OBSERVATIONS of the INFRA-ORDINARY
Since 2016 Asheville, North Carolina-based, international interdisciplinary artist and founding director ofCilla Vee Life Arts and The Center for Connection + Collaboration, Cilla Vee (aka Claire Elizabeth Barratt) and Providence, Rhode Island based painter, Robyn Thomas, have been collaborating on various creative projects, including the Re-Cultivating Compassion project. Recently, they have formed The Readymade Humans, instigators of group participatory performance data collecting happenings to explore and further cultivate compassion and awareness through actions and objects. Their first piece, the installation-performance ‘How Long is a String?' was created at , ‘Paul Kafka-Gibbons’s semi-annual “Thangs” are day-long celebrations that bring together a wild array of artistic expressions [The Boston Globe]’at the Somerville Armory. Our second piece, OBSERVATIONS of the INFRA-ORDINARY, premiered at goodTHANGpassing 2023: Afikomen in Plain Sight Edition.
The following is a reflection and analysis of that day, accompanied by photos of the performance, the handwritten notes of the participant-performers of their observations and a sketch of their words and colors, which ended the first phase of this piece at wireTHANG 2023: Peeps Edition , an evening event at Greg Kowalski's Wire Factory, in Lowell, MA.
"OBSERVATIONS of the INFRA-ORDINARY" is inspired by the following ideas. First, Marcel Duchamp's concept of the Infra-thin —the smallest interval of the slightest distance— was artfully described by Duchamp as "fire without smoke", "the warmth of a seat which has just been left", "velvet trousers their whistling sound is an infra-thin separation signaled"; the infra-thin is "The possible, implying the becoming —the passage from one to the other takes place in the infra-thin." Second, the extended essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974) by Georges Perec and its expression of his concept of the Infra-Ordinary —what happens when nothing happens. This, Perec's written record of his three days of observing, illustrates how much happens when nothing happens. Third, the creative, individual and collaborative explorations of 'compassion' by The Readymade Humans —Cilla Vee and Robyn Thomas— for example, in their online project Re-cultivating Compassion.
Compassion is our inherent ability to 'feel with' others, which can be cultivated and strengthened through observation and exchange exercises with our fellow beings. These explorations result in an object, be it 'material' —a sketch, a drawing, a sculpture or installation— or 'immaterial' —a performance, a poem, a projection, music, video, sound or digital artwork— to be carried forth as vestiges of the compassion found in them. In this piece, created for a goodTHANGpassing —an extraordinary and infra-ordinary experience of the infra-thin— the observations of the participants become the objects from which other objects, and our understanding of compassion, may grow.
The premier performance of "OBSERVATIONS of the INFRA-ORDINARY" transpired in four parts. Parts I- II consisted of the exercises' instructions, delivered to the participants by a recording from Cilla Vee.
After following Cilla Vee's instructions by collecting observations and leaving these as notes with Robyn at the end of Part II, Robyn began Part III, the initial analysis the observation notes.
A Few of the Observation Notes
The analysis consisted of sketching out the words and phrases of the participants onto a larger sheet of paper and augmented with watercolor during the remaining 1.5 - 2 hours of a goodTHANGpassing.
Later, while people packed up and cleaned up, the sketch was informally presented in front of the stage, then rolled up and taken by Robyn to the evening edition of a goodTHANGpassing, a wireTHANG, held that evening in Lowell, MA.
Before the evening performances began, the sketch was informally presented by Robyn and Paul Kafka-Gibbons to the evening THANG attendees. That group mainly consisted of people who were not at the Somerville Armory and, therefore, were unfamiliar with the project performance, its participants, or the environment in the Somerville Armory earlier that day. The sketch became a diagrammatic bridge between the two events. Together, informal presentations of the sketch at the end of a goodTHANGpassing and the beginning of wireTHANG were Part IV.
The Readymade Humans have been invited back to the THANGsgiving 2023 edition to present what was revealed on April 7 and where this project led us between then and November 24, 2023. There might be a Part V (and VI, or more?).
In all, ten people participated as listeners and seers. Additionally, two other people declined to participate. Still, they remained seated with the group, observing without sensory blocking devices or sharing their observations.
During this 20-25 minute performance, there were approximately five other people in the space, coming and going, packing up from earlier performances, and two dancers warming up in the upper-level space. Robyn, as the presenter, and Enno and Lukas Fritsch, who documented and assisted in setting up and distributing the sensory blocking devices, were also participating. Approximately 20 people were at least partially engaged in this performance in the main space of the Somerville Armory.
Meanwhile, the cafe on the ground floor near the Armory's main entrance was open. Customers and others with business elsewhere in the Armory possibly encountered the participants in the foyer and outside the Armory along Highland Avenue. Despite it being a day off school and at least three holidays, significant traffic was on the sidewalk and roadway. An unknown number of other people also encountered this performance, indirectly or passively, and participated in it as part of the observations of its participants. Later that evening, at a wireTHANG, another dozen people were present during the informal presentation of the sketch, bringing the total number of known persons engaged with this performance to 32, plus the others who remain uncountable.
The Uncertainties of Parts III and IV
Beyond envisioning a long piece of paper marked with a black Sharpie marker, it was uncertain what would result during the third part of this performance. Robyn had packed a box of drawing tools, tape, a brush, and children's watercolor paints. Cilla Vee's idea to co-join the two parts of this THANG by way of this piece offered exciting possibilities, including offering the musicians present the use of the recording. However, Robyn was unsure if she could attend, so she saved the .wav file to a thumb drive and gave it to Paul Kafka-Gibbons. He extended the offer for The Readymade Humans to re-do the piece in Lowell, but after the long day, Robyn was tired. In the end, she presented the sketch and explained the performance project, thus ending Part IV.
Other Observations and Recollections
- One participant was hearing impaired and chose to be the 'seer' by simply turning off their hearing aids.
- The recording of Cilla Vee worked very well. At first, a few participants thought she might be participating via a video call —a possibility we had considered in addition to a video call.
- The only 'technical glitch' was the ballpoint pens, which despite being from a newly opened packet, did not write! Note to ensure writing devices are in working order for future performances.
- The locations chosen by the pairs varied. One pair remained in the seats they were in at the performances' beginning, another pair went outside to the front of the building, one pair stood just inside the door to the main space, one pair located themselves on the stage, and the fifth pair took the opportunity to visit the WC.
What became clear in the moment of the performance, as the participants collected, shared, and recorded their observations on the notepads, was that they were creating what would become 'readymades' available for future use. Robyn realized that during Part III, she could create a sketch, a schematic diagram of what was collected to serve as a bridge to the evening event and future work —paintings, poems, another performance— what exactly remains to be seen. Repeating this performance in another location with other participants would add to the list of readymade observations and allow for a deeper analysis of the differences and commonalities across the participant groups, environments and situations. This deeper analysis could provide a way to describe the relationship between the infra-thin, the infra-ordinary, and compassion as it is cultivated and strengthened through observation and exchange exercises resulting in creating objects and actions and more 'Readymade Humans'.