Mice Among Dinosaurs: Invisible’s “The New Obsolete”

Jul 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature
Mark and Elsewhere's Roof

Mark Dixon adjusts the drip frequency of a dropper that controls Invisible’s hand-built instrument, Elsewhere’s Roof. (Photo by Alex Maness)

Bart with camcorder

Bart Trotman of Invisible aims a camcorder at a tape machine he is loading with a cassette. (Photo by Alex Maness)

by Matty Sheets & Rae Alton

You’ve heard it before – everybody plays guitar. While it’s true that Greensboro does not suffer a shortage of guitarists, not everybody can play a drum machine made of dripping water or a piano controlled by a typewriter. Where rain and language and heartbeats collide melodiously, complimented by theatrics and visuals from obsolete technologies given a second life, you get an indefinable spectacle called “The New Obsolete”, by Greensboro’s everything group, Invisible. The performance art group is made up of Mark Dixon, Bart Trotman, Jonathan Henderson, and Jodi Staley.

So, are you guys excited about your show coming up?

Bart shakes his head.

No? Not at all?

Bart Trotman: No, we’re excited.

Mark Dixon: I’m really excited.

It’s at the Weatherspoon, right? What do you have planned?

MD: Well, it’s the show we’ve been doing for… going on a year now. It keeps getting refined and more solid, I think, and we keep getting better at playing it.

BT: It’s called “The New Obsolete”, the name of the performance. With the Weatherspoon – it doesn’t always work this way, but it’s awesome that it’s working out this way – we’re able to set all of our stuff up to serve as an installation in and of itself for ten days. There’s actually going to be an audio walk-through tour, so you can go and see all of our stuff, pick up your cell phone and call a number, and listen to Mark and me talk to you for three minutes about it.

MD: Which is actually kind of hilarious, because it’s a cell phone walk-through, and all of our stuff is old, old stuff.

BT: You’ll be looking at a stack of five VCRs and calling on your cell phone so we can talk to you about VCRs. So within those ten days, we’ll be doing two performances: one on the 20th and one on the 26th, which is ideal for us. It takes us five hours to set up, two hours to break everything down. The longer we can leave everything set up and the more shows we can play per set up, the better.

Why does it take so long for you to set up? What goes into it?

BT: When it’s all put together, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, but it’s a truckload and a half of equipment, and it all has to be built. For example, Mark’s piece called Elsewhere’s Roof is a 10ft high tower that drips water, and it’s made of, what, 20? 30 different pieces? I don’t know how many actual pieces we have.

MD: It’d be worth counting. I’ve thought about counting.

BT: Including all of our A/C adapters…

Bart talks

Bart Trotman speaks about Invisible’s performances. (Photo by Keith Warther)

Is everything on stage automated in a way?

BT: Not everything is automated. There is a purpose to having people on stage.

MD: We try to downplay the significance of the people, though, in a way. When I’m on stage I feel like a mouse among dinosaurs, kind of.

But there’s so much happening that you’ve programmed in some way, right?

MD: In this show, there are some things that go in the motive of playing a sample. Bart is kind of the AV guy in this rendition of Invisible, where he’s playing video and things we’ve conceptualized and produced, so it’s kind of a hit play/hit stop thing. I’m improvising a lot, but there is a lot of composition.

BT: Compared to our previous performances with Rhythm 1001, which is a drum machine that Mark made with a spinning wheel, we’re not using that in this show. That is highly automated. The basis of the composition of this performance is the Selectric piano, which is a typewriter that controls a piano. Jodi (Staley), who is a professional typist by day, true story… she has not played music before she started to play with us, so she types during the performance. All of that is highly composed. We spent a lot of time finding the right words that sound the right way on a piano. That’s not automated at all. She’s typing, and that’s the melody that’s being played on the piano.

So you took the time to find out what sounds the right way, on the piano from the typewriter, and she types out what you’ve written for her?

BT: Yes, she’s typing from a script, basically. The script is broken up into the songs that we’ve composed, and as far as the words she’s typing, it’s all kind of thematically related to obsolescence, the integrity of technology, as well as the human body. There’s a parallel human body theme going on, so there’s talk of surgery and body parts. We have a list of body parts and organs that are on their way out, like wisdom teeth, or parts that aren’t needed as much as they once were. We spent about a year brainstorming.

