On a barren desert hilltop a few miles from remote Hanksville, Utah, five women recited, seemingly without affect, a series of fragmentary texts. They wore identical flowing white clothing that drew the eye to a grouping of white module-like structures perched on the alien landscape below. One woman stood in the center with the other four arranged around her in a cross formation. At intervals they turned like a pinwheel and small bells attached to the central woman's tunic chimed thinly in the sharp, arid breeze. A group of listeners surrounded the performers in a circle. A man who could be mistaken as one of them, but was in fact the work's composer, moved along with the women. He carried a portable tape recorder -- which, when he pressed 'play,' emitted the sounds of an ambient field recording -- and a crystal bowl, which he struck with a spoon.
Such were the elements of artist Kathleen Johnson's "Brainchild Part 3," scored by Mark So and performed at the Mars Desert Research Station on October 11. Dominique Cox played the lead role and was accompanied by chorus members Julie Brody, Kate Brown, Mari Garrett, and Gabie Strong.
Johnson and So were already preparing the piece for a performance at LAXART, which later took place on October 24, when she was invited by the Joshua Tree-based organization High Desert Test Sites to participate in this year's iteration of its biennial programming, co-hosted by the design and rural advocacy group Epicenter in and around Green River, Utah. Organizers were aware that Johnson had spent two weeks at the Research Station -- itself a project of the Mars Society, dedicated to generating and maintaining interest in planetary exploration -- in 2004 as part of a volunteer crew rotation engaged in a full simulation of life on Mars. They wondered if she was interested in revisiting the site and producing a piece there. "It seemed perfect to take "Brainchild Part 3" on the road to Utah and to do this sci-fi-ish space story at [the] Mars analog site," Johnson said.
Previous 'chapters' of "Brainchild" have taken place in various Los Angeles gallery settings since 2009, but this marked the first time that the project was performed in a landscape with which it has clear associations. Johnson's time at the Research Station was spent photographing the surrounding environs. "I was an anomaly," she says, "an artist there to do a photographic study, trying to see how analogous the landscape really was, and how they were using it for the simulation. I wasn't a complete outsider, however, in that I love all things space and was a card-carrying member of the Mars Society at the time."
But while Johnson is not a scientist, her work is indicative of the kind of curiosity and open-ended experimentation that welcome complexity, resist easy pay-off, and are motivated by forays into the unknown. This can be seen not only in the multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary and long-term commitment represented by "Brainchild" -- six more parts are projected, resulting in nine in total -- but in the collaborative ethos the project represents. For each part, Johnson has enlisted a different composer to score her texts, which include passages she has written herself as well as appropriated language drawn from poems and popular songs. Though the narrative -- which hints at the story of a young woman who explores the remnants of an alien civilization -- provides "Brainchild's" basic structure, beneath the surface the piece is also about the different ways in which people process spoken and written text.
For all of these reasons, Johnson's collaboration with composer Mark So on Part 3 is fitting. Over the last few years language, both spoken and written, has played a primary role in his compositions. Among his current works, for instance, is an ongoing series of cassette tapes on which plainspoken readings of poems by John Ashbery are interspersed with ambient sound recorded while he reads passages of the poems to himself, silently. Silence is thereby shown to be full of information and meaning, and poems are called into service as vessels for the unruly bits of life that intersect with them in real time.
So approached Johnson's text with this objective and a radically open spirit, arranging it in clusters and indicating that the performers should, for the most part, recite the words as naturally as possible. But there is never an entirely objective reading of anything, and the score allows each performer's personality and voice to shine through in an unadulterated way -- when they participate in "Brainchild," they are part of its field of possibilities and also completely themselves. Johnson, describing So's work and its effect on her project, remarks that his "process in general, his insistence on the innate musical qualities of words themselves, has been eye-opening and will surely be an influence going forward... his score for Part 3 provided an uncommon generosity of space and time for the listener, and invitation to tune in via a new frequency." So's own field recordings provided a kind of counterpoint to the vocal parts, as did the notes he struck on the crystal bowl, an action which meant that he was also included as an active part of the choreography.
In this third part of the narrative, the central character comes to the realization that she might have a stronger connection to the alien presences she feels around her than she previously thought. Meanwhile the aliens, if that is what they are, begin to sense that their powers might be limited when it comes to the young woman who is exploring their world. While the hesitancies and questions from both sides constitute the content of the piece, they are also indicative of the process by which it was made. "Brainchild, the character," Johnson observes, "is definitely now at the cusp of her awakening, whatever that might bring in Parts 4 to 9. Dominique, the real singer who performs the part, has also grown with the project and is no longer the 18-year-old girl I met in 2008. There's a strange and growing conflation of the two -- the fictional character and real person -- that is perhaps problematic but also really lovely for me."
Johnson is not only relating a story, but situating herself among the materials, images, settings, and, perhaps most importantly, the people that have constellated themselves around her as she has followed various passions and pursued different ways of making art. For almost 15 years, for instance, she has participated in the Sci-Fi Book Club, a group made up of mostly artists dedicated to reading all kinds of speculative fiction. Describing the effects this experience has had on "Brainchild," Johnson notes, "Reading texts as a group has definitely influenced how I read, and not just what I read. So by extension my life in the group has also influenced how I'm writing 'Brainchild,' how I think about the narrative, structurally: its excerpted form (stanzas vs. straight prose), its disruptions, its hopefully generous descriptive language that doesn't always serve to move things along, and the relationship of all that to the plot itself."
Like the meaningful connections that can turn daily experience into something sublime at any moment, "Brainchild Part 3" rooted its otherworldliness in moments that were immediately tangible and ordinary. When song lyrics by Prince or Tom Petty emerged from the score, spoken in the same register and intonation as the words that make up the narrative, they snapped the listener to attention: was what she had been hearing all along not quite what she thought it was? Was it in fact something quite personal, discovered not on another planet, but in the midst of everyday life? In this way any given audience member becomes like Brainchild herself, making her way through the artifacts of a civilization that seem strange at first but can suddenly become familiar.
These qualities showed themselves differently in the stark terrain of the Utah desert than they did at LAXART a few weeks later, but the work's philosophical openness meant that neither was truer or more faithful to its authors' original intentions than the other. In the desert, listeners heard movements of all kinds, not just those made by the performers -- the wind in particular swept up words and phrases, "harmonizing" with So's field recording -- while at LAXART the stillness of the gallery space allowed for a different experience of silence. In both settings, as the piece worked through its variations, pairing members of the chorus with Brainchild and with each other, its hushed mysteries gave way to a stunning clarity. Language was revealed to be a landscape too, one in which people meet regardless of space or time.