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Mike Ramsburg explores a festival of experimental sound and performance at Links Hall.


Allow me to begin with a disclaimer: I am completely unqualified to report (intelligently) on performance art, especially “realtime performance, sound and language”, which is the theme of OPENPORT’s month long festival at Links Hall (3435 N. Sheffield). So when I was first approached with the opportunity to write this article, I resisted. However, after joking with the editor about how terribly ill-equipped I was for the assignment, we came to a bit of a compromise: I would write the article from the perspective of your typical man-off-the-street, meaning (at least to me) that I was given the green light to sound as ignorant as I actually am. Hooray!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way. . .

OPENPORT, curated by Nathan Butler, Mark Jeffery, Judd Morrisey and Lori Talley, defines itself (and this is all from the OPENPORT website) as a “convergence of artists from a set of distinct contemporary practices including movement-based live art, experimental sound, performance writing, and electronic poetry.” Okay, so far so good. But then, as we artists are prone to do, the curators offer this as a kind of mission statement: “. . . the artists arriving for OPENPORT complicate and re-map our notions of language, physicality, space, and time, navigating the hidden terrains and encodings of our networked culture.” I don’t know about you, but that just hurt my brain a little. Why? I have pretty simplistic notions of language (I read, I speak), physicality (we’re cool as long as you keep your damn hands off me), space (you stay in yours, I’ll stay in mine) and time (nobody has enough).

Besides, and maybe I’m thinking about this too literally, but doesn’t “notion” imply an imperfect understanding of something? Further complicating someone’s already imperfect weltanschauung seems—notwithstanding the respect that I have for Art, whose importance I’m not too dense to appreciate—a little underhanded, doesn’t it? And let’s not ignore the whole idea of re-mapping the “hidden terrains and encodings of our networked culture.” Can someone please re-map and decode that phrase, because, aside from hinting that some of the performers will use computers, I have no clue what it means. Confusion aside, the OPENPORT crew succeeded in compelling my interest. I deeply wanted to attend the performances, if only to make sense of the mission statement.

And so I went. I wish I could have seen more of the festival, but time (one of the notions being complicated) conspired against in me such a way that I could only attend two nights. The first performance was the second night of week one, featuring three artists. The second performance was the third night of week three, featuring four artists (I could only stay for the first three). What follows is a summary of my experiences:  

February 3rd (Week 1, Night 2)

If you’re going to Links Hall, don’t drive. The Links Hall people were kind enough to suggest as much on their website, but I didn’t pay attention. PAY ATTENTION. You will not find parking. I have no reason to lie to you.

Also listed on the Links Hall website is this little nugget of wisdom: If you are attending a performance, please find the entrance at 956 Newport. In other words, don’t be an idiot like me and waste your time banging on the door at the listed address, which is 3435 N Sheffield.

Once I finally figured out where I needed to be, I climbed the narrow stairs to the Links Hall performance space. I secured two seats, one for me and one for my girlfriend. We waited quietly as the house filled up with a crowd of intimidating twenty and thirty-somethings, all of them decked out in dark denim, which I suppose is a staple in the artsy/hipster wardrobe. I immediately felt uncool and entirely out of place. Luckily I didn’t have to sit in morbid self-reflection for too long, as our host for the evening, curator Mark Jeffery, took to the floor and got things underway. Jeffery, much like the artsy/hipsters surrounding me in the audience, was decked out in dark denim, only he was wearing some kind of dark-blue nautical jacket (perhaps a mock uniform of the Royal Navy?), and it took me moment to realize the obvious connection between OPENPORT and his nautically inspired fashion choice. As soon as I figured it out, I found it corny, but then, partly because I liked Jeffery’s attitude, the jacket grew on me. OPENPORT was hosting artists from all over the world – Brazil, Australia, the UK, France, Ohio (a lot of people from Ohio), Italy, Canada, etc. – so the idea of this being an artists’ port made the Royal Navy jacket acceptable, provided that it was tongue in cheek, which it had to be. Jeffery introduced the festival using much of the same language described above, and then introduced the first of the night’s three performers, Michael Graeve, who would be performing a sound piece called “Simple Methods.”

Michael Graeve

Michael Graeve is an Australian artist based in Chicago. The pamphlet informed us that he worked with “old domestic and schoolroom record players and loudspeakers, reveling in the volatile and unpredictable nature of the equipment.”  My mind must have shut off when I read “record player,” because I instantly imagined an experimental DJ, which Graeve is most assuredly not. No, the stage was covered in a mess of turntables, maybe twenty, maybe forty, and there were just as many speakers. Everything looked vintage, the sorts of things you might see in your parents’ photo albums. Wooden speakers, record players that came in boxes like lunch pales, thick wires all tangled up. Visually it was satisfying, if a little creepy.

