Jeff Becker is a director, designer and sculptor based in New Orleans—a fact important to note before reading about his Creative Capital project Sea of Common Catastrophe. The performance follows four companions as they wander through a continually changing landscape of upscale living and chic restaurants built upon the fragments of their own displaced communities. It’s not inspired by fantasy, but by Jeff’s own experiences and observations as he lived through Hurricane Katrina. The performance premieres in New Orleans in January and in February at 7 Stages in Atlanta, Georgia. We caught up with Jeff just as he was preparing to launch the performance.
Alex Teplitzky: Setting seems to be a huge inspiration for Sea of Common Catastrophe. Can you describe the setting of New Orleans and the personal state of mind you were in when you began creating this work?
Jeff Becker: New Orleans after Katrina was surreal in the truest sense of the word. Parts of the city clearly showed the devastation caused by the storm: cars haphazardly deposited on top of houses that had floated off their foundations and butted up against other homes in a bizarre traffic jam; people’s belongings were hanging in trees deposited there by the flood waters. In other parts of town where the water rose slowly, the effects were less pronounced; houses seemed intact, only displaying this ominous brown line at the same height that marked the level the flood waters.
When I entered one of these houses that belonged to a friend, it was as if it had been shaken by the hand of a giant. Everything was deposited in curious places, refrigerators were in living rooms, couches in kitchens, books and other objects strewn all over the place, all lifted and redeposited by the rising water of the flood. There was brown slime everywhere, and mold; the smell and look was overwhelming and immersive.
As the days passed the city became even more surreal. People piled their ruined belonging in heaps in front of their houses. Neighborhoods that were not flooded but without power for weeks caused food to fester and rot in refrigerators. It seemed almost at once the entire city put their refrigerators on the street, taped closed, coffins of food. Then there were the ominous X’s that were present on every house painted by the National Guard, a strange code that let you know if anyone was found dead inside. My family and I evacuated and when I returned home I was happy to see our home was not flooded and only had minimal wind damage, but I followed suit and dutifully placed our refrigerator on the street.
New Orleans has always been an expressive city with its numerous festivals and events, but celebration was not limited to these events; celebration happened every day. New Orleans after Katrina resembled a party that got out of hand, where the city got angry and destroyed itself; New Orleans found its own way of expression. Makeshift installations and art spontaneously appeared throughout the city, refrigerators became canvases for paintings and messages, furniture was set up in strange outdoor rooms. One I remember clearly was a couch, side table and a lamp with a sign that read “Now Accepting Explanations.”
New Orleans had always been a city that was comfortable in its own skin. In the years that followed Katrina it became restless, there was a shift in demographics, its long-time residents became uneasy, many did not return. Some neighborhoods flourished while others remained desolate, unoccupied ghost towns. New transplants attracted for a variety of reasons saw opportunity in this restlessness and began to reinvent the city in the image they imagined New Orleans to be. These new residents began buying homes and commercial properties very cheaply and renovating them into restaurants, boutique grocery stores, coffee shops with menus and products that seem at home in New York or LA but were strangely foreign in selection and price to this southern city. Homes were bought and converted into short-term rental units at an unprecedented rate, turning neighborhoods into tourist zones with few long-term tenants. Property values rose and—no longer able to afford rising rent and property taxes—people left and were replaced by people who could afford to live in this in this vortex of transformation.
As well-intentioned as some of these changes appeared to be, many people felt ignored, overlooked and unrepresented in the decisions made for their neighborhoods and felt their voice was not invited to the table. It was also clear that many of these adverse effects were calculated and planned to force people to leave. This is the setting in which Sea was conceived, in an ocean of change that forever transformed the city.
Alex: You describe your work as an intersection between visual arts and performance. Can you describe the moment in your career where you started combining these two disciplines?
Jeff: I began my career as a sculptor and object-maker. I became uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the removed way my work was experienced by the viewer, and with my passive involvement in its presentation. In an effort to change that experience, I began creating installations and environments that my audience would walk into and become part of. Influenced by artists like Ann Hamilton, Bill Viola, Chris Burton and Joseph Beuys, I began including myself in the installations. In 1989 I was a graduate student in the Expanded Arts program at The Ohio State University. This program was focused on multidisciplinary and performance art. The newly opened Wexner Center provided me the opportunity to experience the works of Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Sankai Juku, Eiko & Komo and many other giants in the field. I was really taken by the power of live performance and its overt political messages.
