Whenever an immersive art experience takes place in Boston, I hear many people say: “This is exactly what Boston needs...we need more of this.” I don’t think it’s the spectacle people need. I think people crave a space where they can be immersed in art and culture, find solitude, and a place that’s outside their daily routine, a way to be part of something larger, creative and inclusive. In KNOW NO at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, Masary Studios (Ryan Edwards, Maria Finkelmeier, and Sam Okerstrom-Lang) activated a historic space with an integration of music, projection, and installation that engulfed the space in sound, poetry, and performance.
Hundreds of people experienced KNOW NO, the first major production the BCA has commissioned in decades. The way that Masary Studios combined the existing architecture and sound reminded me of artist Anri Sala, whose work investigates how sound and music can engage architecture and history, or the ephemeral and monumental aspects in Lee Mingwei’s incredibly powerful site-specific installations.
In 2015 during Illuminus hosted by Hubweek, Masary Studios awakened then energized the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway park by combining original scores, custom image-mapping and percussion. KNOW NO included similar powerful projections of sound, transforming the space for contemplation, curiosity, and reflection inwards, a much needed platform for all during this rough time in our nation. Repercussions of the word NO were devised as magnifying mirror where spectators could see the virtues of their fellow human beings.
Video projections during a snowstorm in Boston earlier this year brought themes of struggle to my mind. KNOW NO asked its performers to think about some kind of injustice, take 30 seconds of reflection and say NO directly at a camera as if it were the face of injustice itself. Seeing our faces larger than life onto the walls of the Cyclorama, I was reminded of the work of Diana Thater, whose work engages the viewer to be conscious of their own body and evoke the feeling as if they’re inside the artwork. The monumental figures stared at the audience, slowly echoing the word “NO," as to awaken the power within the spectators to stand up for justice.
It’s true that the construction of the solitary space created new sense of community and a new awareness of the capacity of anyone and everyone. Performers weaved together a new sensory fabric by combining light, sound and poetry with the human community which transformed our ordinary experience. But some spectators seemed lost, unclear of their role in the space, while others sat on the floor as meditators taking in the vibrations. The dialectic between visuals and sound, with the spectator transmitting power, evoked “Sleep No More” theatrical production of Shakespeare’s fallen hero, Macbeth – which leads the audience through a macabre dance through a transformed abandoned hotel. Truly an immersive experience, the projected visuals and light illuminated the walls of the Cyclorama, while percussionists and vocalists guided the viewer’s attention as they marched as one through the crowd. The break and segregation of the community by the performers divided the crowd in two – hinting at our nation's segregated communities after the election and reminiscent of a performance by Carlos Martiel: Segregation, where he stood naked between two barbed wire barricades that separated him from the public and divided the space into two viewing areas. Everyone fearfully scrambled to not be separated from their loved ones.
The stages, the audience, and the imagined world they created together were conceptualized as one continuum. KNOW NO reflected our current human condition and investigated themes of identity and human communities in the Western world by combining different disciplines and senses. Altogether, KNOW NO was a powerful immersive experience that seemed to have a lot of impact on people and brought audiences of all backgrounds together through art and collaboration. So, YES –Boston needs more of this!