The Brooklyn institution Roulette is known as one of New York City’s stalwart experimental music venues. Each year, Roulette commissions new works, offers residencies and fellowships, and provides artists with creative and technical support through its GENERATE program. With support from GENERATE and a 2022 Van Lier Fellowship, vocalist, improviser, composer, and visual artist Isabel Crespo Pardo structured an interdisciplinary six-week durational piece simply titled “6.” Over the course of the piece, six artists representing various disciplines performed creative tasks with the goal of strengthening relationships and forming a collective pool of knowledge from which to draw in future works. Joining Crespo was poet Loré Yessuff, musician and astrophysicist Eden Girma, composer Kwami Winfield, trumpeter-improviser-composer Chris Williams, and cellist-improviser-composer Lester St. Louis.
Creating a private artistic incubator — free of performative pressures or intrusive observations — was one of Crespo’s main goals for the project. Isabel Crespo Pardo presents 6., open to audiences on November 16, was the only public window into this process. Entering Roulette Intermedium, screen printed redacted conversations hung on a wire sculpture in the middle of the room, and the entire event was oriented toward this emotional center. Six artist workstations faced the sculpture, the audience was seated in concentric circles facing it, and the hour of interdisciplinary improvisation was prompted by the screen printed fragments. The artists took turns approaching the sculpture and selecting a print to carry back to their station. These moments of exaggerated selection were both the forward motion and ritual pageantry of the piece: the artists ran their hands over the wire, caressed the plywood base of the sculpture, and rested alongside the sculpture on a red shag carpet.
Crespo initiated the performance by slowly visiting each workstation and embracing the artist seated there. Crackling electronics faded in with low bass, and random pops of white noise began a 40-minute hum of sound. Layered into the constant sonic gentleness were looped spoken words (I think I would say… I feel… I love time), Winfield and Williams on languid trumpets, a few spare keyboard chords, and seamless electronics from four of the musicians. The mundane sounds of metal popcorn tub lids, antique teaspoons dropping into a metal bowl, and a black plastic bodega bag flapping through the air were pointedly amplified. Impromptu vocal harmonies and Crespo’s intuitive melodic improvisations gave way to Yessuff’s poetry, which became the dominant voice and provoked the other artists to talk amongst each other, at one point collapsing into laughter at some shared inside joke.
Eventually, whispers of conversation turned into collective laughing that went on for a long time and signaled the end of the piece. But this forced moment exposed an underlying tension that set the audience up for a confusing experience. Presented in week five of the six-week residency, the evening had clear conceptual terms — perform a theatrical version of real togetherness while maintaining intimacy — and it succeeded on these terms. However, since both performance and shared learnings were so antithetical to 6.’s goals of process and privacy, it was unclear why a public viewing was ultimately offered.
Maybe a live performance was a fellowship requirement that had to be met. But unfortunately, the audience experience fell flat. There was one unannounced pile of programs in the lobby with sparse program notes, the creative materials were at best still in progress, and the audience could only be a distant observer of the artistic relationships developed throughout the six-week project.
In New York City, the pace and cost of living make staying healthy, creative, and connected an exhausting effort. Fellowships can be rare places of respite and rejuvenation, and perhaps this group attempted to meet funding stipulations while upholding the integrity of their artistic aims. The misalignment between intent and execution doesn’t necessarily mean that the collective residency work was a misfire; rather it is a reminder that public engagement is additional labor and, despite the claims of consumer capitalism, a product is not always required to justify creative work.
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