Monday, December 28, 2009

Sensory Overload

Cage's 1966 piece, Variations VII, is a rather unforgettable production. Wanting to use sounds that were available at the time of the performance, Cage asked that 10 telephone lines be installed in the performance space (an airplane hanger, I think) by the New York Telephone Company. In addition, he had lines opened in various places in New York City, including Luchow's, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, the New York Times press room, and Merce Cunningham’s dance studio. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage's sound manipulation system back at the hanger. Cage also had 6 contact microphones on the performing platform itself and 12 contact microphones on household appliances such as a blender, a juicer, a toaster, a fan, etc. Thirty photocells and lights were mounted at ankle level around the performance area, which activated the different sound sources as the performers moved around. The grand result was a technological, cacophonous, electrically powered extravaganza that had the potential to send certain individuals into bouts of hyperventilation. A true sensory overload.

Despite the regrettable lack of kitchen appliances, I might say that I'd experienced a similar "performance" yesterday afternoon, when I accompanied my brother to Kenwood mall. I haven't been to a shopping mall for about six years, and so had had ample time to forget just how unpleasant they are. Upon entering I was filled with a certain disgusted feeling as I walked past ridiculously clothed manikins and displays of shoes and handbags for which one might pay well over a sensible amount of money (and then found myself thinking of starving people in underprivelaged nations...). Shoppers ambled through from store to store, carrying their bags filled with new purchases (lots of Macy's bags. There must have been an after-Christmas sale), and all of the women seemed to be dressed rather similarly in straight-leg jeans with boots and long graphic t-shirts. The constant bombardment by vendors and salesmen attempting to sell you something, anything, was not to be ignored and was greatly unappreciated (though, truth be told, the glare I gave to the man trying to get me to buy a manicure package might have been a little harsh). But before I let myself go on to a diatribe regarding American consumerism as perpetuated by a capitalist society, let me get to something more Cagean.

While my brother made his purchase at the Apple store, I sat on one of the benches outside the shops, watching the zombies-I mean, shoppers -as they walked on by. As I sat there for what seemed like far too long a time, I closed my eyes and took in all of the sounds. There was a roaring tide of hundreds of conversations, some Christmas music playing back by the food court, a baby crying somewhere to the left, the sound of a child's echoing footsteps running on the hard linoleum floor. There was that guy at the kiosk practically shouting about the wonders that dead sea bath products will do for the skin, the techno music coming from inside a clothing store, and the sound of the automated directory, speaking in oh-so-polite tones. And then there were the smells. The perfume counter, the french fries and soft pretzels down at the food court, the pine-scented artificial Christmas trees, the chlorine at the fountain. I opened my eyes and took in the carnival of visual stimulation: bright red Christmas displays, flashing twinkle lights, the loudly dressed manikins and the mulling, also loudly dressed people.

This was definitely a Variations VII-type performance, though perhaps a more "multi sense" as the elements of sight and smell were added to all of the sounds. I realized that all of the constant, sensory stimulation must be used purposefully, likely to sell us things, as all other elements of shopping malls do. Regardless, the experience was largely overwhelming for those few moments and I was more than happy to see my brother strolling out of the Apple store with his computer program in tow.

For the record, I do not plan on returning to any shopping mall for quite sometime. And you can't make me.

No comments: