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2/10/09
Firefall: Organic Web, Robotic People
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Firefall, John Jesurun’s new work that recently ran at Dance Theater Workshop (with an emphasis on theater), does not lack for either verbal or visual content. In fact there is so much information flying through the air in the work’s 55-minute length that it feels twice that long—at times too dense for normal, somewhat fatigued brains and eyes to process properly.

The work certainly fits well in this theater, which normally can be exaggeratedly wide for many dance productions (although one function it favors is locating a musician’s table in a corner, as is so often the case these days). (See DTW’s Artistic Director Carla Peterson discuss the work here.) Three long tables sit center stage, at which seven actors sit with laptops. On the cyc is a matrix of the closed circuit feed from the laptops, plus some other larger-scale video footage on occasion. While the effect is sinister in a “constant and all-seeing surveillance” kind of way, it is also somewhat quaint in feel, like the concept of the control room at NASA ten years ago, or the set of 24.

Firefall, John Jesurun's new workThe projections monopolize attention, and evoke the large computer desktop of someone with ADD (ahem). The feed ranged from politics to pop culture to sports, and seemed pre-selected. It began with scripted takes of two women discussing a death from different points of view—one experiencing it firsthand; the other an artist perhaps mining the situation for subject material. (Video clip below.) The montage included clips of a boy singing in the style of Maurice Chevalier, Reagan’s inauguration, Nadal and Federer accepting their Australian Open trophies (an unfortunate reminder of how much emotional impact real life, albeit sports, can make).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=impR2U0dPtw&hl=en&fs=1]

Often the images showed the actors’ faces as they watched, or worked, or spoke. Sometimes one would move upstage to do a scene in a setup lit more professionally. Every ten minutes or so, a performer would grab a guitar (or not) and break into song, which ranged in style from hymn to love ballad. This lightened the intensity of the script, which otherwise felt like a seamless black hole of words. Sure, there were characters and literary/religious references to cling to now and again, but it was generally opaque and delivered in a presumably intentionally flat monotone. Thus the text became an obstacle rather than a means of access.

In the end, I had the sensation that the people were inert and the web was alive. The robotic concatenation of words rendered the humans as a soulless mass of flesh and bones. The shifting, changing video feed felt like an organic being, alive with information and promise and surprises. Was that the message? Or did it just demand a fresher brain?

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.