The work of a contemporary art museum is, in a way, ironic. It prides itself in hopes of appealing to the now, to the budding trends of the present, to thoughts that have been fleshed out and expanded while our brains cannot yet recognize them as a whole. Contemporary art’s creative route strives to dodge stick-on labels while simultaneously representing the world we engage with, a move that can leave most viewers feeling alienated. However, when artists lock eyes and decided to team up, the work they produce finds common ground. The product becomes not only tangible, but approachable, bridging the gap between distance and connection. This week, the Institute of Contemporary Art aimed to unveil exactly that.
To celebrate the end of his 18-month residency, artist Matthew Ritchie created an immersive art and music experience titled The Long Count/The Long Game to explore myths and the beginning of time. His variations on the “hero twins” of the Mayan book of creation, the Popul Vuh (which the Long Count calendar is a part of), saw three intimate “installations” in addition to an hour-long performance which brought together The Breeders’ Kelley Deal, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, and MIT composer and multi-instrumentalist Evan Ziporyn.
While the three installations lasted for a half hour, viewers were buzzing back and forth, trying their best to catch all three. In the first room, viewers could sit at a long, white table to have their tarot cards read in stark black-and-white décor. In another, a red light flashed while three men dressed in white hoodies and masks, two of whom were the Dessner twins, took turns striking an electric guitar with a baseball bat as it dangled from the ceiling, its distorted chords shaking out of a large amp. In the third, Kelley Deal sat at a table and read political text into an old microphone, inviting guests from the crowd to do the same, before singing several of the lines in front of Ritchie’s Monstrance/Remonstrance installation. Deal soon manipulated her sound, falling in sync with Ziporyn’s improvisations on bass clarinet, before she began dragging a shard of mirror across the ground, giggling at the harsh sound.
As per usual, reactions were varied. Given these were live installations, though, the way in which we were supposed to engage was questionable. Who are we supposed to be watching, what are we watching for, and sweet Jesus, can people stop talking? But then it hits you. Maybe idle chatter is supposed to happen right now. Maybe it’s a commentary on how we overlook the daily sounds, which are art in themselves, we encounter every day.
The Long Count/The Long Game’s was held in the auditorium, the large stage and theater-style seating making a clear distinction between the art and the viewer. The song cycle, co-written by Ritchie and the Dessners, intertwined a cappella vocals, layered guitar riffs, and gentle percussion. As the piece kicked off, the audience began to feel it wash over them, erasing that divide. Ziporyn’s work in post-minimalist music brought a cross-cultural exploration into the piece, expanding on avant-garde themes while Ritchie’s work danced on the walls of the auditorium as if it were a 3D film. The musicians seemed to come and go with ease. The Dessner twins enjoyed a quick game of tug-of-war with a single guitar as the middle flag. Worden floated around the room, equal parts ballerina and dove, in a white feathered mask stretching out feet above her head. Deal dragged a bow across a violin for sharp, dissonant contrast to the sweetness of the small ensemble in the corner, and manipulated her vocals for a punk Laurie Anderson’s twist. That’s what happens when you stick four drastically different musicians in a room with a high ceiling: sounds carry and layer, with most sections of the score bleeding into one another. An intentional sweep of the brush to mix colors you think should be separate.
When in the hands of collaboration, contemporary art thrives. Over the course of an hour and a half, the museum became a vessel for something comically larger than the city itself. The Long Count/The Long Game broke perceptions of time as well as gravity. It pushed the museum’s walls outwards and over a cliff, widening until sound became something physical in front of our eyes, in the palms of our hands, in the center of our brains. Every swell of the string section seemed to expand the projections of Ritchie’s art on the walls. His spiraling designs vibrated with the Dessners’ intense guitar interplay, and Deal and Worden took turns changing how our ears picked up vocalizations. The experience was immersive. It expanded the world and left it that way, bowing as if to say, “This space is yours now. Add to the sound.” Without a physical program, The Long Count/The Long Game trusts the viewer’s memory to remind them that they are a part of the now, and we ourselves are the very contemporaries we’re looking for.