Contemporary Art Museum Houston's newest exhibit Telepathic Improvisation, by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, is an unconventional experience combining moving image and sculpture to interpret the Pauline Oliveros musical score of the same name. In many ways, it is a social commentary about recent violence and uses lights, movement, sound, and spoken word to present leftist frustration, the queer experience, and the relationship between humans and the inanimate objects in their environment. While the exhibit is incredibly conceptual and abstract, the audience is asked to engage in the discourse telepathically. In less magical terms, you're supposed to use your brain.
To experience the exhibit, I descend into the darkness of the museum's bottom floor, where I feel like I entered a dungeon. I'm swallowed by darkness as I approach a gargantuan pair of handcuffs suspended mid-air. The strategically placed spotlight casts a hand-cuff shaped shadow on the back wall as I see my own silhouette appear, becoming a part of the piece. The shiny metallic surface swings back and forth, looming closer.
In the darkness, I am disoriented. I shuffle around to find my bearings until I am drawn by a soft, white glow. Three pristine square boxes sit in a row before a massive, glowing screen which speaks with a life of its own.
A single voice asks the audience to raise a hand if any of the following scenarios resonates with them—I bristle at the thought of being forced to do anything but observe. But the rest of the performance is mostly silent, starting with a line-up of women who could easily be extras from Netflix's Orange is the New Black in their scarlet and white ensembles. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is the performance of a woman who resembles Big Boo, the “rough around the edges” character from the TV series. She sits atop a sliding white block, lovingly strumming an electric guitar.
Admittedly, the video is a jumble of strange events: inanimate objects that move on their own, sporadically flashing lights, fog that fades to reveal another hanging pair of handcuffs, and a collection of neon test tubes that change colors in the middle of the floor. Luckily, the nervous laughter from the man next to me makes me feel better about the fact that I also don’t know how to react.
In familiar terms, the aesthetic is a marriage between Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black—a combination that is both creepy and quirky enough to draw a crowd. In fact, I can imagine my favorite Stranger Things character, Eleven, hiding just outside the camera frame, using her telepathic powers to move the objects around the screen.
While it might be hard to find meaning amidst all of this weirdness, there is clearly a deeper message that is being addressed. The camera zooms in to take a headshot of a dead-eyed performer pronouncing “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like.” These heavy words and more like them float in the air: “They should shoot to kill” and “Why this happened will happen again.” Following the extended silence, these sinister phrases echo around the hall and in the viewer’s mind.
The final piece speaks volumes: a cluster of microphones are set on top of a circular white platform that perpetually rotates. I get the sense that this is the final warning, an alarm, a flare in the darkness to demand change in a world that lives between two extremes: silence and violence. It begs the questions: When will we speak up? When will we take action?
Free, thru Jan. 7, 2018. CAMH, 5216 Montrose Blvd. 713-284-8250. More info at camh.org.