600 HIGHWAYMEN Interview With Culturebot Apr 26, 2016
Jennie MaryTai Liu: What inspires you generally? What sparks your imagination? Fantasies, images, other art pieces, performances, songs, people, and sense of needing or wanting to do something?
Michael Silverstone : I have a lot of those. I used to be inspired by a kind of frustration. About five or six years go, I was very frustrated and that really inspired me to do something different. I was really frustrated with what I was doing and seeing. I didn’t know it would transform into inspiration because it felt really awful, but I was really upset with how I was positioned in creativity. And specifically that had to do working on plays, where I was actually more of a manager and janitor of a play. That pushed me.
I feel like I have all the stereotypes or clichés. I will listen to music over and over on my iPod, and that really does it for me. Sometimes I like to start with Kelly Clarkson.
JMTL: What would inspire you about a Kelly Clarkson song for example?
MS: It’s the emotion. Almost always its something emotional and I just start thinking about what the best way is to frame the emotion. I guess I get stuck on these songs.. there are like ten songs…
JMTL: What are some of the other ones?
MS: Well, I used this song “Magic Man” by Heart in four shows. Because for some reason it was really exciting me, this song. You know it.
Abigail Browde: (singing) “He’s a magic man …”
MS: (singing) “Cold late night so long ago…. Come on home girl!”
AB: (singing) “Try to understand! Try to understand!”
MB: That song really landed for me for six or seven years. It was so theatrical in a way I thought was right. So then lately it’s this 10cc song. The music from the movie The Virgin Suicides really inspires me. So I’ll go to a museum, and for me that’s a total drive… I can go to any museum and listen to music really loud. Which is another cliché.
AB: It’s not cliché.
MS: No it’s like a teenage girl thing.
JMTL: Can you go to a museum and look at something that’s seemingly unemotional, and listen to that emotional music?
MS: Yeah because it’s not even about what I’m looking at, but rather it’s about the space that I’m giving to experience something. You know the thing about museums is that there’s all this empty space to project whatever you want onto. I can get stuck on the museum tags, that’s enough to experience something.
And just staring at something just makes room for whatever is going on in the back of my head to kind of come through. So if I can go somewhere and listen to this playlist over and over, generally that’s the way to do it for me. Like, one song sixty times in one room – that’s kind of the way it happens for me.
And then what’s weird is that my first experience with a spark of inspiration is frustration. Instead of going “eureka”, I go “goddamn it”. There’s a sense of frustration which turns into this really potent creative juice. And then I come home and I try to talk to Abby. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. For me this show that we’re working on now started with me listening to this one song, and thinking, “there is something in this.”
AB: And your frustration, means, because we’re married, I get like ‘why are you so mad?!’ because I’m so quiet about that part… it’s the total opposite.
MS: I get sort of locked, emotionally. It’s like right on the cusp or something.
JMTL: There is this Morton Feldman interview where he talks about the anxiety of art as being separate from the anxiety of the artist, and this idea that the thing you want to make as having a kind of anxiety on it’s own.
AB: That’s right.
MS: Yeah– that’s right, the thing that I’m experiencing, it’s not personal anxiety, it’s more like the anxiety of thing that’s trying to happen. I think for me on a personal level it’s taken a while to figure that out as we work together. To be like “oh that’s that thing”… separate from me.
AB: To me it feels more like fear. For me I have this fear of fear, and fear makes it happen. Fear is the fuel.
JMTL: Abby, could you take the question on?
AB: I have always been fairly inspired by patterns and systems. I always loved doing algebra and trigonometry in school, and geometry– like here’s a triangle, now what is inside this triangle, and having to bisect the angles. I always found that creatively sparking. And the same with algebra, when we’re presented with this thing that we have to pick apart. And I realize as we’ve made more work- separately and together- that that is a huge influence on how I make work. Also the feeling that I’m after. It’s not necessarily to make work that should be solved, but the way that I approach the making process and the way that inspires the process of making thing, and somewhere along the way like things like emotion and texture come in.
MS: Abby likes the sort of scientific I think. And I have always been in awe of that, and its one thing that I have never been able to find my way through. In other shows we’ve done with more of these systems– I’m not even in the room, I don’t even know how to talk about them.
AB: But that ends up- I think- sometimes working in our favor because I become about mechanics and Michael becomes about flesh. I’m like, how does this thing mechanically work? And he doesn’t even listen to the system, and isn’t even aware of it.
MS: A lot of times I will watch a show and not think at all about how it’s actually working, so I’m just able to think about the people or the emotion or something.
JMTL: What are some structures you have been inspired by?
