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The Emerald House

Hunter Braithwaite

The Emerald House Project. Performance View, October, 2013.

It was a simple performance by the troupe [ce n’est pas nous]. As composer Matthew Evan Taylor played first a saxophone and then a toy piano, dancer Priscilla Marrero moved across the floor and began interacting with a modular wooden box built by sculptor Ferrán Martín, dressed as either a magician or a petit-bourgeois architect. At one point, a smoke bomb filled the room. The performance, which lasted only thirty minutes, took place at Inkub8 and again at the Lotus House Women’s Shelter in Overtown, Miami in Fall 2013. The three spoke with The Miami Rail Editor Hunter Braithwaite about the performance, the relationship between modular architecture and the body, jazz, and urban planning.

RAIL: What is the project called?

MARRERO: “The Emerald House Project.”

MARTÍN: There is the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. The Emerald Apartments is also a low-income housing project around 75th street.

RAIL: Is it green?

TAYLOR: Well it’s got green trim on it.

MARRERO: We proposed to perform the project there, and they actually denied us. We approached them and the manager was really excited and yeah, this would be great for our community. And then we received an e-mail saying no. “Thank you for your interest and on behalf of our community…”

RAIL: So now you’re doing it at the Lotus House Women’s Shelter. What a powerful setting, especially with the gender dynamics in the piece—Ferrán as the master builder and Priscilla sometimes overpowering the structures around her and sometimes being overpowered by them. Is there a social component to the piece?

MARTÍN: The piece tries to make us aware of the measurements of architecture—what we can consider fences or exits. How have they been introduced to our world? Where did they come from? It’s also to research how people feel and if they know why the door is that size, and why the master bedroom is like that, or the kids’ room is like that. Are these choices casual, or have they been studied? We know they’ve been studied, not only by Le Corbusier but by the Bauhaus and architecture in general. If you go to Palestine, it’s very obvious why they put that door there. But right around us, it’s a little more subtle.

TAYLOR: It’s a very prosaic thing for people to consider. This huge building that’s around me, what was the actual model that it’s based on? This performance condenses the structures that we’re normally in and blows up our role within the structure.

MARTÍN: We use architecture to hide, conceal, disappear. I’m trying to appear, to understand the use of my body with these measurements. Urban planning is a very powerful machine that needs more control from public representation.

RAIL: The homogenous housing structure in Miami—not just the low-income housing but the luxe condominium—has been engineered. People have spent time thinking about the proportions between the terrazzo countertop and the Jacuzzi or whatever. Still, there is this other question of scale. The sculpture in the performance is based on the proportions of a six-foot tall man. How tall are you Priscilla?

MARRERO: I’m five four and a half.

MARTÍN: It began with some drawings by Le Corbusier. Modular architecture has been based on men. The challenge for Priscilla is using her skills of movement to master those measurements, to bring us to a different place using measurements that were designed for a man. I think it is good for a woman… integrating all those concepts. It’s for her to master. That is why magic doesn’t happen as expected. If I make her disappear then we go to a different point, but now she is the master.

RAIL: So this magical quality, does that explain the smoke bomb?

MARTÍN: It refers to the destruction of the skyline. There is also a difference in terms of architecture. I used to come to Miami often, but I haven’t been here in four years, and the entire landscape changed. We are not aware of how everyday these walls change.

RAIL: Matthew, could you speak about how this performance relates to your previous work?

TAYLOR: My work in [ce n’est pas nous] is very much in line with concepts I am curious about in my solo work. Specifically, with “The Emerald House Project,” I explored the evolution of simple, minute ideas that combine into more complex, dynamic structures. I also wanted to manipulate the audience’s sense of time through manipulation of the music. I accomplished this with the tempo, variance in harmony, and melodic material. I am very pleased to work with artists that value the organic growth and human expression as much as I do.

RAIL: How does the music play into the performance?

