Characters and Characteristics of the Work: Geoffrey Farmer

by Monika Szewczyk


The Muppets. Do any fullgrown adults exist that are free of charming memories of those lanky puppets from America, with their eternally open red felt mouths? Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer not only coopts the imaginary of Big Bird for his personal theater composed of installations and performances that radically alter the character of the gallery; he is also capable of triggering a genuine experience in viewers, plunging them into a vivid postminimalist nightmare…


MONIKA SZEWCZYK: Let’s set the stage a bit for this interview Geoffrey: usually, I’d be expected to figure out “what makes you tick” as an artist, through a series of penetrating questions—and of course time and the clock are big factors for you so you could play along, play the clock, tick, and I’d watch (pardon the pun!) and mirror it all in words that end with question marks. But maybe we can start with a more specific problem, like an image (that will look really good on the newsprint paper that Mousse uses)… maybe something you still have questions about too and then we can be on the same page, both working to see and understand…

GEOFFREY FARMER: This image is of a character that appeared in Let’s Make The Water Turn Black which was a sculpture play that I produced in Los Angeles at Redcat this year. It can also function as a clock. This shrouded figure with the tube protruding out of it, represents Aloysius Snuffleupagus, a Muppet from the children’s television program, “Sesame Street”. He is the imaginary friend of Big Bird. Well, he was imaginary up to 1985, then he became real. The first Snuffleupagus could be seen only by children and Muppets, and it was played by Jerry Nelson between 1971-1978 (until he hurt his back). The second Snuffleupagus, played by Martin Robinson became visible to adults as the writers of the show wanted children to feel that they would be believed if they told their parents something. There were some high-profile news stories in 1985 in the U.S. about alleged ritualistic Satanic sexual abuse in daycares. It was later referred to as a “panic”. The figure appears throughout the piece at various times as both real and imaginary. The piece occurs over the course of an hour and takes place in a darkened space on a large low platform. It loosely weaves together different narratives around the axis of Frank Zappa. At the same time that Snuffleupagus was becoming real, he was testifying in the Senate against Parents Music Resource Center. This was a group founded by Tipper Gore, who wanted record companies to put warning labels on albums that contain sexual or Satanic content.

MS: You mean Zappa testified or Jerry Nelson who played Snuffleupagus?

GF: Sorry I mean Frank Zappa, although Snuffleupagus could have been there if he hadn’t become real. Elmo (another Muppet) did testify before the U.S. Congress once.

MS: This figure you chose is fascinating for me because I feel that—just as it recurs in the cultural history you describe—I’ve encountered him/her/it? in your work before, under certain different guises. Now that it is named Aloysius Sneffleupagus, and carries this explicit context you describe (which we are clued into through the title of your work—Let’s Make the Water Turn Black—a song by Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, that appeared on their 1968 Beatles-parody album We’re Only in it for the Money) he acquires the character of a kind of historic, tragic hero. I’d like to know more about the particular poetics and theatrics you’re developing. First of all, I cannot help but rhyme Sneffleupagus with Oedipus—I think we’re in the realm of an allegorical family drama, a kind of epic theatre on the order of Sophocles’ “Theban Plays”, but instead of Ancient Greece, it is set closer to home, in Southern California in the era of the Muppet Generation (that’s us!). We move between Frank Zappa’s “childhood” and The “Mothers” of Invention and they sing ‘let’s make the water turn black’ and we can keep in the back of our heads that they’re “only in it for the money”. This could be an all-American tale of shattered dreams but then the plot thickens. At least when I look at the script for your Let’s Make the Water Turn Black