MD: And writing, building instruments, producing the videos, building props. There’s some visual prop stuff going on onstage, like sculptures.

BT: We spent a lot of time, Mark and I, writing the words for this, coming up with our ideas, and then, once we had most of the words written, then we put it on the typewriter piano. “Well, this sounds really good,” and “this sounds really strange,” and “let’s capitalize this one letter so it changes the note,” and we fine-tuned it from there.

MD: Every single character that you can produce on the typewriter, which just happens to be exactly 88, as luck would have it, is linked to a different key on the piano. That’s all the white keys, all the black keys, end to end.

Jodi and the Selectric Piano

Typist Jodi Staley types into Invisible’s 88-keyed Selectric typewriter piano. (Photo by Alex Maness)

“As luck would have it?” It sounds like you’re being casual about this ridiculously good idea.

BT: (points to Mark) You had the idea first.

MD: Right. Well, the idea happened when I was just sitting there next to Jodi, typing at work, out of her home, and we were housemates at the time. I thought, “wow, here’s this incredible set of skills, and nobody really cares about these skills as such, and those same sort of neural networks could also be controlling a piano, but they don’t in this case, so could I make an adapter?” Then I started researching typewriters and it turns out that the IBM Selectric typewriter types 88 characters. It was just a confirmation, one of those crumbs you get tossed when you’re wondering, “is this crazy idea really worth doing?” Then you find out something like that, and you’re like, “Aye aye, Captain.”

Is there some other group, or someone other than Tesla, that you’re inspired by?

BT: The creation of the instruments, of the Rhythm 1001, Elsewhere’s Roof, and the Selectric Piano – that’s mostly Mark. My role, just to clarify, is as a collaborator, and as a performer, and we write together. But Mark is the one calling me up and saying, “hey, if I made a typewriter play a piano, would you be down for using that in a performance?” and I’m like, “yes, absolutely, if you can pull that off then yes, I’m down.”

Bart, you also work on Workday/Schoolnight with found sound.

BT: I do found sound and video, the music and composing… I’m very involved in all of this, but as far as the mad scientist, I’ve-gotta-build-a-drip-drum-machine, that’s all Mark.

MD: I have a collaborator, too, who helps. Those projects got bigger than me and the ideas went beyond what I’m capable of. The electronics at this point, about 50% of the collaboration, is my friend Fred Snider, who makes a lot of that possible. I come up with the concepts, build the stuff and you know, the mechanics of it all. But then he secures the electrons, makes them do what they need to do.

You ask a good question, and something that we struggle with is what’s the precedent? What’s the camp that we’re in? John Cage’s “Prepared Pianos” come to mind. That’s less technical, I mean, anybody can prepare a piano by shoving nuts and bolts and strings inside of it, tune the piano keys, and hear what it sounds like. It’s not a technical feat like some of my instruments are, but the spirit is the exact same. It’s that sort of what-if/scenario-driven approach to creativity. Sometimes we bounce ideas back and forth, but then when it’s made and we start rehearsing with it, it does a totally different thing than we thought it would do.

So you pick up a guitar for the first time in your life. You’ve seen people play guitar, and you want to just rock out, but you have to negotiate with this object. Make it do things that are beyond its physicality. That’s what we ultimately have to do with these instruments. Figure out what they do, what they don’t do, where they sort of push back, and where they really pull you forward. That’s where the magic is, ultimately. That’s the process that we love.

How about your influences, Bart?

BT: (chewing a cookie) Cookies. I’m influenced by cookies.

MD: Can I say something about your role that I think is really important? So, it’s sort of inevitable, because I do these big, crazy instruments that take up a lot of visual space. But the other 50%, sort of the core of Invisible, is Bart’s role as this dustbin of technological history archivist. He’s constantly going into thrift shops, he’s constantly digging, in the sense that a DJ digs for vinyl. He digs through the archive of just junk that hasn’t become hip yet, like vinyl has.

Like answering machine tapes?

MD: Answering machine tapes! Exactly.

BT: And answering machines, too.

MD: Telephones, little medical devices that it’s like, “geez, this has an 1/8 inch out – that’s all we need, right?” When we did our residency at Elsewhere, I was typically there hammering and bending and drilling and screwing things together, and Bart was sifting through the archive there, looking for texts that made sense, looking for little pieces of history, in a sense.