TAYLOR: I took Priscilla’s measurements and came up with the very first bit of music. It was all based on what those numbers and centimeters meant in waves, so it turned out to be a particular type of scale. I wrote the music for that. With the piece, there is a little bit of drama going on between me and the toy piano. You see that instrument, and you aren’t going to expect it to make much sound, or be particularly musical either. The types of things I am getting out of it may not be appropriate for it, but it has held up well so far.

RAIL: It is kind of that joke of scale too. Can you expand on the relationship between Jazz and the type of modernist architecture represented by the module?

MARTÍN: The ideal body represented on Le Corbusier and Ernst Neufert graphics and drawings was the basis of the piece. We strictly followed their measurements.

TAYLOR: The seeds of Modernism were sown around the time that Jazz was flowering in Europe–the interwar years. Parallels between the two include the tendency toward a more urban aesthetic and angular approach to the artistic line. The impetus seems to be the same: a growing disillusionment with how society was constructed. In Europe, it was the tension of two seemingly inevitable wars, while for the jazz musicians; it was the continued subjugation and alienation of the most prominent figures of the art form. These musicians, mainly black, toiled in a society where they were seen as second class while in Europe they’re lauded as geniuses of a new, uniquely American, art form. I think in general, this discomfort with the status quo is the great link between the two disciplines.

RAIL: Priscilla, how did you arrive at the dance that you do before you get into the box? Does it differ from time to time?

MARRERO: Yes, we made a choice to make it an improvisation study. We have had this residency at Inkub8 for the past month, so anytime I walk into this space I listen to my instincts. I keep arriving at a phrase every time I come into this space. I kept asking myself, why this repetition? Where does it go? Matthew and I have discussed improvisation, and why it is necessary in our work. This particular phrase was a study throughout this month that presents itself and then creates a new life.

RAIL: There seemed to be an epileptic spasm on the floor at one point that was mixing creative and destructive movements, but it might have just been my reading.

MARRERO: Yes, we were asking about deconstruction and construction, but we were more interested in constructing. Of course we had been in conversation with Ferrán. Everyday in this residency Ferrán had been constructing this piece, and he hasn’t finished. Even today he was sawing. It is actually something really beautiful to see and experience to be in this process of completing this piece.

RAIL: Ferrán, how has the piece evolved?

MARTÍN: One year ago, after my first collaboration with Priscilla, I began working on an idea that united dancing and music to be played on a stage. The process has been complicated for me. I was entering a new experience through this collaboration and I was lost at moments. Then we reached a point when everything started to build itself and for that moment I was thrilled with the possibilities. The piece is still ongoing and it will end when we don’t see any more possibilities.

RAIL: Do you have plans for future performances?

MARRERO: We have been invited to Paris for the Cinejazz festival. We will probably have some more performances during Art Basel, we are also looking for more low-income housing communities to perform in.

MARTÍN: It is probably going to change. I see a movie of video art coming out of this. The production of the project, the idea, it incubates and churns out something else.

RAIL: It seems that both the dance and the music were based in some way on improvisation, whereas Le Corbusier’s “machine for living,” and the Fibonacci numbers both get at an inalienable and unalterable math at the base of all things. How does the performance interact with this tension?

MARRERO: As the piece was being developed, I felt that I needed space to breathe —in movement and composition—during the performance. We have a precise structure with the sculpture, and I needed to make sure that I would have the option to make choices in the moment.

TAYLOR: There’s an assumption that the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio, and artistic improvisation are mutually exclusive concepts. I don’t agree with that interpretation. The tension you’re talking about has more to do with the willful application of the golden ratio in artistic work. Remember that this relationship of proportions is an observation of nature and how it behaves. I think of the golden ratio as a particularly successful strategy for nature and how it organizes itself. More simply: a habit. Despite the seeming chaos of nature, certain forms seem to occur repeatedly—spirals, circles, hexagons. From my point of view, this is the great connection between Fibonacci and artistic improvisation. In the midst of chaos, there is an order and logic to what is going on. I freely admit that I have pet habits in my improvisations, but I am constantly looking at ways to embellish them.

