Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Connor Kalista’s “Terminal Marine” @ Links Hall


For many years now, Links Hall has successfully supported the development of new performance work in Chicago. In the four years that I have lived here, I have mostly associated Links Hall with dance and theater but they are starting to expand their programming to include conceptual and visual-art style performance activities into the mix as well.

Last summer and fall featured one new experiment with the presentation of one of Connor Kalista’s audio walking tours.

Connor is an interesting figure in Chicago in my opinion (and a real nice fellow). He worked with the Neo-Futurists for a goodly amount of time, he has been a member of the Spareroom, he worked in the Performance department at the MCA for a couple years, and now, among other things, is the manager for the Goat Island performance group.

Connor has a rather unique amount of experience with a number of the performance venues in the Chicago and I find it rather fitting that he has picked up this audio tour format that historically has been used to investigate the community and institutional structures that frame art.

Connor Kalista’s audio walking tour, Terminal Marine, looked at the Wrigleyville neighborhood in which Links Hall is a long time fixture. Links Hall is perhaps a shy presence in a part of Chicago that includes the spectacles of both the Cubs and Boystown. Looking back, the act of sticking some earphones on us and sending us out into the Wrigleyville might have really been a sneaky way of scouting out the future performance potential of the neighborhood.

I took the tour with three friends on a Saturday, on probably one of last nice days of the year.

Many artists have created alternative tours for museums and the like but the obvious and overwhelming precedents to Connor’s tours (he did at least on other that I know of at one of the PAC/edge festivals) are Janet Cardiff's sound and video walks. Like Cardiff, Connor provides us with a small amount of media equipment and then leads us on a walk that explores memories of place, navigating architecture and local histories and the possibility of divergence. Both have a rather aching romantic aesthetic at times with Cardiff leaning towards some kind of action-adventure/sci-fi narrative and Connor leaning towards the some kind of poetic guided history tour.

Link Hall is located the intersection of Clark, Sheffield and Newport and we began Connor’s 40 minute tour at the door on Newport. We received a quick introduction to the cd players and a handful of cards featuring maps and pictures that would be employed during the walks, as prompted by the recording.

One of the highlights of the tour for me were when Connor employed photos he had taken of a couple signposts and encourages the listener to hold them up, to match the picture to the background. To do this I had to first find the object pictured, then the angle and distance it was taken from, effectively placing me in spot where Connor had stood.

I also enjoyed at times, the meandering quality of the tour. I meandered both from Connors guidance and from my friends at times and then would get reeled in by some instruction or the realization of how far behind I had become. The audio supports a generally slow pace. The streets and objects Connor describes get a closer, meaningful look in particular but like a group of stoned mental patients who have been released into a park, we have the space in Connor’s narrative and the permission to wander away and follow interesting discoveries of our own as long as we don’t go too far.

Divergence and coalescence are a dynamic in these kind of audio tours. The intimate voice in your ear, the mirrored path described and followed both puts the listener in the guide’s shoes and very aware the temporal and fictive distance that exists in the moment. The doubled perception is fascinating aspect of these tour formats in general and is ripe for commentary on how narrative and media functions to envelop and lead you, how memories shape and distort the experience of the present, and how inattentively you might normally walk down a street.

Connor’s work does diverge from the kind of embrace that Cardiff employs in her tours and that became increasingly apparent the further I followed Connor.

Cardiff’s tours are fascinating in how rigorous her aural environments encourage you empathize with the narrator. To begin with, she used recording techniques that effectively record three-dimensional environmental sounds as she walks and narrates. The sounds are a rich blanket of natural and man made sounds that put it listener in a firm sensory place.

Cardiff often opens with rather elaborate opportunities to mimic her passage through space as she walks by providing the listener with clear sounds of her footsteps (which you are encouraged to match) and simple physical obstacles to overcome (like opening a old creaky door). Connor used a few techniques of this order but often they were more abstractly conceptual, (like an instruction to stand “six feet from a doorway”) which doesn’t impregnate the listener with a sense of place in as sensual and stable a way. Cardiff seems to want to set up strong identifications in the listener that will allow the introduction of more fictitious flights of narrative and the introduction of other characters. Connor’s work functions more to create moments of orientation to jump off from and wander. They are very different leaders.

Connor and Cardiff also use language very differently. Connor presents the listener with a great deal of information about the place (historic facts culled from some city archive, I imagine) in lists and intermixes descriptions of the place you are touring, and some commentary that often is reminiscent or wonders into the future. He also intercuts a few moments of memory that sound different, sort of like a flashback in a TV show might look. Cardiff is more narrativly and sensuously elaborate, introducing multiple characters at times and providing fictions that can be more action packed and teasingly mysterious.

Connor’s narrative is conflicted in both subject and performance. He is recording himself at a moment in time just before leaving Chicago for an extended period so there is an apparent sentimental desire to hold onto the Chicago. Connor undercuts this sentiment though by placing the tour in this neighborhood where he really hasn’t lived. I am never convinced that he is working this location for any reason other than by default and that he ever really convinces himself that it is an interesting subject either. (Though I do believe him that he does hate those animal statues made of hubcaps or something that we pass.)

Connor seems to try to make up for the lack of personal resonance by inserting the dry results of his historical research and by orienting himself (and us) by the larger Chicago landmark of Lake Michigan (which we set out for but never reach). These abstractions make it hard to relate to the piece is stable way. I do not think Connor needs to recreate the sensuous tactics Janet Cardiff employs but I still find myself wondering what is the point of utilizing such abstractions in their place.

The conflict of Connor’s desire for a place to pine over and the seemingly bland place he has to work with seems absurd as I look back. I also realize looking back that the tour seemed rather stuck in a rut.

I was occasionally given a moment to link up physically with where Connor stood but I don’t think his conflicted presence was one I really wanted to trust nor fully engage his guidance emotionally or intellectually during the tour. Ultimately, I feel like I got walled in to the streets by the buildings and lacked the tools and opportunity to pierce those buildings. Having accepted Connor as my guide, I expect him to provide those tools and opportunities.

I feel like there must be more to the streets we walked down, considering all the different people that live and work along them. I feel like there must be more potential to get off the sidewalk, trespass in a garden or engage the history in a visceral way that reveals a bit more about the cityscape we explored.

I also think there must be more in Connor yet and considering his experience with performance venues in Chicago. I am surprised that the tour left Links Hall so far behind once we walked away from it.

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