another.
At some point another artist opened the door to the studio and I looked away and made some kind of gesture to her and shouted out that we were being present, that “the artists were present.” DTL said you’re really an observer, “you don’t miss anything do you.” And that when she looked into my eyes she saw a coat. I thought she said it looked like I have a cold. Are my eyes puffy? Cold? No, code. Like you need a code to understand me, I need to be decoded? No, coat—and then she spelled it out. C O A T. Covered up with a coat. Like, a coating.
A coating over my eyes.
I have to admit that I was immediately disappointed, and now I can’t stop thinking about this coat on my eyes. Because I’ve been feeling the barrier between me and this place. I’ve been frustrated with how the town seems guarded, distant—coated (or coded) in some way. That it’s inaccessible. What if I’m the guarded one?
I need to get closer. But I don’t know what that means. What it feels like is this: if I could, I’d like to sit across from that other chair and look into the town’s eyes. To sustain some kind of focus on this place and have the work reflect something intimate. This idea that a deeper understanding of the place will reveal a deeper work.
Maybe I’m already doing that. But I don’t think you get very far in two months. If I’m learning anything, it’s this—that to really become embedded, and to transform yourself within/of the place (to be of the place), you need a good amount of time. I’ve only got two months. When I got here, two months seemed endless. Now, almost halfway through, it’s not enough.
At what point is the observer engaging? Can the observer also perform?
I think I’ve been the observer forever. All of my work has this quality, even the projects I did in school over twenty years ago. When I spent a few days in Susquehanna and did my architecture thesis about the town, I didn’t dare speak to anyone who lived there. It never even occurred to me. Instead, I looked at it. Dipped in, but kept my distance. I worked with found objects, views, maps, photographs, and something grew out of that. I’ve often looked back at that project and wondered what it would have been had I talked with residents of the town.
When I took a semester off to do a film project I called it “eye view.”
In the last few years, I’ve started to talk to people as part of my work. I think it came from years of client work—interviewing people directly to understand their needs. 273 Relics for John Cage started with a recorded conversation with Laura in the driveway at the John Cage Trust. And that 30-minute conversation is embedded in the work.
I did more of that with Weymouths. And even more now in Skagaströnd. Talking, recording, transcribing. Forming relationships with people in the town. Light connections, but still. The woman who owns the café, the librarian, people I’m starting to meet as part of daily activities. The mayor. They’re all informing the work.
What more should I expect. It’s the ambition (and impatience) in me, wanting to go further, get more, do more. Or something earlier: the need for acceptance. As a child I found myself in a small village where I was unable to speak the language. Again and again, I felt like an alien, exposed, and covering up was my protection.
Here I am, forty years later, in a tiny village, looking to connect. Still coated. These trips are like time travel for me, feeling my way through like a child. Looking for resolution in the work.