Haptic and Isaac Stevenson at Constellation, 8/21

by Olivia Junell, photos by Jeff Kimmel

Isaac Stevenson performing Tim McCormack's "panic around death." 

Isaac Stevenson performing Tim McCormack's "panic around death." 

By my count, Isaac Stevenson audibly inhaled 23 times during his performance of Timothy McCormack’s “panic around death” at Constellation this past Sunday. Each inhalation was unique; they were at times forceful, sustained, slight, penetrating, undulating, yawning, airy, scratchy, startling, and understated, though not necessarily in that order. True to the title of the piece, they did sound like some poor creature’s final moments (my notes say “monstrous”), however placing these sounds under the familiar phrasing of “dying breath” or “final gasp” feels like a flattening of Stevenson’s performance. In fulfillment of McCormack’s artist statement — “sound has mass, displaces air, and is experienced as a physical object”—Stevenson's inhalations were each experienced as distinct events of physical displacement.

The entire room was dark, with Stevenson backlit by three bright bulbs behind a plastic sheet. His head was entirely invisible to me, making the inhalations all the more isolated.

At irregular intervals, the inhalations punctuated a continuous droning. Stevenson produced this humming, whirring droning via circular motions on the table in front of him; the details of this motion were not visible during the performance and I confess that I was content to leave the mechanics of the action a mystery. Over the course of the set I felt that the droning built, though I forgot to perceive which aspects of the sound were entering and which had been there all along. In fact, it’s entirely possible that nothing changed at all, though I felt a change from the beginning to the end. In his most recent book, John Corbett talks about duration and unmoored feeling that can result from work that has no familiar arc. I still have no conception of how long “panic around death” ran, but however long it went, I felt that I could have stayed there in it for a good while longer. An eerie thought in retrospect, given the concept, but a testament to the performance in any case. 

Haptic is a group that operates somewhere in between several arts traditions. Composed of three core members—Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills, and Adam Sonderberg—, Haptic’s performances are each unique, a characteristic that aligns the work with literature in a way, in that each effort stands as a singular entity. This was both the first and last time this piece would be performed. As Sonderberg described in an email correspondence following Sunday’s show, though each performance may fold in elements of another, drawing from the same palette as it were, every live set by Haptic stands alone. Ideas may be repeated, but not whole works.

For Sunday, Hess, Clayton Mills, and Sonderberg created a kinetic landscape of objects that took over the entire Constellation stage. The artists moved around the floor activating different things as they went, and often these would continue moving and contributing sound after the initial trigger. A flowerpot was set upon a turntable, moving a string that hit a bell with each rotation. A stick drunkenly hit a cymbal repeatedly, sending the crowd tittering. Once an animated object ceased to behave to the artists’ satisfaction, it was tossed away and replaced by another action. One thing happened, and then another, and then another. Behind the activation of the objects there was a constant (at least, I think it was constant—it was there whenever I noticed it) drumming in the background that tinted the whole affair with a sort of underlying anticipation, similar to the sensation of watching Michael Day Jackson’s rockets that never land. There were ebbs and flows to the action—sometimes the movements felt more frustrated, sometimes stagnating for just a moment, but always fairly controlled.

The artists approached the arrangement as though they were duty-bound to keep the objects going. Though I would not draw any substantial parallels between Haptic’s performance and Jean Tinguely’s works, Tinguely did come to mind as I was watching Sunday night, insofar as his questioning of the relationship between humans and machines and who controls whom. Haptic did have a plan (composition?) for this performance, however some parts were necessarily improvised, leaving some uncertainty as to when it was the artists driving the action and when it was the performance of the objects that caused the next thing to occur.

Because of the context—a stage at a performance venue—and my expectations—that it would be a sound/music-based event—I kept trying to understand the performance within that rubric. Is that marble on the turntable making noise? Why is it there if I can’t hear it? Maybe my hearing isn’t finely tuned enough? Eventually this gave way to an enjoyment of the spectacle, whatever it was. Sonderberg cited their influences for Sunday’s pieces as “that ineffable thing that happens when texture and timbre intersect;” the ongoing interests of each respective group member; prior performances; and the Japanese group Marginal Consort. A search for Marginal Consort led me to a video of their performance at South London Gallery in 2014. This video in turn made me think of a video that was recently sent to me of INVISIBLE: Xtra Anatomy at Moogfest 2012 at the Asheville Art Museum. Though all quite different in their realization and context, each of these works share a blurring of the lines between the visual and the aural, incorporating theater, music, visual, and literature in a complex, almost orchestral effort.

By the end Haptic could have told me the whole show was a poem and I would have happily accepted that without question. Haptic made me relax my inclination to categorize and contain an experience. Thus however enjoyable or interesting the performance—to me it was both—this achievement alone made me greatly look forward to more from Haptic.