And then of course there was the man himself. My girlfriend remarked that Graeve was a good looking man, but, thank God, he didn’t seem to care. Aside from a brightly colored sport coat, he went about his business humbly, almost as if he were doing everything he could to go unnoticed, which makes sense since he’s a sound artist.

And what was his business, exactly? I wish I were better equipped to explain it, but I’m not. All I can say is that he didn’t have any records on the turntables, but every turntable was spinning. Graeve stood motionless above them, hands behind his back, head cocked to the side, listening. At different intervals he adjusted wires and turned knobs. First he produced the sound of a jet engine (this lasted for nearly ten minutes), and then he switched some wires, turned some knobs, and it sounded like a hurricane was blowing through the room (another ten minutes). It was very, very loud. At the end of the performance he knocked over one of his speakers. Everyone jumped up in applause.

Later, during intermission, Graeve and I were waiting in line for the bathroom together. A young man came up and requested that I take his picture with the artist. I did. The two of them proceeded to have a very awkward conversation about turntable noise. Eavesdropping on this exchange allowed me to ascertain that Graeve orders all his turntables off of ebay, and that you never know what kind of sound will come out of one. Graeve had a firm hand shake and a warm smile, two things that made me really like him. I only wish I could have better appreciated what he’d done on stage. He’d moved with such deliberate intent that I knew something important was happening. I just didn’t know what the importance was.


Next came Justin Katko, who actually goes by jUStin!katKO. Katko is an intermedia writer and publisher in Oxford, OH. I was disappointed to find out that he would not be performing the piece recorded in the brochure, which involved singing Queen lyrics over different Queen songs. That's something I might have enjoyed. What he chose to perform instead was “Courage Return Terror We,” an overstylzed, utterly manic improvisational writing exercise which involved strapping himself into a chair, wearing a headlamp and cranking a wind-up radio as he gyrated back and forth in his chair, stuttering out nonsensical phrases which were fed to him via some completely arbitrary computer program.

jUStin!katKO, photo by Camille PB and courtesy of OPENPORT

The bucking and shaking and stuttering was amusing at first, but it became quite tedious after a few minutes. Even Katko seemed uncomfortable, admitting to the audience at one point that he had no idea what to say, even joking that he couldn’t believe people paid to see his performance. That was a breakthrough of sorts. But rather than ending on that pure, honest note, he held the audience hostage for twenty more minutes. DOYOUknowwHhaTimeanMaN!itwasINSaNe! Ultimately the performance felt like something dreamt up (and possibly rehearsed) while Katko and his buddies were ripping bong hits. Everything’s funny and interesting when you're high. But I wasn’t high. I felt left out, and nobody likes to feel left out.

Brian O’Reilly

Last on the bill was Brian O’Reilly. According to the OPENPORT website, O’Reilly is an artist who connects sound to moving image. Here’s how the OPENPORT curators explained his process: “The work is constructed by analog video signals generated with a Phil Morton Sandin Image Processor. . . Projected images bleed onto one another, intersecting and blurring their lines like layered, waterlogged paper.” I don’t know what that means, but whatever he did, it was hypnotic, at least visually.

Using his laptop, O’Reilly projected his moving images onto a large white screen. Watching them would be like watching a Salvador Dali painting suddenly leap into motion. Faces melted into sand. Diamonds twisted into tornadoes. It was the kind of imagery that would explode your mind if you were tripping. I mean that in a good way, the best way. 

That said, I wish I could have been equally as excited about the sound portion of O’Reilly’s performance, which I wasn’t. I don’t know how he generated his noises, or what they were, but the effect was that of being on a construction site – heavy scraping, clanging metal, high-pitched beeping. And to what effect? The experimental sound didn’t help to inform my appreciation of the melting faces. No, the noises were nothing more than a distraction. A nuisance. In my humble, man-off-the-street opinion, O’Reilly’s performance would have greatly benefited from some serious sound restraint.

Brian O'reilly, photo courtesy of the artist

In addition, the audience would have greatly benefited from not having to listen to the experimental sound trio at the very end of the night, another part of O’Reilly’s performance. (Why did you abandon the moving images, Brian?) He and two other guys, Rob Drinkwater and Jason Soliday, played with wires and made it sound like the El train was crashing its way right through my skull. After two minutes of that deafening clatter, my girlfriend wanted to leave. I wanted to leave. But I felt – hoped - that O’Reilly, who had given so much visually, would surprise us with some crazily-fulfilling finale. But no. The headache he gave me overshadowed my infatuation with his images, and even now as I’m writing this, I can hear that sound, that clang and clatter, and I have to stop this writing this paragraph.

