Vision Request
by Colleen Asper

Horror has long understood the advantages of trying to extend fiction into the audience's awareness of their immediate surroundings. Seeking an instant thrill, horror has the greatest incentive. The Ring, a series of films that turn on the premise of a cursed video-tape, insinuates that the viewer will meet the same end as the characters in the film, after all, we all watched the same tape. Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher builds suspense with the protagonist's realization that the story he is reading is coming true around him, a notion only scary to the actual reader if we imagine Poe's story materializing around us in much the same manner. What, then, do others art forms have to learn from this example?

My gothic lead into this review may make an unlikely introduction to the setting of its subject: the stark desert region in Joshua Tree, CA, that is the home to A-Z West. This May I was invited along with fifteen other participants to be part of Vision Request, an exhibition and collaborative performance at A-Z West hosted by Andrea Zittel, and organized by Jennifer Dudley, Sarrita Hunn, and Ben Kinsley. In addition to becoming a space for artist's projects made at Zittel's invitation, A-Z West is the most recent testing ground for her ambitiously comprehensive designs for everything from living units to uniforms.

Vision Request's own collaborative performance, the Play of Light and Shadows, was set at night in a sandy wash nestled between steep rocks, a space as close to my vision of the middle of nowhere as any I have inhabited. The play began with participates forming a semi-circle on the desert floor that mirrored the semi-circle the audience formed in front of us, with the doubling further emphasized by a lantern placed in each group's center. We held hands, closed our eyes, and attempted to conjure spirits. There was some giggling. After a sufficiently uncomfortable interlude without activity, a flashlight illuminated a white tent from within and a shadow play began. As time progressed participates got up in small groups and began shadow plays on the rock-face directly behind our sandy stage, each group directing their flashlights to a higher point than the last.

Each play within the play deviated further from a traditional shadow play, creating a chronology that moved from easily constructed illusions to mysterious ones, and from familiar images to those more obtuse. Puppeteers secretly concealed within the rocks continued the slowly progressing climb of light and shadow till an illuminated figure with transparent wings suddenly immerged from the top of the rock-turned-backdrop. From this birdman's pinnacle a glowing orb shot through the desert sky over the sand, admittedly on transparent fishing line rather then propelled by its own magic, and landed on the opposite rock-face. Here a costumed figure that mirrored the last rose, shirked from the flashlights now all pointing at him, and fled away. The participants returned to their original positions in the circle and the séance, presumably, was over.

By implicating our audience in a performance that was contextualized as the result of conjuring, Vision Request was not so bold as to imagine frightening our viewers. We were, however, asking our audience to not only enjoy our illusions, but also remember that they were precisely that: illusions. Just as the film within the film, the story within the story, or the play within a performance can ask the audience to imaginatively extend fiction, these devices can be used to deconstruct that same fiction.

The Vision Request artists were: Colleen Asper, Elena Bajo, Katie Creyts, Ben Dowell, Jennifer Dudley, Takehito Etani, Sarrita Hunn, Ben Kinsley, Yvonne Lung, Katja Mater, Lilly McElroy, Andrew Ross, Adam Shecter, Mark Taber, Montana Torrey, and Robert Wechsler.

Beautiful/Decay August 2007