25 February 2009
Photograph by Alex
FEB 21 9pm
216 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60610
John Duncan returns to Chicago for his first visit in over five years, presenting a new 4-channel work, "The Hidden." Digital audio debris, generated noise, field recordings and shortwave radio static. Cinema for the blind, where the sighted are the challenged.
by Bryan Lewis Saunders
This was my first feasible chance to see John Duncan perform live, and it was well worth the 10 hour plus drive.
As "The Hidden" was to be presented in 4-channel surround sound, John instructed Nicole and I to sit as close to the middle as possible. I closed my eyes and as soon as it began, my thoughts became focused solely on my own physical presence and remained so throughout the duration of the performance.
The first 10 minutes were loud and caused an unsettling swelling pressure in my upper torso. It felt like I was being "acted upon" as Nicole put it, but unlike an assault, the sense of imminent danger was somewhat limited. Within a short amount of time the physical pressure began to move slowly but fluidly, and it felt as if the empty spaces between my organs were being filled with plaster, bonding my heart, lungs, liver and diaphragm into one solid mega-organ. The correlation between the physical sensations and the sound was really strong, and as the loud sound moved around and dissipated, so too did the enormous tension in my chest, but the now heightened awareness of it never left.
In the beginning, I opened my eyes for a split second several times, but because the main part of the audience was divided into two closely seated sections, facing each other, it became impossible for me to keep my eyes open. The sonic experience at times seemed to warrant me opening my eyes, but whenever I did so, I would see a squadron of seated strangers facing back at me, and I found myself trapped in a psychological space that was unnerving to say the least and I would look down and close them again instantly. So back into the dark I went and back into the body. (Afterwards, Nicole noted a similar experience with the seating, so I know that it wasn't just me).
The next wave of sound brought the tension to my spine and it rapidly advanced up the back of my neck through the base of my skull, uniting the spinal chord and lower brain into a single entity. Surprisingly, the forebrain remained separate and seemingly unaffected, oblivious to any stress, it felt light and even delicate. I say "surprisingly" here because it was extremely unusual to feel such a thing, in only the back half of my brain.
Then a narrative of instructive vocals was introduced. By now I was entirely preoccupied with what was happening to me physically, so the words were for the most part disregarded, though certain words did jump out at me from time to time only to enhance the physical awareness of my body. For example, upon hearing the word "temperature", I became conscious of the heat that this sound/stress had been generating. The upper torso was hot, my Central Nervous System was now hot, and the third and final wave of stress/sound had localized itself in the pit of my stomach, and now all three regions seemed to be burning. Having suffered from debilitating stress for most of my life, I welcomed a new idea that such a dreaded phenomenon could actually be interpreted in a positive light, as a heat generating source of vitality and energy and life, and my thoughts then turned even more positive and to that of the chakras, and I so hoped that the remaining groin and forebrain regions would be "acted upon" next and quickly. I now resigned myself to yield to a grand spiritual experience.
But all that was thwarted when the word "cold" snapped me back and I was instantly drawn to the fast dropping temperature loss in my extremities, skin, legs and arms and then a great thermostatic battle ensued within me. The heated Inner parts remained isolated, disconnected and thriving unto themselves, yet caught up in competition with the surface and outermost parts of my body which were now amalgamating to form a cold and lifeless shell around me. I remember thinking, "If the hot parts lose I'll be dead". I then began to take in some of the push/pull repetitive directional words I was hearing like "forward" and "back" and I heard a footstep, and thinking that it came from right next to me, I tried to make some of my own footsteps but couldn't, I even tried lightly stomping and became frustrated that I was deaf to my self.
So my mind continued to be pushed and pulled around, confined to the inside and surface of my body and then a wonderful surprising cascade of white noise rained down upon me, giving me chills and a much welcomed spectacular pressure release unifying my entire physical self, leaving me with a warm extremely pleasurable feeling of well being, as if I had just had a Turkish Bath.
Looking back now I see even more similarities between the two. In the context of a social gathering, the awkwardness of being nude amongst strangers and the urge to not look or be looked at in a Turkish Bath, was replaced by the uncomfortable, to not look or wish to be looked at "face off" seating arrangement during "The Hidden". I can also see similarities in that both could be thought of as a sort of ritual cleansing. There are several stages to the process of a Turkish Bath: First, one enters a sauna like "warm room", then an almost unbearable "hot room", and then the splashing of cold water over one's self followed by a full body wash, and a "push/pull" type of massage, and lastly one spends time in a relaxing "cooling room". Throughout the performance I experienced these same rooms in almost precisely the same order, the only difference being that these rooms came in the form of sound waves and never once did I have to move. I don't regret forfeiting the majority of dialogue presented, the physical journey I undertook was by itself enlightening and the parts of dialogue that did get through in fact made "The Hidden" that much more enriching.