Google the term “actual reality” and you’ll find a Hollywood production company, a web design firm, a profile on the MIT admissions site, the Wikipedia entry for “reality,” a messageboard for fans of the musical Rent, a resource page for laser tag enthusiasts and, by now, a flurry of posts regarding last week’s EMPAC performance of that title by Los Angeles multimedia duo Lucky Dragons. For several years, video artist Sarah Rara and audio artist Luke Fischbeck have kept a Google alert for the search term, amassing a catalog of similarly disparate and occasionally self-reflexive results. These little information loops, connecting the past with the present, memory with action, fiction with truth, became the basis for Lucky Dragons’ meditation on Actual Reality, yet the resulting performance was far more subdued than the web-driven concept might have produced.
Accompanied by three flautists (Margaret Lancaster, Sato Moughalian, Erin Lesser), bassoonist Dana Jessen and percussionist David Aron, Lucky Dragons assumed the form of a chamber ensemble, driven by Rara’s projections and Fischbeck’s electronics. The opening piece literally centered around the simple image of a flute onscreen, the flautists situated around the audience on the remaining three sides of the black box theater. As the flute onscreen began to rotate in space, seemingly tethered to the ceiling by an unseen filament, the flutes performed a continuous stereophonic trill, rising and falling when the mouth piece on screen pointed in their direction. The patience with which this improvisation unfolded, enhanced by Fischbeck’s minimal, panning electronics, gave the audience plenty of time to let the idea sink in before a pink lily replaced the flute onscreen and the piece began to shift.
What happens when the image of something precedes its actual real-time manifestation? The notion smarts of artifice. Can the image of a flute, laden with all the associations one has with the object, actually function as the conductor of an ensemble of “actual” flutes played by “real” people? The performance not only answered in the affirmative but seemed to suggest that the notion is far more mundane (and far less cyberpunk) than one might expect. It’s the very dynamic by which static memories drive all actions in the present tense. To a similar effect, Fischbeck’s digital creations often operated within the same octave and timbre of the acoustic instruments, further blurring the distinction between what might be considered real or simulated. The idea was reprised later in the show when the image of a musical triangle being struck onscreen was accompanied by the live striking of the instrument. As the oscillations of the pitch decayed in real time, the video captured the vibrating metal with a zoetrope-like series of tracers.
For such a cerebral theme, the show came off as surprisingly emotional. Rara’s stark images often functioned as a static anchor for the meandering sonics the ensemble explored, leaving the audience to bask in the presence of a flower as it gradually became consumed in a pink glow, or perched on a hilltop alongside a family peacefully watching a fireworks display. Through this device, the oppositional relationship between movement and stasis ultimately proved a more enduring theme than that between reality and fiction. Nowhere were all of these binaries subject to a greater challenge than during a piece that brought Rara and Fischbeck together at a lightboard in the middle of the room. Moving panes of glass across one another in the joint manner of a Ouija board, they projected a white lattice on a smaller overhead screen, manipulating fuzzy drone textures as the gauge between the slats grew or diminished. As with the opening piece, an improvsation in the organic instruments was lead by the electronic apparatus.
Sonically, Fischbeck’s orchestrations were largely ambient, drawing on the minimalist and aleatoric (chance-based) traditions and resulting in moods that allowed for focused contemplation of Rara’s visual elements. All this shifted in the final piece. As plumes of colored smoke wafted across the screen, the music turned acrid and disquieting. Fischbeck’s electronics grew agitated and severe while the flute players began to aspirate through their mouth pieces, spitting and purging the poison displayed overhead before wailing in distressed atonality. If earlier parts of the show attempted to put one at ease with the notion of a reality built from image and memory, the takeaway lesson seemed to be that authenticity is not the final determination of what is good and right. No matter how “actual” the “reality” may be, its content still dictates how we feel.