MARTÍN: The pentatonic scale, the golden ratio, and Fibonacci numbers can collide and harmonize at once. This tension multiplies the possibilities of the performance. The musical tension and ambiguity allows the dancer the choice of opening or closing the doors that surround her.

RAIL: It’s fascinating how limitations, because what is a ratio if not a limitation, can have such far-reaching results. In old European cities the buildings are four or five stories tall because that’s how many stairs one can climb without getting too tired. In the States we introduced skyscrapers and elevators, which ushered in a new era of urban living. In New York you have these small apartments, and these giant condominiums in Miami.

TAYLOR: That question is funny because it is completely based on people’s preferences. For me, the squat four-story buildings are more interesting. Going to New York is such an awe-inspiring experience, seeing those buildings all clustered together like that with so many different styles.

MARTÍN: I feel more suffocated up high. I don’t have vertigo. At first you enjoy it then you don’t, you don’t feel that close to the sky, or ever from the ground. For me at the sixth floor it feels natural. I like height till a certain point, then I don’t feel comfortable anymore.

MARRERO: I have always lived in a house, but I just moved into an apartment. I recently started volunteering in a garden, because I needed to feel the ground. I feel a direct distance when I wake up and am rooted to the ground, and able to walk, everything feels more accessible, but when I am in a higher building, I feel more dispersed.

RAIL: It inspires this different feeling. I live on the 31st floor. Outside my window, I can see the grid of Miami. From there, Miami almost makes sense. You have this aerial, almost God-like perspective, you also have this strange connection to other people. I was listening to Paul Simon this morning. You know, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” But you still don’t have that connection with other people.

MARRERO: Well it is living in a community. A lot of critics say that there is no community in housing communities. Just this simple task of going to talk to the Emerald Apartments, then talking to the Lotus House—The Emerald Apartments said no on “behalf of the community,” but there hadn’t been a conversation with the people that live in the building. When we went to the Lotus House, they had activities inside of the shelter for performances and classes. They said, “Yes please, bring it here!” There was a sense of community.

RAIL: In Baudrillard’s The System of Objects, he talks about how every element of the bourgeois house is to enforce the bourgeois style of life. How that moves into the women’s shelter, because in many cases they are there because of the breakdown of the bourgeois family, and all of the values that are held dear in that society.

MARTÍN: Oh yeah, I guess the way Priscilla and the sculpture play together is related in many ways to Baudrillard’s book. The object turns into Priscilla’s prosthetic and the other way around. But yes, it is political. To build a prison the measurements have been reduced to minimums and it is the same thing with manufacturing. This is the same architecture, but with different approaches. Low-income housing or La Villa Savoye, it’s the same concept applied in different ways.

RAIL: Here these condos are built around pleasure, and low-income housing is built around security that does not exist.

MARRERO: Overtown was a part of jazz history, and it broke apart because they built a highway. Just that alone. Overtown was always the neighborhood I was taught never to go to. When we had the performance here today, my grandfather was nervous to come here, and that’s incredible. I live here. I don’t have that fear.

RAIL: Please tell me about the performance at Lotus House. How did the women interact, especially with you, Priscilla?

MARRERO: The performance at the Lotus House was absolutely one of the most precious experiences I have had as a performer. The women and children were vocal throughout, expressing their thoughts and emotions as the piece went on. I felt empowered, beautiful, and grateful to be there. At one point, when I was in the box, there was a cat that appeared in front, and the women were saying, “Oh where did she go? She turned into a cat!”

At the conclusion of the performance, we had a question and answer, and we received constructive feedback. One of the women was also a dancer, and they asked for her to join us and improvise. She then danced with Matthew playing, and we were all thrilled. We were together, enjoying each other’s company and presence. We are invited to perform once again in December 2013.