The point when I completely crossed over was in January 1991 during the first Gulf War. I staged a ten-day durational performance protest titled Protection in the center of the Ohio State campus. The timing of the work and the direct and immediate effect it had on me and the audience blew me away. I knew then and there that this was the way I wanted to work. Although I no longer perform in my shows—preferring to focus on directing and designing—I am still fascinated by the power of live performance and its ability to instigate direct personal and collective response that reaches deep into the soul of an audience.
Alex: You worked on the set of Cry You One, another Creative Capital-supported project, which took the theater audience to the natural landscape. In talking about that work, you’ve said you treat the performance environment as a character. Can you talk about how that applies to Sea of Common Catastrophe?
Jeff: Cry You One was largely about the loss of land and culture in south Louisiana. The show was staged in five locations around the country and, although the content was centered on the culture of south Louisiana, the show needed to find its relevance in each location. Each site we chose had its own voice. Finding that voice and listening to it was my primary role. This was done by multiple site visits and time spent listening to the place and the people who lived on it before imposing the work on it. I often prefer the title of “environmental enhancer” as opposed to “designer.” I enhance and illuminate the environment with the ultimate goal of finding a way, through the design, to help the audience listen as well.
For indoor shows in theaters or non-traditional spaces, my practice is similar: I spend a good bit of time listening to the space and strive to create an environment that is connected to the space I am working in. I also feel that the performance begins the moment you enter the space so the audience shares the world of the performers. In Sea, I am working with an amazing video designer, Courtney Egan, and through video mapping we are creating a completely immersive environment that will be further enhanced by the innovative lighting design of Evan Spigelman and the magical music compositions by Sean LaRocca, all enhancing the character of the space.
It is my practice to have the environment constructed early on in the process: I name the set pieces so the actors relate with them as fellow performers that have their own story arc. In this way the performers can develop their work in the actual environment, continually affecting and being affected by the physical dynamics of the space.
Alex: From what you’ve told me so far, a theater project of this type sounds like an enormous undertaking. What have been the challenges you’ve faced in creating this performance?
Jeff: Theater is a collaborative art form and devised theater that is created over a long period of time with all the artists involved in a collective decision-making process, takes collaboration to its extreme. In the process I am used to working in, there is generally an “instigator,” someone who has the initial idea, concept and vision of what the piece can be. Often the instigator is not the director of the show and at a certain point must release their vision to the group and the eye of the director, which involves trust, generosity and a willingness to allow your best ideas to be edited out of the show. Finding where the consensus decision making gives way to the vision of the director or instigator is always a murky line. With Sea, I am the instigator, director and designer of the piece but I work in close collaboration with my team and try all ideas, and sometimes go against my instinct when one of my collaborators feels strongly about an idea. I give the team all the time they need to convince me of their idea and then expect them to support the decision I make. I also view the administrative team as collaborating artists and value their opinions as well; marketing, promotion, fundraising, audience outreach and engagement are all part of the creative process.
Some major challenges I have faced in particular with Sea include:
Schedule: When you create work over a long period of time it becomes difficult to have everyone in the room when you need them. Time is always our biggest challenge to this practice; to have such an inclusive process takes more time than is generally available. I started working on Sea about seven years ago and still feel like I need more time as this intensive collaboration reveals new directions, and the content and form is continually influenced by our changing world.
Money: How to pay people a living wage for their time.
Delegation: Finding the right people to run the administration end of the production, trust them and resist the urge to micro-manage them.
Collaboration: Include designers in all discussions of dramaturgy and have them attend as many rehearsals as possible; never close the door to them.
Perspective: Bring in outside eyes to look at the progress and offer honest feedback.
I once heard Ann Bogart speak, and something she said really rings true: “find your community and keep them close.” I feel I have found them and have worked closely with the same group of people (including Kathy Randels and Sean LaRocca from ArtSpot Productions and performer and writer, Lisa Shattuck) for over a decade, so each show is not starting from scratch but a continuation of a collective vision. New artists come on board and others leave; ideas and concepts change and evolve but the core team remains, so it is much easier to trust people you have a long relationship with and can play to each others strengths. Listening, really listening to your collaborators, your performance environment, and yourself is the key to making good work and transforming your vision into a collective passion so everyone feels vested in the work.