As Sunday’s late afternoon creeps into the crepuscular hours, a young woman named Sarah Cendejas sits before an antique Corona mechanical typewriter in the middle of a warehouse parking lot, tapping pensively at the keys and occasionally adjusting the paper that spools through the carriage. She shuffles her feet from time to time across the Persian rug beneath them as she surveys the commotion around her, all the while wearing a patiently expectant expression.Directly behind Cendejas, a plastic Virgin Mary and Joseph---who appear to have been liberated from a suburban lawn nativity scene---are plugged to extension cords and glow from within as they pray to nothing in particular, save the asphalt before them. They are flanked by tangled piles of white Christmas lights, also plugged in to the rat-king snarl of extension cords.
Behind Mary and Joseph, the scene gets even more bizarre, with an army of 60 life-size paper cutouts standing in phalanx formation while a half-dozen people scurry in and out of their ranks, setting up more lights and trying not to trip over any extension cords---or each other.
Cendejas and the typewriter; two-thirds of the holy family of Nazareth and a jumble of lights and cords; an imposing, albeit quiescent, army of paper figures: These are but a handful of the distracting visual elements amidst John Lichtenstein’s churning sea of organized chaos. Judging from the circus at hand, it is reasonable to deduce that one of the quickest ways to drive oneself to complete madness is to attempt to imagine what must be going on inside Mr. Lichtenstein’s mind at any given moment.
After hours of setup, The End of the Dial Tone Radical Experimental Collaborative Music Band Band’s latest promotional video shoot is moments from its first take.
Photographer Scott Elkins takes inventory.“Okay, so we have five photographers, one videographer, two actors, a writer and a bunch of other side people, sixty paper figures and a thousand other props, tons of fried chicken and a cooler of beer---there is still beer, isn’t there? I think John may have gone somewhat overboard on this,” he says.
Elkins may have been right about the excess of fried chicken, but one notable characteristic of T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B. is that there is no such thing as “going overboard.”
The project is a loud, bustling hodgepodge of auditory and visual stimuli that demand the attention of audiences by grabbing hold of the collective cerebral cortex and screaming, “Are you paying attention?”
Although it has diverged somewhat from its origins, T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B. originally stemmed from the brainchild of Ringling graduate Jen Nugent. Nugent developed The End of the Dial Tone Radical Experimental Art Exhibit in April, 2010 as a visionary effort to bring new media, installation, performance, participatory art and music together in one unique, collaborative environment.
Lichtenstein ran with the idea and has since re-imagined the original concept and developed T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B., a collaborative improvisational music project that is supplemented by visual and performance art.
Each End of the Dial Tone event features an improvisational set by a band of eight to twelve local musicians who have never performed together prior to setting foot on stage at the event itself. In theory, it seems like a cataclysmic disaster. In reality, it is an orchestral paroxysm; a jarring, unbridled explosion of auditory stimulation that, phenomenally enough, simply works.“To be honest, it always kind of surprises me that it’s not a train wreck,” Lichtenstein confessed.
“Practicing beforehand takes away from the rawness of the performance---and it’s a long performance. Rather than a 40-minute set like most musicians are used to, it’s a four hour-long affair. It’s like running a marathon instead of a sprint. It gives musicians an opportunity to develop new ideas and try different things,” he explained.
The cutout army that appears in the video promo shoot is a participatory art project of its own. At each T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B. event over the past year, Lichtenstein placed eight blank cutouts around the venue and invited audience members to draw on them during the performance.
The cutouts, affixed to homemade easels and lined in uniform rows behind Cendejas at the typewriter, each played a supporting role in the promotional video.
“I wanted to incorporate them into the video because they’ve been a big part of The End of the Dial Tone for the past year,” said Lichtenstein. “I think they give a real sense of ownership to everyone who has been involved with the project, because when they see the video, they’ll be like ‘Hey, I drew on that one!’”
The Closet’s Michael Murphy, who was present as a crew member at the promo shoot, agreed.
“If you were present at any of the shows, you really ‘get it’ with these figures,” he said. “They capture the energy of those spontaneously creative moments that characterize The End of the Dial Tone Radical Experiment.”
After several hours of set up---including draining the ankle-deep water, courtesy of the Sarasota monsoon that took place the night prior, from the parking lot---the entire crew was shocked when the video shoot itself took no more than 15 minutes.
“That was almost too easy,” said photographer and promo shoot crew member, Marty McPherson. “This is John’s Dial Tone thing---it’s supposed to be a little … not perfect.”
All imperfections aside, within less than an hour following the final take, all 60 cutouts were tucked away inside a trailer. Mary, Joseph, the typewriter, the Christmas lights and the extension cords were packed away as well. In fact, every piece of Lichtenstein’s bizarre carnival disappeared without a trace, leaving in its wake a once-again desolate parking lot.
Despite the sudden absence of props and clicking camera shutters, however, the Sunday evening air still hummed with the undercurrent of creative energy that Lichtenstein and his T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B. left behind in that lot.
The question that remains is this---is that hum really The End of the Dial Tone … or is it the beginning?
Discover the answer at The Rusty Hook Tavern when T.E.O.T.D.T.R.E.C.M.B.B. returns on March 1, 2012.