BT: Which has really helped inform the concept of this show. It’s always been my role to dig up junk and play found sound samples off of cassette tapes, answering machine tapes, stuff like that. That’s always been part of what we’ve done. Mark’s drum machine and the Selectric, in part, uses found hard drives and such. Right?

MD: Right. Just junk.

BT: Junk, right, and there’s some new stuff in there, too, but it’s…

MD: Mostly junk.

BT: Mostly junk. So that’s always been what we’ve done, but for this show, we decided to really make it part of the concept. It’s called “The New Obsolete”. We have a typist on stage typing, so we have to have things for people to read, so it has to be about something. So, not only do we have a stack of VCRs that I am the VJ of, swapping out VHS tapes during the show and hoping to god that they don’t get eaten.

VJ! You don’t hear that very much anymore.

BT: Yeah. And so Jodi’s typing about that very thing: certain technologies being obsolete. What Jodi is typing informs the notes being played on the piano, which informs the notes that Jonathan Henderson is playing on guitar, so the whole composition becomes based off of some words that we chose, about cassette tapes or something.

So it’s going to be four? Jonathan used to play with you guys, right?

BT: Yes, and he was gone for a couple of years, and now he’s back for this show.

Guitarist Jonathan Henderson

Invisible’s guitarist Jonathan Henderson plays guitar notes to accompany the Selectric typewriter piano. (Photo by Alex Maness)

Can you tell us what you two will be doing onstage, if you can put it into words?

MD: I play bass guitar. Pretty basic stuff following the melodic center point, which is Jodi’s typing. And then I also build things on stage. Sort of “mock products” that are entering the cycle of obsolescence, new-to-obsolete. I operate Elsewhere’s Roof, which is this drippy instrument that controls percussion and controls the keyboard. Then there’s another instrument called a pulse oximeter that clips onto our fingers and translates heartbeats to drum beats.

BT: Jonathan and Mark do the beats with that. And then I spend a large part of the show swapping RCA cables from the patchboard to the back of VCRs to the TVs, and then putting in VHS tapes; cassette tape manipulation… I also play keyboards and electronic drums, and a record.

MD: Bart’s basically controlling six – there’s six different channels of video throughout the show, so it’s a massive thing just to get things where they need to go, when they need to go.

With this huge set up, do you guys have rehearsals?

BT: In an ideal scenario, we have it planned where we can go to a museum, and when we leave that museum, we go to a different museum. Having to go back to the studio to set everything up for practice is such a pain in the ass. However, we do that. Quite a bit. Practice will resume as soon as Jonathan comes back in to town from tour with Midtown Dickens. And as far as what we’re doing individually, Jonathan plays primarily guitar, but also some keyboards, some samples, and live drums on one song. I think that’s it. And then Jodi types.

MD: That’s the consistent center point in the show. There are few pieces that don’t involve the Selectric playing.

When you’re rehearsing, do you run through the entire performance, including mock products and such?

BT: When we started to write this thing, I was thinking it was an hour long performance, and so there will be an hour of me playing music. But as we got into it and saw, “this song calls for two VCRs with the image going into that projection and these TVs, and the next song calls for four VCRs going to four TVs,” I realized that my performance is borderline on being a musician and being a performance artist because I’m seriously wrangling these cords the whole time and putting tapes in, so that’s actually a part of the performance. At first I was resentful, like “aw, I wanna play music here, what am I doing with video diagrams to figure out where the signal is going?” and then I realized it’s just part of the piece.

MD: Hopefully the show functions, and there’s not anything that we are trying to hide from the audience. The fact that Bart is changing cords, the fact that a cord fails and the video gets crazy. You could be up there with your laptop making all that happen much more easily. Not that that might not crash. But we try to unpack that stuff. I think one of the things that’s happened is interfaces have become more slick and polished and small, but the audience is left with an inability to relate to what’s going on. A guitar is a great instrument because you see it happening: there’s gross motor stuff and fine motor stuff. But when you think about people experimenting with music, you’re running in those same circles. A lot of people are faced with technologies that are out of the box.