February 18th (Week 3, Night 3)

As is usually the case, I was much better prepared the second time around. Not only did I solve the driving/parking dilemma with the friend pick-up/drop-off, but I also knew exactly where the “performance entrance” was. Most importantly, though, I was wearing my best pair of jeans. All of these things taken together made me feel resourceful, in-the-know, and altogether cool. I was ready for some more friggin’ noise art.

Wilton Azevedo’s “Po e-Machine”


This night started out on a high, high note with Wilton Azevedo’s “Po e-Machine”. I’ll go ahead and say it right here, Wilton Azevedo was easily my favorite of the seven performers I saw. I don’t know how to describe what exactly the Po e-Machine was, so I’ll quote the curators: “Wilton Azevedo presents a performance of ‘sonorous expanded writing’ generated in realtime from a mix of live voices and virtual instruments.”

the po e-machine, from

What that translated to on stage was a veritable orgy of sound, language and movement. Azevedo, who came to Chicago all they way from Brazil, sat at his laptop, which was displayed on a large white screen behind him.  He literally moved Portuguese phrases around with his mouse, speaking slowly into a microphone with his low basso voice. The phrases, all in Portuguese, slid around at his command, almost perfectly in rhythm with the trance music playing in the background. Meanwhile, a young woman in a small dark dress writhed around on the floor, thrashing at a pile of paper, reading Azevedo’s poetry aloud, groping herself, feigning orgasm, performing. I had no idea what I was looking at, nor could I understand any of what I was hearing (I don’t speak Portuguese), but it didn’t matter. Finally OPENPORT had sucked me in. That young woman, whoever she was, was complicating all my notions of everything. Plus, the trance music and the imagery sent me into a sensory overload, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the days of rolling on ecstasy and massaging Vick’s Vap-O-Rub all over my body. It was intense. I don’t know what you did, Wilton, but it kicked ass.

Marina Peterson

Next up was Marina Peterson, an artist who “presents improvised sonic explorations on the cello; sometimes sonic, sometimes amplified.” The phrase “improvised sonic explorations” made me nervous. Not only did she not rehearse, but she was experimenting with the cello? Sometimes plugged-in, sometimes not? Did she think about or prepare for anything? Ever? Well, lucky for me, my worry was in vain. Marina presented a haunting and gratifying performance. She began by crumbling up a piece of paper and jamming it into the strings of her acoustic cello. Then she ran her bow across the strings in such a way that it produced hideous noises. Low belly grunts. Blunt object murder noises. This lasted ten minutes or so. After Marina satisfied her curiosity with the paper, she then fixed something metal (maybe coins) onto her cello strings. Though the sound produced was far more tonal than the crumpled-paper-sound, it was no more pleasing to the ear. The reason these noises were tolerable was that Marina seemed like she was working hard to produce them, listening carefully to each note she created, drawing some out, silencing others. She was truly experimenting. I may not have liked the experiment’s effect, but because I believed it came from a genuine place, I could respect it.

Tallan Memmot

Finally there was Tallan Memmot’s Twittering, “a hypermedia performance based on a paper-based work of the same name.” Essentially what Memmot did was, he wrote a novel and then chopped it into millions of pieces. Twittering was his attempt to put the pieces back together again using a combination of sound, imagery and a self-made computer algorithm. If anyone complicated my notions of anything, it was Tallan. I fancy myself a writer (maybe that’s why I was drawn to the work of Memmot and Azevedo over the sound artists), and I know from experience that writing—much less completinga novel is a mind-numbing endeavor. Making all that effort and then dissecting the results seemed anathema to me. Why? Why would you want to do that?

But as I sat through Twittering I came to understand the depth of what Memmot was doing. This “realtime” recreation of his novel demonstrated just how massive an accomplishment it was to write one in the first place. A novel is quite literally its own little world, complete with language, characters, settings. The simplest way to navigate this world is linearly, the way we normally travel through books. Disconnecting the narrative confuses things, exposes weaknesses (one of Memmot’s was that he invoked the word “impossible” too much, everything was impossible – impossible connection, impossible recognition, etc.), conceals strengths (style becomes masked when you tear things apart at the sentence level), and complicates (there’s that word again) our notions (there’s that word, too) of what a “story” should be. You win, OPENPORT. You’ve even got me speaking your jargon.

Sadly, I had to leave at the intermission due to a family emergency. I was severely disappointed, too, because I missed Donna Rutherford, who was supposed to be one of the festival’s highlights. But it seems fitting that I should miss her, as I missed the vast majority of the festival’s performers. So by no means is what I’ve written a full account of OPENPORT activities. It might not even be an accurate account of the festival at large. These were just my reactions to the shows I saw, and like I said, I don’t know jack about nothing.


for more information about OPENPORT, call 773-281-0824