Performance art is meant to provoke, to elicit a reaction, to inundate the viewer and make him uncomfortable. Few are more skilled at doing just that than Erica Mott, and her latest project is no exception.
Mott has labeled 3 Singers (running through Feb. 1 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine) a “technopera,” and indeed, the work is an opera for the modern age: a beautiful amalgamation of song, dance, scenic and lighting design, and costume. Mott approaches her subject matter as an anthropologist might, spending vast amounts of time and effort devoted to research. 3 Singers explores the experience of women laborers in the textile industry throughout three time periods (post-Civil War era, the Industrial Revolution, and present day). The three women – or three singers - making up the cast (Hope Littwin, Jenna Lyle and Katie Mazzini) are accompanied by three antique Singer sewing machines. The score is written by Composer/Sound Designer Ryan Ingebritsen, Mott’s creative partner of several years, with the performers’ voices manipulated live during each performance. Mott and Ingebritsen seem to be more symbiotic than ever, as his unique combination of found sources and live compositions blends beautifully with Mott’s signature utterings in a sort of tongues.
Mott is meticulous about crafting a piece, attending to every detail. This is never more apparent than in the close quarters of 3 Singers, bringing audience members close enough to see the detailed lace fringe on each performer’s vintage pantaloons and corsets. Mott has a more sophisticated grasp of choreography than many performance artists, and though the three women onstage are apparently not dancers, gestures and phrases are beautifully designed for three opera singers who happen to move well.
Movement and song - a sometimes operatic, sometimes atonal blend of singing and manipulated sounds - are layered over what might be called “prepared pianos” in the form of antique sewing machines. The woman writhe in their seats as the machines spin, exposing an internal debate as each cycles through series of gestures caressing the machines in one moment, detesting them the next. Images of pre and post-industrial revolution textile shops fill the muslin drops around us, and the whole world grows in intensity and volume, eliciting the same unrest women undoubtedly faced during those times. The singers’ voices crescendo and climb up the scale, echoing other elements to an almost shocking degree. Over the course of nearly 70 minutes, what started as an intriguing three-dimensional environment grew to such a volume that, after awhile, was just loud. While Mott and Ingebitsen’s intentions are clear, and amplification seems necessary only to manipulate the singers’ voices in real time, it’s hard to justify such an admittedly awesome artistic effect against the practical ramifications of blasting the audience with a wall of sound loud enough to damage our ears. The consequence of so much noise for so long is that it ultimately pulls the viewer out of the experience altogether. Indeed, that is unfortunate, since the final requiem for women who paid the ultimate price by working in the textile industry falls a bit flat as our senses recover.
3 Singers is not wanting for irony, but it’s missing Mott’s keen sensibility for humor and comedic timing present in many of her works. She opts instead for a bizarre juxtaposition between the flittering voices of her performers and Twitter. This connection makes more sense when one considers 3 Singers as a whole, including an interactive multi-media exhibit and social media awareness campaign about women laborers. The work feels important, bringing rise to an oft forgotten issue amidst a flood of news about whether or not leggings are acceptable in public, cat videos, and deflated footballs. Mott and her impressive creative team of Ingebritsen, vocal coach Fides Krucker, video by John Boesche, lighting by Todd Clark, scenic designer Leigh Breslau, and dramaturge Ginger Farley have explored nearly every possible facet of a complex topic that often goes unnoticed. The fascinating connections between advocacy and art; voice, movement, and sound; and social media and social awareness are justifiably present in the complex and magical world of 3 Singers, making it totally worth the cost of admission (so long as you bring earplugs).
Erica Mott Production and the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago present 3 Singers through Feb. 1 at 175 W. Washington St. Tickets are $15-20., available by phone at (872) 588-6014, or online at www.ericamott.com.