01:00 – The doors are propped open by rocks.
00:59 – Crack!!
00:58 – A script treatment is put up by an angry man.
00:57 – A green finger and a seagull hover over the black waters.
00:56 – A green light is lit for those lost.
00:55 – A record is placed on the turntable.
00:54 – Travis caulks the stage, his shirt colour is chosen for the doors.
00:53 – Frank Zappa at age 15, makes a telephone call to Edgard Varèse.
00:52 – Clank! Klang!
00:51 – Insertions, additions, recordings to reproduce a form.
00:50 – Nose picking. Machine sounds.
00:49 – Raisins are used to make the water turn black.
00:48 – Black water makes alcohol.
00:47 – Then blindness.
00:46 – Darkness creates a Kabuki space.
00:45 – In 1603 Okuni lifts up her dress in a dry riverbed.
00:44 – The Villagers laugh when they see her bush. The Sun comes out of her cave.
00:43 – This creates another day. Outside becomes inside.
00:42 – The plaza is born.
00:41 – Curtain are used as doors.
00:40 – Two holes are cut out.
00:39 – Two fans for eyelids.
00:38 – Scratch. Scratch.
00:37 – A pink light appears and a stage is revealed.
00:36 – A low tone. A high tone.
00:35 – The clock continues to tick.
00:34 – The characters are frozen like statues.
00:33 – Theatre emerges.

And that’s just the beginning! Can you tell me about what is happening with Aloysius Snuffleupagus, as the script you wrote for the work is “performed”? What kind of theatre is emerging?

GF: Aloysius Snuffleupagus was kind of a troublemaker before he became real. Not in the way that Oscar the Grouch was (he puts ketchup in Big Bird’s alarm clock every morning) but trouble in the way that the imaginary can be. He was deceptive. Difficult to describe to those who couldn’t see him. Totally unreliable. Mythical. I was born about the same year that “Sesame Street” began airing. A lot of us were part of the experiment which, for the first time, used the recommendation of child psychologists in a feedback loop of constant analysis of children’s responses to the episodes. Aspects of it have surfaced now and again in my work, like in Puppet Kit/Personality Workshop. In Let’s Make The Water Turn Black, I was interested in the correlation of Zappa testifying and Snuffy becoming real. Things in the U.S. really began to shift at this point in time. In the piece Snuffy became a very abstract time-keeper, a narrator that can only communicate through elephant sounds. He was sort of off to one side of the platform and would appear and disappear. The shape concealed a huge subwoofer and speakers that could make very very deep sounds that you could feel in your body. Mournful sounds of an elephant dying. I am not sure what kind of theatre this is that is emerging. When I first read your question I thought of the title of another work of mine, Finally The Street Becomes The Main Character. It has something to do with shifting between object and subject. Going back and forth. At first the child psychologist didn’t want to show the human actors interacting with the Muppets as they felt it would confuse and mislead the children. But in the end it was more interesting to combine them. The piece itself functions like this. It is part puppet, part set, part instrument. It shifts back and forth. In terms of theatre perhaps it is more of a kind of space, like a théatron; a place for collective viewing and observing.

MS: I’m really curious about this aspect of invisibility you mentioned earlier, or more precisely of bringing invisible things into appearance…

GF: When I was four I met Big Bird at an afternoon symphony event in Vancouver. It was backstage and he came over to meet us, and as he approached and leaned down to shake our hands I could quite clearly see a yellow screen and a face inside. There was also some fishing line holding one of his hands up in place. It was a very creepy experience. I kept saying, “this isn’t Big Bird, this isn’t Big Bird!” and everyone was assuring me it was. Stranger was perhaps the sensation of not being sure if other people could see this face inside there.

MS: That’s horrifying! I used to think this experience of not seeing what everyone else sees was the quintessential experience of the immigrant, the alien, but I realize everyone must have this and if you’re not the immigrant it’s probably even more earth shattering somehow. It also makes me think of what Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt (the distancing or alienation effect). But I’m not sure if we should consider this too quickly as a politically “liberating” force, as Brecht hoped. I asked you about the kind of theatre you were making because I get the sense when I see your work—very much so from the parade float of Every Surface In Someway Decorated Altered, Or Changed Forever (Except The Float), for instance—that we are in the realm of something epic. Now, I may be projecting here—seeing something in the work that you don’t see. But maybe that compulsion to project is also part of the théatron you’re building. Still, I should specify: I don’t really want to subsume all your work into the definition of “epic theatre” that floats around the work of Piscator, Mayakowsky or Brecht and is the stuff of dramaturgical debate. I mean “epic” in a visceral way. In the end, Brecht grabbed at the term only until he settled on “dialectical theatre”, so “epic” was kind of abandoned and became an orphan. Maybe The Muppet Show is part of an unwritten history of this tradition of another kind of “epic theatre”. If one has not read or written this history, it might be difficult to reconcile your penchant for downright goofy gestures with another tendency: to bring in ancient associations and things that are full of “pathos”, “chronos” even. There is a strong sense of this in The Last Two Million Years

