You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.
William W. Purkey
Inside the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University is a black box set up in a corner of the room. This is the gallery’s Videotank. It is a small room, about the size of a large closet with a padded black bench set against the back wall and a 42” TV screen mounted on the wall ahead. On the side wall are two sets of headphones. This is the second Videotank presentation and it is by artists Tom Sherman and Jan Pottie. Tom heralds from the South Shore of Nova Scotia and is currently a professor in Transmedia at Syracuse University in New York.
Alley 9 is a 20 minute video realization of a bar lounge in Liverpool, Nova Scotia with the same name. It is has the usual décor of local town bars – sturdy warped chairs and tables, easy to mop down at the end of a long night. Garish lighting with the added sparkly touch of old Christmas lights, illuminated beer signs and bare light bulbs. The locals congregate at Alley 9 Lounge every Friday night for camaraderie, music, booze and hope. Sherman’s 20 minute film introduces us to the inner musician of local townsfolk with only music and background noise as soundtrack. There is no voice over, no explaining. Friday is Krazy Karaoke Night and the men and women of Liverpool take to the stage to sing like no one’s listening and dance like no one’s looking, “crossing over the line between audience and performer.”
“Karaoke, in retrospect and in its sustained cultural vitality, is at the very foundation of the Pro-Am (professional amateur) movement globally, marking the transition from passive consumption of industrial culture to expanding participatory interactivity through an array of social media.” – Tom Sherman and Jan Pottie
As I sit in this dark box, my eyes are riveted to each person. The sweat from
their pores, the look of loneliness and longing in their eyes as each person – some singly, others with friends – take to the stage to sing. I am transported into the bar with them. I am riveted by some performances, so full of soul and anguish – it is impossible to turn away. One performer, who plays flute and has a strong singing voice is the soul of the evening. I am less enthused by other performances, but never bored. I sit in the darkness and watch – on the screen people cut across the bar in front of my gaze, briefly blocking my view. The camera moves from the stage to the dance floor to the audience passing over sets of lonely eyes, watching, waiting, hoping… for what? I read on the Foreman Gallery website release that “we witness the joyous transformation of people attaining ownership of the music they love.” This singularly empowering possibility never entered my mind as I watched the piece. As a viewer, was I witnessing transformation of people or was I myself being transformed? This bar milieu is not generally my scene so in hindsight perhaps it was only I who felt lonely in that crowded room.
I watch and laugh and hum along. I wonder which of these people I might get close to if I lived in their town. Wonder what song I would sing if I got up on the stage? After one deeply, heartfelt performance by a man singing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, Sherman moves the camera so we now see the singer as dancer. He is dancing with a woman but he is still so into the music that his dance partner almost seems to disappear in the moment. The man brings me, the viewer, into his world and I know he is far, far away from the dance floor, the bar, even the town. Sherman offers his audience a multilayered experience – his eye, to the camera’s eye, to the editing eye of the film, to the Videotank’s projection, into my eye – to a night (or many nights) at Alley 9 Lounge. The experience is riveting and I am drawn back to the installation four times. I am clearly “transported into the space of bare attention,” (Baas, 34) and “inspired by Buddhism’s deep appreciation for the way [Sherman’s] creative expression linked emptiness and form.” (35) Alley 9 is a perfect illustration of that link.
“Who has not been deeply moved, perhaps life-changingly, by visual images or narratives of other humans?” (Baas 41)
Postscript: I emailed Tom Sherman to tell him how much I liked the video. Turns out the flutist/singer I mention above is the organizer of Krazy Karaoke. His name is Mike Mosher and Sherman tells me he had a bad stroke a month ago. “He is trying to make a comeback (he’s walking), but has suffered paralysis on his left side. Friends of his are keeping the show going at Alley 9, hoping he can recover enough to continue someday. He nurtured many in his 12 years of running this show,” writes Sherman. Suddenly, through Sherman’s words, in the contents of one email message, a room full of strangers is made familiar. And one is named, Mike Mosher. He has a life. He is ill. The other strangers have gathered round to help him. I have been brought into the circle of information. I say a prayer for Mike and his quick recovery, I am sending a card. “Buddhism points to the way in which deep realization of interrelatedness naturally manifests as compassion.” (Baas, 41) The loop from the space which is Alley 9 Lounge to my eye and my heart has now looped back around from my heart and eye into the space of darkness of the Videotank, into the film, the camera’s eye, Sherman’s eye, back in to Alley 9, to Mike Mosher. We are all mirrors for people who in turn become mirrors from us. What more can we learn about ourselves from the people we encounter every day?
You can see some film footage of Alley 9 and an interview with Mike Mosher about his work The Best Job in the World here.
Baas, J., & Jacob, M. J. (2004). Buddha mind in contemporary art. Berkeley:
University of California Press.