BT: And in video, too. Even going to an art museum to see an experimental video music performance, you might be watching somebody behind a computer. They might have the most amazing video projection and the strangest music you’ve ever heard, but how interesting is their performance? The compromise there is that there are limitations. We’re using old equipment and VCRs that require me to spend time with cables instead of a keyboard for moments of the show, but we want to embrace that part of it. Make it interesting and make the most of it. Instead of feeling limited by it, we’re trying to show off that aspect of it.

You’ve played here at Green Bean, and even if you weren’t that good, which you are, but even if you weren’t that good, the performance is huge.

BT: We’ve struggled with that, too. “Oh, we don’t have to do anything good here, because Mark’s made this amazing machine!” but no, no, no, we have to make something really good.

MD: This is the thing that people don’t hold us to as much as we hold ourselves to, which is that we’ve got to play these instruments, not demonstrate them. We will sometimes have people up on the stage after a show, and they want to type their name into the Selectric piano to see what their name sounds like. That’s totally amazing. Maybe somebody’s name sounds incredible. But working with language and sound as one in the same thing – that took a lot of work with language. Constrained writing. I mean, imagine if everything I’m saying right now produced a smell. So I could say, “hey man, I really like your shirt,” but then there’s this terrible, burnt smell in there that contrasts what I’m trying to say.

Or “I really like the fabric you’re wearing”?

MD: And then that might sound better! So we have to let go of our ideas of what sounds good so we can get used to the sound that happens when you say what you want to say, and in some cases it doesn’t work, and we have to figure out another way to say that with language so that it sounds good.

Do you think if aliens could see you, would they moved by it like Close Encounters of the Third Kind?


MD: We keep on hoping that they’ll come.

BT: We keep inviting them…

MD: It’s a beautiful thing that the Voyager probe, out in space, has a record, and it has voices recorded in analog with greetings from each language. Which is the very best way to confuse an alien species. You think this is all in the same language? Nope! Psych. And it’s been out in space representing us, but it’s now over 30 years old. So I think the aliens would come over and say, “hey, these guys are really current.”

BT: Like you were saying about playing vs. demonstrating and finding words that sound good musically, not all but some of the melodies are very conventional and beautiful, and we had to work hard to get to that. So the end result was this beautiful melody, but the process was this really strange, experimental, odd way of getting to the music. In the past, we’ve had shows with the Selectric just typing words without us being analytical, and just letting Jodi type, and what comes out is just spitfire notes. We do some of that this time, too, but we try to touch on all the different ways that one could play the Selectric.

Just out of curiosity, why is the band called ‘Invisible’?

BT: Yeah, I’m curious about that, too.

MD: There’s sort of an irony to it because we take all the little boxes that music is made in, and opened it up, sort of reverse-engineered some wild, mad scientist conception of what’s going on in that little box. And the world is increasingly invisible. We don’t know what’s going on inside the computer, but with our drum machine you see the peg coming out that triggers something, and the wire follows over here, and it goes bam! And you’ve got a sound that is linked directly to a sight. Also, for me, being between categories, you accept a kind of invisibility. “Well, we’re sort of an art show…” Honestly, we’re sort of theater with this project. We’re sort of a band. Because we don’t really quite fit, it’s hard to pass .. it’s hard to… I’m struggling right now.

BT: And that’s where the name hurts, and works for me. I spend time trying to book us, but museums are not set up for a music group/installation group/performance art group. Museums are used to having jazz bands come in and play for an opening, or they’re used to video installations that are just a projection. They’re used to installations for sure, but they’re not used to installations that have four performers that are interacting with it and performing a musical composition. So sometimes, it’s just like, “Please. Galleries, let us do our thing. Don’t let us be invisible. Help us out.”

FlyerWhat else do you have on the horizon?

BT: We do have a lot coming up in the fall. We’re playing in Richmond, Asheville, Chapel Hill, and probably Greensborofest, too, for the third year in a row.

MD: The very first time out for the show was at Greensborofest last year, so this will be close to the end of the run.


Want to go?

Weatherspoon Art Museum

Friday, July 20 @ 7PM

Thursday, July 26 @6PM

Be sure to tune in (or stick tuned) to Avant on Air on July 19th for more from Mark Dixon, the night before the first show. Not to be missed!

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One Comment to “Mice Among Dinosaurs: Invisible’s “The New Obsolete””

  1. Keith Warther says:

    It's always a pleasure to see these guys. Friday will mark my 4th time seeing Invisible, and I'm more and more excited every time.

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