Salon NOTEBOOK: Mark Jeffery, Judd Morrissey and Allison Peters Quinn
by Zachary Whittenburg
"We get very nervous at these things," Mark Jeffery said, "so there's a script." Judd Morrissey, to his left, said nothing. "Or I get nervous, anyway, believe it or not."
So began their introduction of The Precession, a work they've been collaborating on in spaces both virtual and real set to premiere at the Hyde Park Arts Center this December. Writing their presentation down in advance may have calmed Jeffery's butterflies, but it also quickly became clear that The Precession involves more detail than anyone can be expected to recall offhand and, as the work to an extent lives within these packets of information, having them at the ready was probably a good idea.
Three words--choreography, context and chorus--were chosen to initiate and focus their research. Of particular interest to this writer was their mention of the etymology of "choreography"--it comes from the Greek, from khoreia meaning dance, or dancing in unison; and graphein, to write, to scratch, to record. Two figures by sculptor Oskar J. W. Hansen are, in a way, watching over Jeffery and Morrissey's creative process: The Winged Figures of the Republic are male angels in bronze, seated on a bench of polished black diorite yet still over thirty feet tall. They've long since weathered to a soft green color, but their bare feet are kept burnished by tourists' hands; from a distance, it looks like the statues are wearing gold socks. (Later, identical twins André and Evan Lenox were shown on video wearing giant, inflatable blue plastic wings and reading text, a direct homage whose diametrically-opposed choice of materials suggested the Hoover Dam monument's Doppelgänger a hemisphere or universe away.) Hansen's figures face a large terrazzo plaza inlaid with a precisely-mapped representation of the night sky on September 30, 1935. Future civilizations--or visiting alien ones--could in theory generate this exact date due to the phenomenon of precession: Over millennia, the earth's axis rotates in a cone, making each night's collection of visible stars, in each geographical location, ever-so-slightly unique. Graphein: To write, to scratch, to record.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. --T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton" from Four Quartets
Jeffery and Morrissey's presentation framed The Precession as having hatched from their prior experience as members of Goat Island Performance Group, specifically the company's October, 2007 swan song, The Lastmaker. Using "double buildings"--architectures that have housed both Christian churches and mosques, such as Istanbul's Hagia Sophia--as a launching point, The Lastmaker showed how "these dual functions could coexist and be neutralized in the sharing of space in time and over history," Jeffery said. We were taken to a website Morrissey generated for the project, thelastperformance.org, which animates evocative language in a dance like Busby Berkeley's take on Magnetic Poetry. (The site whinnies loudly like a startled horse, solving the mystery of what disturbed equine had sneaked its way into Silverspace as Jeffery and Morrissey were setting up.)
Berkeley is also, in fact, one of The Precession's primary references. "I began to think about the chorus," Morrissey said. "With the ubiquity of social networking, it's more tempting than ever before to tap into the living, collective voice." He related experiments wherein text was culled via semantic, geographic and algorithmic associations. Through this lens, Berkeley's dancing bodies, in films like The Gold Diggers of 1933, are like precession-shifted constellations in extreme fast-forward. "Chorus, to me, means the communal body," Morrissey said. "During the Depression and New Deal eras, the communal body of workers in The Grapes of Wrath and the chorus girls in Busby Berkeley's films were one and the same."
Piggybacking on his statement, Jeffery added, "This history is integral to our research of disappearing working-class iconographies. Out of abandoned labors and materials, something out of the ordinary begins." Jeffery recounted his childhood on a farm in Derbyshire, England, collecting thousands of eggs to the sound of cows' hooves as they marched in from grazing fields to be milked. Such pastoral cycles were echoed by video of Jeffery in the Chicago studio of the late Imagist painter Roger Brown; Jeffery, using his hands for balance, kneels on what looks like a sajjāda and, with one end of it in his teeth, shakes his head vigorously back and forth like a dog going at an old sock. The scene shifts quickly, though, to find him standing on one leg, then the other, as his arms drift up into the position of someone slow-dancing with a ghost. He then pikes in half, arms flung up behind him like wings, his fingers fluttering like he's searching a bag for keys.
During the winter of 2008, "to get away from the Chicago winter," the pair flew to San Francisco and took a road trip to Hoover Dam. They visited that utterly-bizarre, quintessentially American improvisation of residential architecture, the so-called "Winchester Mystery House" in San Jose, California, and happened upon one of President Obama's primary rallies at a high school in Las Vegas. Dust Bowl migrations and the Joad family's tribulations were again invoked, but this time led to Busby Berkeley's spiritual twin, photographer Arthur Mole. With the help of John D. Thomas, Mole--like Jeffery, an English-born artist who made Illinois a second home--arranged thousands of military men and reservists into tableaux which, when viewed from an eighty-foot observation tower, became silhouettes of patriotic imagery such as the Liberty Bell, then-President Woodrow Wilson, and the Statue of Liberty. As followed immediately by the "Remember My Forgotten Man" sequence from Gold Diggers, Jeffery and Morrissey zoomed into Mole's masses to show us they were glassy-eyed soldiers with bloodied faces, infantrymen marching to the trenches of Verdun one moment and waiting in a bread line the next.
"We pull from all this data," Morrissey said. As their presentation continued, its net was cast ever wider. The Precession may be guided by an eighty-year-old Zeitgeist painting murals for the WPA, but the sun at the top of the flagpole Hansen's figures flank was, for example, connected via wordplay to late-20th century conceptualist Sol LeWitt. Leslie Bricusse and John Williams' love theme from Superman, "Can You Read My Mind?" played softly in the background as Jeffery noted Hoover Dam's appearance in that and other films, including 2007's Transformers. "It's good to look at all sources," he said.
Allison Peters Quinn, Director of Exhibitions at the Hyde Park Arts Center, took the helm to explain how The Precession will live inside its spaces and, specifically, how it will utilize the Center's massive 10' by 80' display wall, the only digital façade in Chicago dedicated to contemporary art. "We're dedicated to experimentation, and to giving artists the space it requires," she said. "We've used the display wall for work in the past, but never for something so conceptually deep as what Mark and Judd were proposing." The façade overlooks a wide-open, two-story space; during inter-installation down times between now and December, Jeffery and Morrissey will be able to occupy the hall to decide how Precession's live actions will be best seated therein. The internet, though, will continue to be a vital complementary site for the work; many times throughout the evening we were directed to content already live at theprecession.org, judisdaid.com, and thejewsdaughter.com. "We're in a culture of multiplication," it was observed, "so we need to think in terms of all platforms, and how we can perform in and on them."
As deliberately-aimed at its multitude of targets Jeffery and Morrissey's project seems to be, its birthplace at the tip of one of Lake Mead's pinwheel arms, at the wall that made that lake, "was an accident. Somehow it triggered our research. You have to find out what this thing is asking of you and, in a way, what you're asking of it."
Save the date: The next CDF/Silverspace Salon, "Dance + Technology: What is happening NOW," will be held at the Chicago Cultural Center on Tuesday, May 4 from 6-7:30pm with a FREE social networking event afterward at the Hard Rock Hotel!