By Michelle Trauring
For decades, a small but thriving community of experimental visualists and media artists coexisted in downtown New York. And while they empowered and uplifted one another, the outside world disregarded them — casting their work aside as a sub-par art form reserved for nightclubs and the party scene.
Then in 2006, video/performance artist Ursula Scherrer and intermedia artist Katherine Liberovskaya decided it was time to shift the narrative. Their community deserved to be taken seriously.
“I think we both had the same concerns and frustrations,” Liberovskaya said during a recent telephone interview from the German countryside. “We began thinking we would like to do something that really brings live visuals, which was still emerging to a new heightened form, to the forefront. And we wanted to create a focused forum for people to present their work.”
Ever since, the pair has consistently gathered the tightknit media community together with OptoSonic Tea, a 13-year-long series of salon-style meetings that explore the ways live visuals and live audio interact — making its next stop for an evening-length performance on Friday at the Parrish Art Museum. The event will feature some of the world’s most innovative video and sound artists who will interact with the architecture and landscape of the outdoor Water Mill space.
And, as with every session, an informal discussion will follow over green tea, a healthier alternative to standard alcoholic beverages traditionally served at art events, Liberovskaya explained.
“I do think that since we began this, live visuals have become accepted as a serious form of art,” she said. “Nobody thinks that it’s necessarily just for dance parties anymore, which was the case when we started out.”
After nearly 100 performances, OptoSonic Tea has featured dozens of artists across five countries, serving thousands of cups of green tea along the way. It is a meeting of the minds in the truest sense, according to visual artist Chris “cj” Jordan, who joined the series during its earliest days.
“This is a real and exciting time, the last 20 years, as technology has become portable,” he said. “So we can really become fluid with the bits and the zeroes and the ones in not just our personal use, but how we collaborate.”
As long as the weather cooperates, the artists will each have an individual space outdoors — from the sides of the building to the terrace and lawn — using their senses to look, listen and then contribute to the larger, constant, non-verbal dialogue in a “praxis cycle,” Jordan said.
Nobody is pressing play and stepping back, he said. This is a live collaboration.
“The experience of being there is very unique, in that when you see music and visual art combined, typically it’s overproduced because we all look at so much film and television, and we’re all editors and directors in our own critique,” he said. “This steps outside of that by saying, ‘Hey, the incidental things that happen, the mistakes, the inadvertent things, these can be a part of the conversation creatively.’
“That, to me, is why theater is alive today: because mistakes can happen,” he continued. “If this was all canned and everybody was just pressing play, it would feel flat and the experience would be disjointed. But these conversations are happening constantly, and this cyclical non-verbal dialogue is really fascinating to me.”
In a world where experimental musicians and visual artists typically work in separate orbits, Jordan said that OptoSonic Tea begs the question, “Why? And how can we change that?” And, apparently, so does the Whitney Biennial, as participating sound artist Laura Ortman recently learned.
Her five-and-a-half-minute “My Soul Remainer” — which exists somewhere between filmed performance, music video and video art — and her performance on amplified violin were standouts at this year’s exhibition opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art, perhaps surprising Ortman more than anyone else.
“I was totally blown away,” she said. “A lot of work I do is interwoven with art. My work seems to cross in and out between fine art, experimental music and tactile, crazy collaborations. It bounces all over the map. I was really surprised that I was included on my own. Having the video in the exhibition made a lot of sense, because I believed it was high art, and to play there, a solo performance, of my own music and sounds was one of the highlights, so far, of my career.”
After earning her bachelor of fine arts from the University of Kansas, she moved to New York and found herself gravitating toward installation and performance art before she began making her own sounds and recordings. That is where her art fell into place, she said.
“Turns out, actually, sculpting sounds with my music and recordings, that’s where I found my place as an artist,” she said. “I’ve always tried to create a place where it gives that audience, or the viewer, or the listener a place to rest in. I don’t know if the tone of the music creates some kind of spatiality or distance or memory, but for me it’s definitely creating an environment where you can have a little bit of inner sanctuary.”
Though the Parrish performance will mark her first time participating in OptoSonic Tea, she is a longstanding member of the community surrounding it. There, along with so many other artists, she has found a home and her own relationship with technology — which Jordan says is critical.
“We’re not gonna get rid of technology. It’s here to stay,” he said. “So we, as artists, need to engage it. We need to be part of the discussion of how it’s used, and break out of the serial use of ‘We’re one person looking at one thing.’ That kind of mentality, we need to challenge that because that divides us. If you look at the politics of today, it’s divisive. We need to come together.
“When we’re separated, we can be controlled,” he continued. “That’s the divide and conquer. Corporations can control us by dividing us and separating us into silos with our devices. And OptoSonic Tea, to me, is a political gesture to break out of those and to create something beautiful collectively.”
OptoSonic Tea @ the Parrish will be held on Friday, September 27, from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, as part of the Platform 2019 series. Visual artists include Benton C Bainbridge, Bradley Eros, Andy Guhl, Kit Fitzgerald, Asi Föcker, CHiKA, Chris “cj” Jordan, Katherine Liberovskaya, LoVid (Kyle Lapidus and Tali Hinkis), and Ursula Scherrer. Joining them are sound artists Marcia Bassett, Ranjit Bhatnagar, Shelley Hirsch, Laura Ortman, Emma Souharce, Michael J. Schumacher, Keiko Uenishi, and Shane Weeks.
Admission is $12 and free for members, children and students. For more information, call 631-283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.