Controlled Chimes

Instructions: Fill space with female performers. On each performer, tie one chime to the left wrist, and one chime to the right wrist. During the performance, each performer can ring either the right chime or the left…

So begin the simple directives, shared with the audience members, that guide the stone-faced, barefooted women standing against a minimalist backdrop of ROOMS, a small standalone gallery in Pilsen. Todd and Marrakesh Frugia’s one-night-only performance art piece, “Songs From the Sea of Boths,” came on a warm, inviting evening as gallery-goers streamed along S. Halsted for Second Fridays. During the three-hour period of the show, the women stood in the gallery ringing their chimes as viewers came and went, staying as long or as short a period as they liked.

After turning into the narrow entryway, an unobtrusive white door with a sign asking for viewers to “please enter quietly” opens,  inviting the sounds of the delicate, penetrating chimes and the slow, rhythmic steps of the twelve women. They stand straight-backed, arms raised, the thin silver chimes clasped in their hands and dangling from their wrists, forming angular, geometric traces against the bare white canvas of their simple sleeveless dresses.

The chimes ring out without pattern, as some of the women stand statue-still and others slowly lift an arm to ring a chime. A few women put down their arms and speak: “Each of their own,” they say, following a prescribed script, turning to either the left or the right. “Sometimes one. Sometimes the other,” they continue, stepping according to the instructions.

“We’ve been dealing a lot with sort of random patterns and rules,” Frugia says, describing the piece as a game of sorts for the performers. They can strike one of their chimes, or turn left or right, but can only take a limited number of steps. Drawing from a theatrical and literary background, the artists had given the performers a specific script to follow as they lower their arms and turn.            Frugia says that audience reaction has varied widely, alternately describing the performance as marionette-like, mechanical, or like a sea. “We’re giving a fertile soil for art to grow,” Frugia says, likening the process to a farmer throwing seeds onto a field, not knowing exactly what will sprout. “There’s always someone who just walks in, looks at the piece, and their face just kind of gets stuck…That’s the audience member I’m going for, that person that gets mesmerized or trapped.”

Originally, the piece was commissioned for a wedding, Frugia says–something that was unique in their artistic experience. “We wanted a piece that was about two things that were coming together,” she explained. The “Boths,” then, refer to the two chimes on the wrists of the performers: “through the actor, [the separate chimes] become a both.”

Furthermore, he is interested in the effort driving the choices that the women make. They must hold their arms up throughout the performance, save for the very strict stipulations set in the script. They can ring either chime, as long as each chime is allowed to fully ring out before ringing another. The instructions provide for the inevitable tiring of their arms by allowing them to be lowered when a performer wants to recite the script.

Marrakesh and Frugia drew performers from their theater friends and from connections with actors and models, as well as from regulars who see their pieces and ask to participate–those curious to know what it would be like to stand and ring a bell for three hours. “We do these long, endurance-driven shows,” he says.  “The piece is for them just as much for the audience.”

The women move in the space as if in a dream, the gentle rings and the low murmur of their voices creating a slight hum in the air, as their bare feet pad slowly, methodically, across the floor. The white of their dresses almost glows, and the movement and non-movement of their bodies form an eerie spontaneous choreography. “But a single both in a sea of boths,” they say. “What music.”

835 S. Halsted St. Hours by appointment. (312)733-1356. chicagoartsdistrict.org