Transmodern Festival, Baltimore, Maryland April 4, 2008
Despite my reservations about the venue, politics, and professionalism of the team who organized the Transmodern Festival in Baltimore, Maryland, there was one work included in their menagerie of interventionist® chic that avoided the prescriptive clichés of interactive performance. Alice Kemp, who hails from Britain, “managed” the performance of Madame Du Planchette de La Cloche, which translates as “Woman of the Planchette of the Bell.” At the entrance to a plywood corridor, a placard advertising the performance pointed my traveling companions and me around a dark corner. The hallway dead-ended into a cobwebbed black curtain, open just enough to reveal a small, dark interior and a woman in black Victorian garb seated at a small table covered in fine white linen and set with a small bell. Her hands rested on her lap like coiled serpents and a veil of dark netting obscured her face. Beside her, on a three-tiered shelf, there sat a tuning fork (which Kemp has been known to strike upon her head), a silver bell, and a vase of white roses. A bundle of cobwebs, clutched in her gloved hands, obscured a third bell.
In the background, a barely audible recording droned digitally-altered sounds—from “field recordings” of previous “séances”—composed by Kemp. The music seemed to issue from everywhere at once, sometimes drowned out by the noise of other performances sharing the warehouse space. A patternless hum, like the sound of far-off machines, enough unlike a heartbeat to be its opposite: a hybrid, tonal species of noise and ambiance; the plaintive miniature dirge of the hotel air-conditioner’s breath, or something outside auditory referent altogether.
Moments after our arrival, the Madame slowly lifted the silver bell off the table and rang it lightly, set it down and returned her hand to her lap. My friends and I, on cue, quickly produced noisemakers (rattles, keys, paper, anything) to answer back. She rang the bell again and we hailed back, and then silence for a few minutes until she rang it once more. For the better part of two hours, the Madame and our party communicated in this way, a dialogue of sounds and glances through the curtain. We were all smiles and nods.
The Madame’s statue-like presence and pared-down interactions worked a sometimes minacious magic upon other viewers who, approaching it as a sideshow, whispered “scary” and then shuffled off. She “spoke” only through the use of her bells, a deliberate limitation, along with the veil, that forced her audience to decipher how to interact, or whether they should act at all. Two young men barged down the corridor and through the black curtain into her room, quickly leaving after having satisfied themselves that they’d discovered everything of interest, yet the Madame didn’t flinch at this transgression. Later, another visitor laid a piece of paper on her table. The Madame lifted it to her face in an attempt to examine it. Her reaction introduced a new system of interaction, and the audience responded with more offerings. A marble, a kindergartener’s drawing, twigs, a shopping list and other trinkets were doled out with enthusiasm. Finally a young woman with Audrey Hepburn hair and a flower-blotched dress entered the space and sang a sultry number to the Madame, who responded with several generous rings.
At an almost clandestine remove from the boisterous, attention-grabbing works that filled the festival, Kemp’s installation, through stillness and subtlety, managed to threaten spatial and sensual boundaries while nodding in the direction of occult influences (the planchette is a wooden heart tipped with a pencil used in archaic séances; facial coverings like her veil frequently appear in rites of divination or possession). Her costuming and the recording acted as a ghostly frontispiece for a terrain of potential interactions in which the Madame’s gestures became a cryptic language of movement and sound. Even with the effects of spectral ceremony laid before her, I’m not sure whether the Madame conducted the séance, or we did.