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Stuart Sherman performs at MIT- an interview

Stuart Sherman interviewed by The Tech.

Stuart Sherman is one of the primogenitors of the often outrageous and maddening new artistic genre known as "performance art," recently made popular by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson. The dangerously broad term covers a growing number of otherwise unclassifiable visual and musical dramatists.

For the past decade, Sherman has been quietly laying the groundwork for the "sudden" emergence of this hybrid form of art. As a writer and artist living and working in Greenwich Village, he became interested in adding a time element to some of his visual ideas. He worked out a series of speedy, stripped-down "spectacles," simple manipulations of everyday objects and sound effects done in an earnest deadpan.

Later, he branched out to more ambitious projects in various media. In general, all these works were extremely brief (in the range of 2-3 minutes).

When he showed some of his works to Stephen Brecht (son of dramatist Berthold Brecht), he was encouraged to perform in Brecht's own avant-garde theater. Embraced by the Village theater community, he won an OBIE critic's award from the Village Voice, among others.

A few years ago he staged a trilogy inspired by three great traditional theater pieces, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and Faust. These works ran from five to twenty-five minutes, and had a level of complexity unprecedented for Sherman. Now, he has conceived a new trilogy featuring compressions of the complete works of Chekov, Brecht, and Strindberg.

The MIT Council for the Arts, newly housed in the Arts and Media Technology Building, chose Sherman to be the first subject of its new Artist-in-Residence program and commissioned him to set up his Chekov performance in the building's experiment gallery. The performance premiered on Friday the 29th to a full crowd.

In an interview I had with Sherman the week before the premiere, he took time to explain his ideas and goals.

Do you think of yourself as a "performance artist?"

I'm very uncomfortable with all words.I like words -- I'm just very skeptical about their comprehensiveness, their validity in general.

That same feeling extends over into the things people call me. I'm always very reluctant to apply these terms to myself. Working on the inside, I don't have a name for what I do. It's not relevant as far as helping me continue doing what I do.

Originally performance art, as I understand it, was an outgrowth of what were called "happenings" in the sixties, where mainly painters and sculptors performed live events, something that had a time element. Performance art in the seventies was again mainly the interest of painters and sculptors who wanted to extend their possibilities for expression. They didn't come from a theater background. They wanted to make primarily visual works that utilized time as an element.

Performance is for me related to the very literal use of the term. You have to perform an act to give form to an intent. That relates to what I do very strongly.

My early work involved the manipulation of everyday objects in unusual ways. I would change the context and manipulate them in a way that altered their ordinary identity. That kind of performance was very casual: it was just like sweeping my apartment. I didn't become a character, I didn't emphasize anything. It was more in the style of the performance of household chores.

Of course you invite comparisons with traditional theater by doing things like your Hamlet and Oedipus.

My interests are mixed. I had some theater background. At the same time I have a strong interest in the visual arts. I started out as a writer, I wrote stories and poems, and I would draw.

The performance really comes out of the drawings. The most immediate source was something visual. The performances are animated drawings.

The drawings I made were ideographic. If I depicted a person drinking a glass of water the drawing would be the idea of drinking a glass of water.

I've always been concerned with the physical world as made up of ideas and things at the same time -- as well as words. So a chair can be the idea of a chair and the word "chair" at the same time.

Did you find yourself, once you were into performing and doing your spectacles, drawn to a more traditional appraisal of theater, hence your impressions of Hamlet, Faust, and the others?

Definitely. Even though I was doing so-called avant-garde theater, I thought that what I was doing was, in its own way, very theatrical. I also felt that my style could accomodate larger themes and much more varied subject matter.

I also wanted to confront the split between avant-garde theater and traditional theater, and I thought one of the best ways to bring the debate to a head, as it were, was to take a work like Hamlet and show what relevance my way of working would have.

Plus, the fact is I really do like these plays. I didn't feel a split in myself and I wanted to show in my work that no such split existed.

The work is like painting. I'm not staging the plays, it's visual, with movement. Also, it's a staging of my ideas -- that's more the point. As visual as it is, all of my work is giving form to ideas.

I find that in art in general, whatever the discipline, there's too often a fascination with the material aspects of the medium, the sensuous properties of the medium with too little attention to the ideas that form the material.

You try to stay away from the strict methodology of particular media and try to keep basic ideas in several different media?

Well, if I make a film for instance, I use film in a way that makes special use of the techniques that are peculiar to film; I don't just impose my ideas on them. At the same time I don't let these techniques and these special properties become more important that the ideas -- there has to be a perfect blend.

Are there any particular reasons that working at MIT interested you?

I'm delighted to be here. One thing I'd like to get involved with is computer graphics. I'm very interested in computers and computer imaging -- because my work is so imagistic, and also because it's very structured. I think computer graphics would be a very natural extension of my film work, and also a way to order material efficiently.

I'm very concerned with speed and centralizing information, and codes; really, all of my work is a kind of code in and of itself. It's a kind of language I've evolved. It's private, but it's comprehensible -- it's a new kind of language as computer languages are. But for me most scientific languages are different and new.

Do you see a kinship between your work and science?

I do. I'm always trying to discover hidden laws, relationships and correspondences between things that haven't been seen before. I think I'm very much involved in research, redefining how images and ideas and languages and movement can be related to each other.

There's a difference between your two trilogies, in that plays like Hamlet and Oedipus are very much in the social consciousness, while in the second trilogy, artists like Strindberg, Chekov, and Brecht are a little less accessible.Ha!

Well, I like to think that if you didn't know anything about Hamlet or Chekov, the performances would still be interesting. It has to work in and of itself.

It's like writing music, but instead of writing with notes, I write with images, in a sense. Finally what matters is the music that you hear or the painting that you see. I could make a portrait of you: it has to work as a painting whether people know you or not.

It's the same with Hamlet or Chekov or any of the others. It has to work at the minute you see it, a formal construction. That includes the action, and the sound, and the objects.

There's special lighting in my Chekov production, fluorescent lights go on or off, trees go up and down -- it's a machine, and it has to make sense in and of itself so that you could, maybe in some ideal way, reason backwards as it were, and create Chekov out of it. Finally, it doesn't matter what the source is.

Steve Huntley->