The performance had already begun as the audience took their seats in the auditorium of the New York Society For Ethical Culture for Australian artist Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Rhetorical Chorus (L.W.); a video of conceptual art giant Lawrence Wiener gesticulating played on a small monitor and legendary experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara sat on a pew at the back of the ornate wooden stage, flanked by two projection screens. Above La Barbara, the dictum, “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground” was inscribed in gold letters on dark wood. Throughout the three acts of the hour-long performance, this axiomatic inscription aligned art as the highest pursuit, and the audience as it’s secular worshippers, a fitting context for the work of Gothe-Snape and her long-standing interest in reorienting the aesthetics of late modernism through the relations of the body. The performance began with The Prelude: one of Gothe-Snape’s signature PowerPoint animations presented the audience with a “Provisional Vocabulary” of words and gestures drawn from Weiner’s lexicon. Hand gestures and phrases pulled from interviews and Weiner’s text work generated a performance score, then transmitted to the audience via the PowerPoint animations, and later through the bodies of The Prologue, performed by Brian Fuata, and The Transmitter (Actor), performed by La Barbara, and The Chorus.
The second act began when Fuata, dressed in all white, took the stage and laid a paper score on the floor before him. Fuata cycled through Weiner’s gestures and phrases, alternating between staccato and legato, viscerally rolling the vowels and consonants around in his mouth. With each cycle, sound and movement were exaggerated and abstracted into two opposing forces. For the final act, La Barbara moved to the front of the stage to stand on a small podium. Strikingly silent, with her eyes on the monitor of Weiner, La Barbara’s arms and hands continued the refrain of gestures, her hands spectrally projected above the aforementioned inscription. The Chorus rose to the stage from the audience, cloaked in shifts of peach and blue, printed with giant images of Weiner’s hands and offset by white sneakers. La Barbara’s hands, reperforming the abstracted gestures of Weiner, became the tool through which she conducted and commanded the ten-person choir. Using strategies of improvisation and interpretation based off of La Barbara’s gestures, The Chorus created a vocal soundscape without language. Over thirty minutes, the sound was built, dissipated, texturized, and repeated. Meanwhile, the screens dimly cycled through gradients of color, creating the effect of digitized color field paintings.
Referring to contemporary means of screen-based data compilation and distribution, techniques of improvisation drawn from Gothe-Snape’s background in performance making, as well as the historical tradition of Cheironomia — a notation of gestures used for oratory and religious meetings, Rhetorical Chorus (L.W.) exceeded the subject of Weiner. His rhetoric, enigmatic phrases and compelling hand gestures acted as a channel through which Gothe-Snape traced circuits of influence and meaning within the canon of modernism to consider the dissemination and consumption of knowledge. Gothe-Snape’s research documents — Excel spreadsheets of every Weiner text work, annotations of his oratory gesticulations as loosely illustrative marks — became teaching tools for The Choir, who Gothe-Snape considered the first audience of the work during a workshop hosted three days earlier, and the audience via the animated PowerPoint.Rhetorical Chorus (L.W.) collapsed the protagonist of conceptual art into the ensemble, to consider how knowledge is transmitted and mediated through bodies in the form of gesture and sound, as well as through improvisation and systemization.