GF: I don’t know if I ever want those two gestures to be reconciled. In a piece like The Last Two Million Years, there is what you see and what you read. They don’t necessarily match up. The small newsprint book that accompanies the piece has texts correlating numerically to the grouping of the historical cut-outs. The texts are a mixture of a more subjective and sometime humours statements and historical description that have more “pathos”:

103. In our most desperate moment a small spider appears bearing good news.
104. My head caught on fire.
105. The Homosexuals in their fancy robes, walking an exotic bird which emerged from a tapestry.
106. Isaac Newton’s reflector telescope.
107. None of our children survived the war.

I know you’re talking about something slightly different. But these gestures have some correlation. In the Redcat piece, I wanted it to be like a kaleidoscope. Some parts are imaginary and others appear more like my meeting with Big Bird back stage. They tumble around together.

MS: I’m also curious, what do you think will become of Let’s Make The Water Turn Black and Aloysius Snuffleupagus in the next say two years?

GF: Not to harp on it, but Snuffleupagus should have stayed imaginary. I know it is important to have some collective agreements of what we see but it was a really anticlimactic and awkward when the adults finally saw him. It was sad… like killing an elephant. Elmo was holding onto his trunk so he couldn’t get away and then the adults, with these bizarre expressions on their faces say: “Oh, he’s real… we are sorry for not believing you for 15 years”. Then they shake his trunk like it was a hand! It was terrible. But to answer your question, there will be goofy things next to things full of “pathos”. Purposefully goofy, a kind that I feel I am extracting from the 1970s. The defying authority kind (self-authority as well). That is what interests me about the goofiness that is Frank Zappa. He was a very interesting character. He was a great experimenter and musical innovator. Interested from a very early age in Edgard Varèse and Musique Concrète. I’m not interested in goofiness as an ironic position, which to me is more about a kind of sardonic deferral. There has to be some sincerity to it. If there is an epic structure to the work it is perhaps that it is concerned with a kind of human materialism mixed with disparate elements. Someone living in a garbage can with something to say. I want to develop the score/script over the next few years and keep working on the sound recordings. It is complicated and takes some time as the lighting, movement of the objects and sounds are computer programmed. It is both generative and scheduled. Things happen at certain times throughout the day. There are technical issues to be solved. The piece as it exists now, is the reconstruction of a plaza in L.A, the one outside of the Japanese American Cultural Community Centre downtown. One of the problems we encountered was the noise from the mechanical moving parts. For example there is an Isamu Noguchi sculpture that is able to change positions. What we didn’t realize was the amount of noise the mechanical arm that moved the sculpture would make. It was really startling. It sounded a bit like a dump truck. It made people laugh. Laughter can sometimes be a double-edged sword…

MS: …it takes a fine balance. There’s just one last thing I am curious about, something that is somewhat related to the “technical issues to be solved”: what do you see as the role of machines in your work and in the world? And does your notion of trying to play an instrument have something to do with how you think we (humans) should interact with machines?

GF: I want to be cynically optimistic (in the true sense of the term – “cynic” coming from “canine”). If I had to choose a machine to illustrate this, it would be one of those contraptions people make so they don’t have to put their dogs down when their dogs lose the use of their hind legs. You know those little dog wheelchairs.


Originally published on Mousse 30 (October–November 2011)


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