A short clip from Release

A Serendipitous Connection
Release came into being as the result of a number of synchronistic events beginning in Spring 2006, when I first became aware of the composer Vijay Iyer. He was a guest on “Studio 360” on NPR discussing his music and his interest in the cognitive psychological effects of music. At the time I had been exploring Guided Imagery with Music (GIM), and although my curatorial projects have always concentrated on visual artists, I felt myself drifting toward contemporary music. In the fall of 2003 I had the opportunity to attend the Venice Music Biennale and was exposed to such a range of contemporary composers and performers, and later, in 2006, I went to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York with the encouragement and support of the Philadelphia Music Project, a program of the Pew Center for Arts in Heritage in Philadelphia.

As part of that festival trip, I met the saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and the next winter when I was in New York, I saw that he was performing. It turned out that the performance was by Raw Materials, a duo of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer. I was so thrilled to meet Vijay and tell him of my interest in his work. I’m sure I was too enthusiastic and confused the hell out of him, and I said I wanted to collaborate, and since I’m a visual arts curator, it would need a visual component, and Bill Morrison’s name fell out of my mouth. I had seen only one film of Bill’s one time, Decasia, and Vijay said that he knew Bill and that they had often talked about collaborating.

A few weeks later I introduced myself to Bill when he was in Philadelphia doing a collaborative project with Ridge Theater and produced at the Union League Club by Peregrine Arts. The synchronicity of these events could not be ignored.

The very next day I took Bill to Eastern State Penitentiary, a deteriorating 19th-century prison in the heart of Philadelphia. It seemed so in keeping with his interests, and he was appropriately impressed with the site. With a small professional development grant from the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative and the Philadelphia Music Project, I invited Vijay and Bill to visit the penitentiary together and, if they were interested, to develop a proposal.

The first proposal they made, Escape, involved virtual reality equipment, a helicopter, and experts from Sweden who had found a way to induce an out-of-body experience. This was of great interest to me because of my work with GIM, but not to our major funder, and the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI) turned down the application. However, we later received notification of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts: they liked Vijay and Bill’s collaboration with the Penitentiary and encouraged us to develop something else with the two artists. This came on the day, literally, that letters of intent were due for PEI’s next grant cycle, so we quickly put one together. So, back to the drawing board. Luckily Bill had found some footage related to Eastern State that included about one minute from 1930 of Al Capone’s supposed release from the penitentiary that year, and we were able to develop another project, which became Release. In fact, Capone’s “release” was merely his being transferred to another prison, and the “release” actually had taken place the day before. Whether the crowd knew this at the time is irrelevant in terms of the artwork. This proposal was successful with PEI, and we were able to proceed with the development of a film by Bill and accompanying sound, composed by Vijay. The result is a mesmerizing visual/ aural land/ soundscape, which is installed in the penitentiary in the cell adjacent to the one where Capone was held. Release is pure poetry.