‘Lyfe’ is Self-Conscious and Spellbinding at Lincoln Center
Lyfe, a self-conscious and spellbinding collaboration between concept designer and filmmaker Alex Reeves, and Glass Ghost, a three-piece indie band from Brooklyn signed to the Austin-based Western Vinyl label, turned the David Rubenstein Atrium at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to an ultra avant-garde event venue one recent evening.
When the audience entered the theater, they found, high above Glass Ghost’s low, unadorned performance stage, a multiplex-cinema-sized screen, which created an automatic conundrum of where the audience’s attention was meant to fall. Would we be watching a live band whose musical stylings would drive what we saw on the screen (à la D.W. Griffith) or a film created to give the band that extra bit of arena-style godliness (à la Muse or U2)? Perhaps a combination thereof or alternatively neither?
Naturally, letting the audience in on the real aim would only allow them to put this collaboration into some kind of category, which the creative team may have preferred not take place, or at least not within the opening minutes. This experience of deliberate, calculated uncertainty was further emphasized by Reeves’ film crew’s unique method of welcoming the audience: inviting each member to stand in front of one of the Rubenstein Atrium’s towering walls of foliage, look into a video camera and state their names. Those who were feeling especially cooperative were asked on-camera to fill in the blank of the sentence “I am _________.”
Once recorded and allowed to find seats or standing room, the audience of approximately 150 began to experience this post-modern opera, learning just how the Glass Ghost band and Reeves, a self-described “creative technologist,” would ultimately collaborate. Reeves’ video arsenal for the imagery that appeared on the screen during the hour-long production was drawn the recently shot footage of the audience upon their arrival combined with footage of the audience shot in real-time as they experienced the performance and previously shot footage of a “day-in-the-life” of a 20-something male whoM the audience was able to relate to as the film’s protagonist on the simple (albeit convincing) grounds that he was worthy of landing on a screen at Lincoln Center in the first place.
As this bona fide urban hero is shown carrying out a raw, unedited morning shave and shopping for a baseball cap, the audience is treated to a lyrically driven musical performance that no lifelong film viewer could help but to attempt to relate to what was passing before them onscreen, and create – in their own minds – something akin to a music video. Is Glass Ghost’s repeated refrain “the shape of America” in one of its songs played over this protagonist’s meticulous shopping for new fashion accessories connected? Are we watching a rock opera slowly become linked to this very plebeian series of urbane urban events? Is the fact that we’re engrossed in a piece of entertainment that manages to be engrossing largely because of our inability to define or categorize its genre or its aims, seeing the undefinable “shape of America” itself in the ordinary images that fill the video?
Every time the audience came close to landing on an answer in which it could be confident, the switch was flipped, and their quest for definition of what they were listening to and watching began anew. From this very nearly definable-as-a-music-video hat shopping trip, the film would then shift to a selected series of clips of the audience responding to the camera one-by-one as they entered the Rubenstein Center. Reeves seemed to have designed a “best of” reel of these entrance pieces for the audience’s amusement, giving that same audience a dose of stressed self-consciousness as they pondered whether their sub-60 seconds of footage made Reeves’ cut, and with simultaneous curiosity about whether theirs would invite more laughter, or even ridicule from their peers than the ones they laughed at themselves.
With the strategic ear of a nightclub DJ cutting to a new dance tune 30 seconds before the previous one ends to keep the crowd on its toes, Reeves showed awareness of having a not-limited, but simultaneously not-limitless toolbox of visual stimuli to make sure the viewers of this one-off event always had new beats to dance to. Yet as in any
crafted cinema, the dance was a cerebral one. At several points that could have been close to being defined as a lull in the dance, Reeves cut to a real-time close-up of an audience member who had become lost in a swiping-and-typing session on their smart phone and, at another such point, to an audience member sleeping, each time as if to remind us that he was as tuned in to the potential for losing the audience’s engagement as the audience was.
As these keep-them-guessing uses of the Rubenstein Atrium’s multiplex-sized screen carried the audience through the musical performance of the very engaging Glass Ghost (perhaps best defined sonically as a three-piece Beck-Wilco-Radiohead blend) followed our original protagonist onto a protracted ride on the New York City subway, which was then followed by a simultaneous experience of a journey of zoned-out-if-not-sleeping subway passengers alongside our perpetually high-spirited protagonist. He jovially shared onscreen commentary on a multitude of topics, the subjects of which the audience could only guess, from the onscreen smile that accompanied them, to be thoroughly engaging and worthwhile subject matter.
The mixed-mode, keep-them-guessing, the-audience-is-partially-the-performance approach reached its apex when the adventurous, clearly NYC-based onscreen hero walked into the venue holding a smart phone which, set to a live video recording mode, became the stream which appeared on the Reeves-curated screen. Immediately recognizable by his thick hair and by-then-familiar bone structure, he instantly shifted from being the watched to being the watcher. The audience doubling as performers, who viewed him by tilting their heads upward for the previous hour abruptly became the object of his gaze at eye level. Simultaneously, with Reeves unseen behind the editing table choosing what the audience sees, this POV of the palm of the protagonist’s hand also became the POV of Reeves himself.
