For the last 18 months, Matthew Ritchie has made his presence at the Institute of Contemporary Art known—within, on, and outside of the museum’s walls. A mural of gray lines, shadows, and amoeba-like splotches greeted commuters just outside South Station. Through slashing rain, a group of concertgoers found refuge in an old seaman’s chapel for an elegiac site-specific musical performance. Paint jumps off a gallery wall onto windowpanes, the aesthetic of the installation slightly different depending on the hour in which you stand in front of it.
This week, Ritchie will bring his residency, Remanence, to a close with a presentation of the layered and experimental “The Long Count/The Long Game,” a collaborative museum-spanning performance about the beginning of time featuring Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, Kelley Deal of the Breeders, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, MIT composer Evan Ziporyn, and an 11-person ensemble. We caught up with Ritchie to discuss this passion project, as well as cultural literacy, interdisciplinary arts, and coffee critics.
The work you’ve done in your 18-month residency has played with the theme of memory. Why end the experience with a performance exploring the beginning of time—a time before memories exist?
That’s an awesome question, but you’ve answered it. Of course we’re going to end with the beginning. It was always built around that, partly because the curator [Jenelle Porter] came to see the first performance of the show and it was such a powerful memory for her. We wanted to play with this idea of a memory rebuilt, which is a theme to this whole project: what can you remember, what’ve you forgotten. It seemed natural to end this way. Plus—it’s my birthday.
Besides this being the first time the piece has been performed in a museum, is this iteration quite different from the former productions?
I would say at least half of the project is different. It’s changed every time we’ve done it over the years, but this is the most different yet.
Can you tell us a little about the collaborative creative process in building “The Long Count/The Long Game”?
The whole project started when I wrote this—really stretching the term here—script. It was a bunch of writing, and I sent it to [Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Kelley and Kim Deal] and they choose parts of it to work on, like a cut-up technique, a William Burroughs thing. The Mayan creation myth, which is the story of the hero twins, given to these two sets of twins to sort of rebuild it themselves, so it’s really their creation myth. They chose all the parts that resonated with them. That sort of set up the rules for the project: I send them stuff and they develop or, more usually, ignore things that I put forward. So it [went] through this very nice, slow iterative process. But I was really happy this time when someone finally me asked me for some more rules. They are so incredible with what they do—you never tell them what to do, you just sort of say, “Do something amazing,” and they will—but this time they were like, “But how?” And I was like, yes.
So you sit in the director’s chair?
I have always been nominally [in] the role of director, but I’ve been more like the ringmaster than the director. But this time, there are so many components. It’s both more theatrical and in many ways less theatrical. It’s much more distributed and open and strange. But that requires much more rules about how and what happens in each room.
Your residency has dipped into the disciplines of architecture, city planning, video, performance, theater, music, painting, and drawing. It bleeds off canvases and escapes traditional spaces. What about the multi-genre approach excites you? Why do you challenge or reinterpret traditional spaces?
What I’m particularly interested in, and what this project has really allowed, is not just a kind of “Sleep No More” where there is a lot of crazy stuff going on, but a way to look at the rules of social interaction and how by changing one or two rules you really change the way people feel about a space forever. If you go back somewhere and you’re like, “You know, that was the place where we went around the back of there and smoked weed one time,” that really changes how you feel about something. It becomes kind of a secret. And so this will be like recomposing the rules of being in a museum; you don’t go to the museum to have your tarot read, you don’t go to the museum to smash a guitar, or you don’t go to the museum to see Kelley Deal hanging out in the lobby doing very unusual things. But now you will have done all of that. So now, anyone who was there, from that moment on, will go back and think this is the place where all those things all happened at the same time. Shifting your role to the world, open up all these previous unknown possibilities—that’s what interests me most about what they call “transmedia.”
When your Dewey Square mural was unveiled, you did an interview at the Globe where you said, “After five years, the citizens of Boston will be art critics.” Were you referring to an emerging or growing cultural literacy in the city, or where you being a little snarky?
It’s sort of the culture when everyone becomes a coffee critic. You know, it’s a little bit annoying at times. Like, are we really going to talk that much about coffee? But its also a sign that you can take another step in that direction. If you liked the mural or didn’t like the mural, well come see a rock show … The ICA is a pretty dynamic institution, but this residency really pushed the edge of what an institution can do. Part of the goal of this project was they invited me to be an agent of chaos and try to do almost impossible things. So that’s a sign of growth, right, when an institution says, “We are old enough to take risks that we wouldn’t have taken a year ago or five years ago. It’s just too much for us and now we want to try this—we’re ready to fail.”
What do you hope the energy will be like at the final performances: celebratory, serious? Do you hope the experience will jolt audiences, surprise them, challenge them?
I’m not interested in frightening people. It’s more about gently reminding them that the rules we all live by can be changed, and it can be fun to try new things … I think it will feel respectful and very, very intriguing. Although the ideas are all really crazy, there is a level of seriousness in the practice of the musicians. So it should feel crazy serious, like entertaining in the deepest sense of the word, where you’re like, “Something is going on here.” It’s not just a guy with a kazoo and a monkey suit.” Although, that sounds pretty good. Next time.
And what will be your greatest takeaway from your time at the ICA?
I’m kind of amazed we pulled all this off.
THE LONG COUNT/THE LONG GAME. INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 100 NORTHERN AVE., BOSTON. THU 1.15 + FRI 1.16 AT 7:30PM/ALL AGES/$30, $15 MEMBERS. ICABOSTON.ORG