AB: For It’s Hell in Here I got really inspired by set logic, which is all about this set vs. this setand different graphs that show information. For that show I also used my bastardized interpretation of parallel universe science.
JMTL: It’s bastardized?
AB: Yeah because I don’t have a scientific background.
JMTL: You probably have a scientific brain.
AB: Yeah and the show we’re working on now is like a puzzle– it’s all about how to fit things together. You know sometimes I’m even more inspired by the image on the cover of the book, the info-graphics, as opposed to reading an essay about it, because then it becomes all about ideas.
When I was a kid I took visual art classes once a week. Every Wednesday I went to this woman’s house, she had a PhD in art, and we would do different projects and they were all based on different artist’s processes. And I remember very distinctly the Kandinsky… this is when I was eight or nine… I remember the Kandinsky project. And it was like — add this, then this, then distort it this way, just a series of manipulations. And it was more about going inside than a having a destination.
And then I recently read in Kandinsky’s book that he has all these charts and graphics about how to think about color and assembly and patterns and systems. So usually I start there, but sometimes I have to force myself to ask, what does it feel like? Sometimes I’m like– who cares about all of these mechanics.
And in terms of inspiration from other pieces, for a really long time I was really inspired by David Byrne’s movie True Stories. I can always watch that and find inspiration in it.
JMTL: What is it about that?
AB: It’s this style, I think, of being both inside and outside of something. It’s both real people and performers, and the sense of being inside the performance and outside of the performance in an non ironic way- there’s no winking. You’re aware that is a performance, but it’s not ironic. That’s why I like things like Moonstruck – because it’s broad and big, but they are not winking, they are just doing it. Those are two films that constantly inspire me.
JMTL: Well I haven’t seen either of them.
AB: Well I have both of them so I can loan you the DVDs.
JMTL: That sounds good. So let’s talk about this particular project, what is it called?
AB: The Record.
MS: The Record the record the record the record the record.
JMTL: So how were you inspired to make this piece?
MS: A piece of music did it for me called November by Max Richter. He’s a Berlin-based composer, he’s in his mid-40s. And then this Dutch portrait artist, Rineka Dijkstra. They did a retrospective of her work in the summer of last year at the Guggenheim.
AB: We both went to go see it separately.
MS: I thought, there’s something here. The show we had just finished in Austin, This Great Country, it was a play, but the art of it – (rolling his eyes) – the art process of it was in bringing the people together. There were seventeen people in it. The art of it was not in the thing that we made, the art was in bringing together a room. And that felt very exciting. It was about these people. Portraiture, portraits of groups.
And then there was this other exhibit by Taryn Simon, who is a late-30s New Yorker, who does these portraits that are based on lineage and theme.
AB: She’ll trace bloodlines, and do portraits of this person’s offspring, then that person’s offspring and then. She did portraits of every child in this orphanage in the Ukraine, I think.
MS: It would be like if you somehow did a bloodline of all the people that you slept with at NYU Tisch. And you somehow figured it out, and you somehow brought them all together, and the bringing of this group together reveals something. So the subject is portraiture. These people.
And then there was this question I had, which I talked to Abby about. Which is– can you make a show where the performers never meet? Because we were thinking about how do you make liveness as full as possible? And we’ve been struggling with that for a while. Like in the last show before we left for Austin, Empire City, we were thinking a lot about rodeos. Because those kinds of events – rodeos, rock concerts, sporting events – feel very live. When people go to see Bruce Springsteen, they say they felt like they were like on another planet. And it’s not necessarily because the music is good, it’s the people all around you. And the feeling that there is an event being made that feels like its never happened before. So we’re trying to figure that out.
So if liveness happens when two people meet on the street, we wondered if a group of thirty people who have been rehearsing but who have never met before would bring a feeling of liveness out. The thing that’s really cool is that I didn’t have any idea about how we could do that.
AB: That’s where the partnership really comes in. He had the idea and I can do the mechanics.
MS: But sometimes the partnership doesn’t work though.
JMTL: He posed a problem to you that you could solve.
MS: Here’s an idea: can we make a show where no one meets before? And it can’t be improvisation: this isn’t Upright Citizen’s Brigade. And Abby basically took that on and created the flow chart of how we could construct a performance and rehearse with a bunch of people over an extended period of time and actually make something. And then the big test is this week, and seeing how it’s going to go.
AB: And what’s kind of wild about it is that we don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ve never seen the show. I know exactly where everyone supposed to be for the most part, and I could look at the score and tell you where everyone is supposed to be at every point during the show. But the fact that we are included in the process of the performances as opposed to polishing the performance and just delivering. The fact that somehow we are along for the ride feels scary and good– there is something satisfying in that.