Audience reactions to this flipping of the switch were then sewn seamlessly into being a part of the performance as they unfolded onscreen in real-time, with the repeated lyrics from Glass Ghost singer Eliot Krimsky “listen to my own life until the lights go out again” serving as more possibly-thoroughly-correlated, possibly-mere-wink-and-a-nod, possibly-totally-uncorrelated marriage of stimuli, allowing the audience to be reassured that the dance was by no means done, and that Reeves was not going to let this sober-psychedelic experience end without one more splash of color to dance across the sky and land in the audience’s lap.
In the end, Reeves was able to combine a dash of audience insecurity with a generous ongoing appetite to piece together what they were actually watching. In a piece of performance art-cinema that did not actually beg its audience to understand it as much as it did ask us to simply keep paying attention, Reeves relieved the audience from any obligation or compulsion to agree about what was unfolding in front of them. This could be regarded as a cop-out by those married to wholly narrative cinema, but meanwhile, a disparate audience of widely varied ages and backgrounds remained hungry for the next left turn throughout the performance. The mesmerizing video was aptly amplified by Glass Ghost ensemble, a really strong and compelling live band.
In an interview with Bindlesnitch, Alex Reeves was kind enough to clear up some of the lingering mysteries that unfolded in the Lincoln Center Rubenstein Atrium:
What kind of background do you have with projects or performances similar to what we saw at the Rubenstein Atrium?
Alex Reeves (AR): This was the third iteration of Lyfe, we had a residency as part of PS122’s RAMP program in March 2014, then a second showing in Lincoln Center’s film program in August 2014, and then the première was in May 2015 at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Beyond the Lyfe show, I have been performing live, often improvised, often interactive visuals for bands for the past five years at venues throughout New York.
How much were you involved with the band Glass Ghost previously…?
AR: Lyfe was developed as a concept album from very early on. I first collaborated with Glass Ghost’s Eliot Krimsky on a video for the single called The Sound of Money which we filmed in an abandoned office park within the virtual world Second Life. Eliot choreographed a final ecstatic sequence in the sky using a MIDI keyboard which we set up to control the character’s movements. From there, the album evolved hand-in-hand with the visuals that we were creating for the songs – it was a thoroughly collaborative process that a visual artist rarely gets to experience with a band.
How did you describe to the band what your needs were for the show?
AR: Many of the ideas for the live video came from the band so it was a collaborative process where we came up with outlandish ways for the audience to interact with the visuals and then asked questions like, “What technology could we use to accomplish this?, “Has this been invented yet?” We worked closely with two programmers, Grayson Earle and Sam Lavigne who made some of our most far-fetched technology dreams come true.
Was the band given any guidance of what they were to expect from what would land onscreen? Had they seen any of your previously shot footage…?
AR: The band was deeply involved in the shooting process, in fact some shoots, like at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was just keyboardist Eliot Krimsky filming the subject himself. So Eliot had seen all the footage and helped to edit it into something that would work for the songs and fit with the more interactive visual elements.
Was the band’s set list in any way coördinated with what appeared onscreen…?
AR: The set list was highly coördinated with the visuals. We spent several weeks planning the order of songs and deciding the best way to sync the songs to the visuals.
Was there any attention paid by you as a filmmaker to keeping the audience self-conscious?
AR: The underlying idea of the piece was to show a character live-streaming every moment his life, and peering behind the scenes a bit as algorithms analyzed how he was living his life, his emotions, his choices. And then using security cameras in the space, we wanted to unleash these same algorithms on the audience to further connect them with the character’s journey. By putting audience members’ images onto the screen behind the band, I think [it] made audience members feel more involved in the piece. Some people probably disliked the feeling at first, perhaps feeling self-conscious, but our end goal was to involve everyone in a way that felt celebratory.
Lyfe was an offering of the New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a performance venue that refers to itself, without a hint of irony, as “the world’s leading presenter of artistic programming” and has now opened its doors to the everyman, like clockwork, each and every Thursday as part of a new slice of community-centered programming known as Target Free Thursdays. On the eve of every weekend, the home of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic opens the doors of its David Rubenstein Atrium to an artist who might feel as out-of-place on a neighboring stage of Lincoln Center’s premises as Larry David might feel on the set of Transformers 5.
The weekly event’s lack of an admission charge and the selection of acts that would not typically grace its main stages gives the weekly offering the same vibe that MTV once gave to the understated rug-store-basement set of its series MTV Unplugged. Target Free Thursdays is presented as an alt night in Lincoln Center’s alt room, making sure that audiences are prepared to see performances from artists from the other side of the tracks from the tuxedo-or-tutu-clad names more commonly associated with Lincoln’s lofty 16-acre campus. Apart from the world-famous street address, the only things in the David Rubenstein Atrium to remind audiences of the legendary space’s signature bravado and superlative self-esteem are its 26-foot-high ceilings complete with a floor-to-ceiling fountain and two equally high walls covered in lush, green foliage. At Lincoln Center, as it might similarly at the Vatican, the decor of the David Rubenstein Atrium gives a fair shake at coming off as understated. Thankfully, if Lyfe is any clue to the Rubenstein Atrium’s curatorship, this bastion of taste of New York City’s Upper West side is on the right track.
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