The Long and Short of It

Media performance, installation, 2018

Sound & movement installation in collaboration 
With Poorna Swami

Running time of installation:
70 minutes

Exists in a version with one performer, and in a version with three performers

The Long and Short of It is a durational sound and performance installation. In a sparse landscape of microphones and amplifiers, bodies find, occupy, and are displaced from land. Each body must act within a set of rules, while also confronting residues of previously occupied lands. In this unrelenting cycle, bodies wither as they try to keep time. Audiences are invited to enter, move around, exit, and re-enter whenever they like.

An immersive soundscape of heavy, delicate, distorted, and sustained noise marks the setting. Dissipating time is amplified by recurring pulses. Never quite on stable ground, each body is absorbed into sequences of displacement and return. Intimacy emerges from these stark conditions. It remains unclear whether this is a map or the landscape itself.

The first draft of The Long and Short of It premiered at 1 Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery in Bangalore in June 2018. Born of a collaboration between the two artists Poorna Swami (India) and Marcel Zaes (born in Switzerland, living in the USA), the work reflects their shared interest in creating a time-based visual and sensory experience that transcends a traditional stage performance format. In October 2018, the draft was reworked and has grown into a full-length, mature production. The addition of two performers and new lighting design has primarily rendered the work more dynamic and immersive. The current version of the work is designed for a medium to large space—or alternatively for multiple small rooms—and includes several microphones (two on stands and three, loose), two guitar amplifiers, two powerful speakers, sculptural light objects (designed by Sujay Saple), and three performers who are trained dancers. Audience members can enter and exit at any time and can move wherever they choose—there is no distinction between the playing and viewing area. This installation can take place in an art gallery, an industrial garage, a warehouse, a blackbox theatre, or any similar space. Beyond its interest in time, the installation also emerges conceptually from historical patterns of human displacement and migration—displacement both as a physical relocation and an experienced alienation. The work is designed as a 10-minute score of specific instructions that the performers follow, while keeping time by their embodied clock and also calculating it in relation to the prerecorded soundtrack that constantly runs in a loop. The three performers each follow an individual movement score that consists of similar actions that could be taken for sameness, but which are, in fact, idiosyncratic variations of an action. Through one 10-minute loop, they find a specific patch of ground, then mark it in various performative ways, before abandoning it. Their redundant, repetitive actions often involve the microphones, be it running between them to speak clock-like sounds that mark the passing of time, or drawing lines on the floor with the loose microphones to reiterate the land they attempt to claim. At times, the performers are far away from most of the audience. At times, they go very close, maybe ask them a question, imitate them, or simply stand beside them. When audiences are in their way, the performers may or may not ask them to move, sometimes with a gentle gesture of the hand or head, or at other times, with a violent, vocal directive to “Move!” Spectators may get a tangible sense of what it is to be forcefully uprooted and at other times, be invited into the intimacy of these stark conditions.

As the performers’ actions repeat and accumulate over 7 repetitions (70 minutes total running time), it becomes harder for them to physically keep up with the score—their bodies tire and yet they must continue to repeat the cycle, and in this repetition, their bodies also devolve. As the performers move through time, they leave visible traces of past actions. The loose mics are filled with coloured pigment, which leave residues of the performers’ histories at every spot they occupy—even though the performers have moved on, we can see the dust of their past on the floor before us. At the same time, through the duration of the work, the performers gradually rearrange the light sculptures spread across the space into a line that never completes itself, just as history can never complete itself—the cycle is truly endless.

Throughout the duration of the installation, a prerecorded sound file is played back in a 10-minute loop. It is a heavy, raw sound world, made purely of found and constructed noises from the space and the process itself that rumble the space. This sound world is further enhanced by the many live actions the performer creates with the microphones (drawing lines, speaking, shaking the amplifier violently). The varying distances between spectators, speakers, microphones and the performers also continually vary the nuances of the sound. Neither sound nor performer is ever fully independent of each other. In the tenuous repetition of sound and movement, we are left with a body transforming toward decay, and a sonic landscape that persists—in slowly fossilising layers—beyond it.

After the 7 cycles have lapsed, the performers leave the space, and the installation remains without body. The floor on which the installation happens, over the 70 minutes, has transformed from a blank surface into an action-driven, conceptual painting of pigment and light. The residues left in the space—technical devices, scattered microphones with cables, light sculptures, and subtle pigment on the floor—form an assemblage both rich and void at once, capable of suggesting past histories to the spectator who wanders through it.

Text: Poorna Swami & Marcel Zaes, 2018