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Beloit alum, Sam Hertz, showcases soundscape Snake Talk

A woman begins unbuttoning her jean jacket, sprawled on a blue inflatable couch sitting next to a potted plant. Behind her, another woman in a jean jacket dances on a stool, her shadow projected onto the back wall, and a third woman in a jean jacket crawls slowly on the floor. An undulating, almost ominous beat fills the background, and the women cycle between positions, creating a complex, confusing and hectic scene.

The women are performing Snake Talk, a show conceived and performed by Abby Crain, Maryanna Lachman and Mara Poliak. Beloit alum Sam Hertz, who is the Victor E. Ferrel Artist in Residence along with his partner Lachman, designed the sound, and Elizabeth Ardent designed the lighting. Their residency included another performance in the Wright Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m., with the finale on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. in studio one of the Hendricks Center.

Hertz graduated from Beloit College in 2010 with honors in Interdisciplinary Studies, going on to receive his MFA from Mills College for Electronic Music and Recording Media. He divides his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Berlin, where he most recently became a researcher for the Anthropocene Curriculum based out of Haus der Kulturen der Welt/Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

According to the artist statement, the female subject in Snake Talk “remains slippery and undefinable within an aesthetic terrain of discomfort, excess and distortion. We are are dense, opulent, dazzling, awkward, seductive, repulsive, terrifying. We ooze, leak, wander, tie ourselves in a knot, rip apart at the seams. We have forgotten the difference between kissing and eating.” The choice to display their naked bodies is deliberate and feminist, as it “constructs a decidedly un-cute femininity, that meets voracious consumerism and hyper commodification with its own uncomfortable hunger, unrelenting energetic arc, bottomless sexual fervor, and subversive refusal to swallow hegemonic structures of power and meaning.”

Robbie Sweeney

These ideas were explored through a variety of movements that ranged from erotic to silly and humorous, aggressive to unnervingly calm. Gaps in the music reveal the dancer’s hard breathing from demanding choreography. After convulsing and rolling around on the floor at the start of the piece, the mood abruptly shifts when Lachman gets up to face the audience, telling us she will read some facts about venomous and non-venomous snakes. Behind her, Crain and Poliak rearrange the inflatable couch, stool, projector, and plant to evoke an eccentric desert-like landscape. As they cycle through dancing on the stool in a shadow to seducing the audience from the couch, another dancer marches in place, lifting one leg at a time to her sides, to the front and to the back.

The women wore coordinated outfits of jean jackets and cut-off jean shorts, without any clothes underneath; blond-haired Crain wore black, short-haired Poliak wore blue and long dark haired Lachman wore white.

About halfway through the hour-long performance, the stage is enveloped in fog and Crain starts reading off of a piece of paper, each word punctuated in rhythm as a shrill high-pitched yell, with a break into the lower register. She recounts a bizarre dream she has about seeing a woman with her head cut off, and she humorously analyzes her own delayed reaction, calling it “embarrassingly slow”. As Lachman and later Poliak join her in recounting the story again and again, more and more words are replaced by “snake,” as if the snake is devouring the words too.

When they change into long flowing dresses towards the end, after an interlude of a disco ball glowing on stage, their movement and mood does too. Lachman eats a chocolate muffin out of a plastic wrapper, and Poliak tries to pick up a piece of the plastic with her naked bottom. They take turns clamping their mouths on each other’s necks and eating the muffin, evoking the voraciousness of participating in capitalism.

Hertz seemed to be manipulating the sonic landscape live from his laptop during the show. One rhythmically evolving loop sounded like a truck engine whirring, or rhythmic alarm clock, or animal sounds emanating from a jungle canopy. One voice recording had been edited to sound in a lower octave, the words distorted, like the voice of a threatening snake.

In a classroom visit to English professor Tamara Ketabgian’s Green Romanticism class, Hertz explained some of the background ideas of the piece, which the group of artists had been working on for the past year and a half. He called it a “queer minimalist opera … sourcing from non-human modes of movement” in which the human body is conceived as “porous”.

The show is largely inspired by feminist cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories, in which she argues that postmodern culture is dominated by what she calls zany, cute or interesting. The show is interested in the zany, in which, as Hertz explained, anything can become violent and dangerous at any point, but doesn’t.

Hertz’s other projects and research have explored the relationship between humans and their environment, especially through the lens of how sound interacts with humans and their environment.  He is particularly interested in infrasound, or sound that operates at a frequency too low for humans to hear, but that can affect mood and wellbeing. Infrasound can cause an unsettling effect, at times contributing to anxiety, for instance. He recently received a year-long 15,000-pound (about $18,000) grant from Dare Arts to compose electro-acoustic chamber music with the Opera North company and scientists from the University of Leeds.

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