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In the halls of madness

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Local artists create lonely landscape in latest Arts Sounds performance


Kicking off its ninth season, “Art Sounds,” an annual series of collaborations between UMKC’s Conservatory and the Kansas City Art Institute, started last Tuesday with less of a bang, and more of a contemplative whisper.

“713: Disturbing The Dust” was a performance piece created by composer Ryan Oldham and artist David Huerbin. 15 years ago, the two men shared an apartment in Indiana. The apartment, sandwiched between two other large buildings and situated above a dry cleaning business, served as the perfect place for a friendship to blossom.

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Photo by Joey Hill.
Photo by Joey Hill.

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The entrance hall to Epperson Auditorium at KCAI was buzzing with anticipation as audience members waited for the doors to open. The Art Sounds series is already known for extravagant and introspective performances but few could have guessed what Oldham and Huerbin had prepared. When the doors opened, guests filed into a space devoid of sound apart from the ambient drones and wind noises that played from hidden speakers. Blue, green and purple lighting had been directed to shine on the floors and ceiling.

Deviating  from conventional seating, chairs were placed in the corners and along the edges of the auditorium space. Dotted around the center of the auditorium were six sculptures built from doors and white sheets. Next to each sculpture was an overhead projector that sat on the floor and projected various drawings onto the sheets. Each of the six sculptures served as vignettes for the performance.

When Oldham and Huerbin were living in their Indiana apartment, they quickly discovered the only portion of the building that had been converted for modern living was the front section they inhabited. Exploring  the unfurnished part, they discovered the spaces to be completely untouched.

“Inside Building 713 there was a door that connected the front dwellings to the back end of the structure – as if linking the present to the past,” the artist’s statement said. “Behind that door, the backrooms revealed another world to us. The air was still. Inside, dusty paperwork, dating back to the early 1900s and written in longhand, remained in a forgotten vault. Reading these overlooked treasures, time stilled. Words whispered through the paper, plaster crumbled from the walls and feet echoed down the wooden hallways.”

The artists used the entire auditorium to transport the audience to the apartment of Building 713. The high ceilings made the ambient sounds echo and bounce off the various door sculptures, isolating them as though they were actual rooms. For the first 10 minutes visitors sat in the provided chairs, awkwardly looking around, realizing that there was no direction, and they were allowed to explore the space freely, much like Oldham and Huerbin 15 years before. After a short time audience members began to move around, never drawing too close to any of the sculptures, but often stealing glances at each other and remaining quiet aside from dispersed whispers. The drawings projected upon the sheets varied from sculpture to sculpture and were related to the specific vignette of that area of the apartment. While each one was named in the program, there was no form of labeling on the structures themselves, so the actual order of placement was up to the viewer’s imagination.

The large projection near the door of the auditorium depicted two images, one a chair and the other a reclining man, which were projected from two projectors, both on either side of the sheet. Another projection included a lone outline of a figure playing a trumpet and, on another a vault, most likely the vault that the artists discovered the paperwork inside. The most interesting and mysterious of the projections was the one that was placed on the stage at the far end of the auditorium. Placed with the curtains drawn around, it the image appeared as a sort of window. Drawn with a shaky hand and projected almost 4 feet tall was an illustration of Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.” These drawings worked on a proverbial level relating to the strangeness of the recently discovered past. Like Oldham and Huerbin, the audience was a collection of urban archeologists looking at these ghost-like vapors resembling the original ideas that inhabited the undisturbed ruins of Building 713.

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Photo by Joey Hill.
Photo by Joey Hill.

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Reactions to the set-up varied from confusion to interest. Some visitors simply sat in the same chair for the entirety of the performance’s hour-long running time. Others made rounds, sitting in different chairs to take in the performance from every angle. Some left within the first 10 minutes while others lingered, left, then returned.

Paul Rudy, a professor of composition at UMKC and one of the founders of Art Sounds experienced the performance unlike many of the other visitors, at one point sitting on the floor directly next to one of the sculptures in the very center of the auditorium and then lying down behind one of the sculptures for a brief time.

The composers also interacted with the space, Oldham himself often talking through the space and at one point sitting before the stage and staring at the van Gogh skeleton for 10 minutes. Nearing the 45-minute mark there were only a few more than 13 people left as visitors began to file out. Two audience members in particular began to walk at exaggeratedly slow speeds as they maneuvered around the sculptures.

When it was over there was no announcement, the few remaining viewers simply rose and exited the auditorium, leaving the ghosts of Building 713 behind them.

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