I just now got back from publicly reading year numbers for an hour at the Guggenhein Museum. This was a tiny slice of a very large work of performance art by the late and uber-odd On Kuwara, who over the course of 50 years or more basically turned his life into one giant art machine. But I'll get to that in a minute.
The piece I read from is called One Million Years (Past)
, and it is a public reading of a million years starting from approximately 1,000,000 BC and ending at around 1965 or so, when he created the piece. Basically, two readers, one male and one female, sit side-by-side, the male reading odd numbers and the female reading even. At the Guggenheim we read into microphones which were amplified both inside the museum as well as outside. The two folks before us looked like this while doing it:
As one reads, one has to cross out the numbers already read so that you can make sure you know what number is next. Here's one of the sheets I read from:
And here's me and the little Japanese lady I read with:
A couple of times she'd read the first digit wrong for a few numbers and then, in very Asian fashion, hit herself in the head in self-punishment.
And now, O Magic Lantern Blog Reader, you might be asking me: Just why, oh Em, would you bother doing something like this?
And wasn't it difficult sitting there for an hour just reading numbers?
To answer the second question first, I found it remarkably easy and it went by quickly. Between crossing out the numbers already read, preparing for the next number and reading it, there was actually a lot to do and you had to stay in the flow. While reading I also tried to look around a bit and connect with the space and the people in it. But I found that time slipped by in a way that is hard to describe.
And now, the interesting part: Why. My reasons were, on some levels, very simple: I wanted to practice being fully present while performing something publicly. And reading One Million Years had the special feature of, without any doubt, being something that won't lead anywhere for me personally. It was not a career move. It did not make me money. It did not get me laid. It was not a stepping stone to some imagined career in performance art. Moreover, as it consists of simply reading numbers (I was reading around 763,095BC), there was little room for dramatic interpretation or "me". (At least, my goal was to read the numbers as straight as possible while practicing being present.) I guess this sounds crazy, no? But if you think about it, almost everything we do in our modern society is also in part an advertisement for our capabilities and services. I wanted to perform an action that was utterly free of these things, and I basically did.
Of course, during the piece I would occasionally glimpse cute women, but in order to maintain my internal presence, I really couldn't follow any of them with my mind or try to appeal to them in any way. Likewise, sometimes people would take photos or be talking and I had to hunker down and focus. So remaining present wasn't so easy at times. I also tried very hard not to 'interpret' the numbers, saying them as if they were the voice over for a movie about our distant cavemen ancestors. (And indeed, I have no idea whether our ancestors from that time were more human-like or monkey-like.) So when I spoke into the microphone I was just trying to say each number clearly and with as much presence as I could muster. Interestingly, I think during the entire hour I made perhaps just one minor mistake (and no one notices when you make a mistake because they don't really know what you were supposed to have said instead).
Of course, all of this is related to my work with the New York Guitar Circle, and indeed next week we shall perform again. So it was, actually, a sort of personal practice in maintaining presence (so I guess I lied above when I said this wasn't leading to anything!).
Will this change my life? Well, maybe. I think I have passed an interesting point in my life: Just once I did something publicly which had zero of "me" invested in it. That's unusual, no?